“This is child trafficking. This is kidnapping,” said Lorraine Jessop.
Several former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the polygamist sect led by Warren Jeffs, are calling on law enforcement officers and prosecutors to help them find their missing children, some of whom have not been seen for years.
In a press conference in Cedar City, Utah, on Monday, the parents and their advocates say a growing number of children living with one parent who had left the church have gone missing recently. They believe their children are receiving help from current FLDS members to return to the close-knit settlements.
Jessop, one of the parents who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference, said three of her children disappeared in the dead of night this winter, and they have not been seen since. She said her children were under extreme pressure to return to the FLDS, despite her being their only living custodial parent. She knows of five other children who are missing and may be in an FLDS settlement, she said.
Jessop described finding grocery bags, walkie-talkies and bandages hidden for her children, tools she suspects were left there in order to help them run away.
Advocates say the children are deeply indoctrinated and under extreme pressure to return to the FLDS, believing their eternal salvation is at risk if they don’t. They say the driving force behind the uptick in disappearances is an August 2022 “revelation”, allegedly given by Jeffs but communicated through his son, Helaman, that calls on current members and cast-out parents to bring all FLDS children back into the church in order for them to be “translated”, a fundamentalist Mormon term for resurrection after death, within five years.
The order has parents and advocates deeply concerned. “Will this be another Jim Jones and everyone will drink the Kool-Aid?” said Tonia Tewell, executive director at Holding Out Help, a non-profit that teaches self-sufficiency to current and former polygamists.
The Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints is a religious organization with approximately 10,000 members who practice plural marriage in settlements primarily along the Utah-Arizona border. Historically, members have been required to follow the edicts of the group’s prophet, or leader.
Warren Jeffs, the FLDS leader, has arranged marriages, including between adult men and female minors, as part of the group’s polygamist practices, according to Utah and Texas officials. He was arrested in 2006 and later found guilty of rape by an accomplice and child sexual assault. He is now serving a life sentence.
Before his arrest, Jeffs held the community in a tight grip, said Tewell. “In general, Warren Jeffs had full control over everybody in his community down to what they eat,” she said. FLDS members aren’t permitted phones and toys. Few read newspapers. Even the food rations come from an FLDS-controlled storehouse, she said. Tewell said she’s met kids who left the compound-type environment who thought Jeffs was the president of the United States.
There’s a long history in the community of children being separated from their parents, said Roger Hoole, an attorney representing five parents whose children are missing.
There’s a custom in the sect to send away people to “repent” at a distance, which means they are supposed to go away and not have any contact, particularly with their kids, as a test to see if they are obedient, Hoole explained. Sometimes these parents never get invited back into the fold. “There are FLDS parents all over the country who were sent away, trying to be obedient and demonstrate loyalty, while their children are being raised by FLDS caretakers,” he said, calling the practice dangerous. Once children are unaccounted for, he said, they are at risk of being trafficked – the boys for labor, the girls for underage marriage.
“What’s different now,” Hoole said, “is that some of the parents have decided that they need to get out of it and think they need to get their children out of the FLDS. “When one parent wants the kids in, and when one wants the kids out, there’s conflict.”
Custody disputes between parents, one of whom still belongs to the FLDS and the other who has left, are becoming increasingly common since Jeffs has been imprisoned, Hoole said.
In recent years, it’s become unclear how mentally fit Jeffs is, CBS News reported, and how far his influence extends outside prison. And in the last couple of years, there hasn’t been a strong leader in the FLDS, Tewell said, leading some people to have “one foot in the world and one foot in the community”.
The parents and their advocates do not believe that their children would have been able to run away without support. Sarah Johnson, another mother who spoke at Tuesday’s press conference, said her son Salome would never have been able to run away alone. FLDS children are raised in such a sheltered situation that they don’t have people to run to, Johnson said.
Salome disappeared two years ago, amid a custody battle between Johnson and Salome’s father, Rulon Jessop. Jessop, an active FLDS member, was supposed to deliver their son into her permanent custody when he went missing from his father’s home, Johnson said. Jessop has said in court he has looked for his son, but has not seen him since then.
Hoole said the context of the sect makes action by the courts particularly difficult. Though courts are well-suited to provide rules when parents cannot get along, they assume parents will go to court and cooperate. However, in his cases, the FLDS parents are religiously prohibited from compromising with non-believing parents, who are referred to as apostates. “As a result, kids are running away,” he said.
The revelation, Hoole said, has made the disappearances extra concerning: “That’s different from anything in the past.”
The FLDS and Warren Jeffs could not be reached for comment.
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