Sunday, September 9, 2007
Ten months ago, with only a seventh-grade education and a suitcase of clothes, he was thrown into an unfamiliar world he had been taught to fear.
Over the past six years, hundreds of teenage males have been expelled or felt compelled to leave the polygamous settlement that straddles
Disobedience is usually the reason given for expulsion, but former sect members and state legal officials say the exodus of males also remedies a huge imbalance in the marriage market. (The expulsion of girls is rarer.) Members of the sect believe that to reach eternal salvation, men are supposed to have at least three wives.
"In part it's an issue of control," Paul Murphy, an assistant
State officials say efforts to help them with shelter, foster care or other services have been frustrated by the youths' distrust of government and fear of getting their parents into trouble.
But help for the teenagers is improving. In St. George, a nearby city where many of them end up, two private groups, with state aid, have opened the first residence and center for banished boys. It was established to offer psychological counseling and advice on things they never learned, like how to write a check or ask a girl out politely, as well as provide a transitional home for eight who will attend school and work part time.
The polygamous settlement is largely controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and allies of its jailed prophet, Warren Jeffs, who is about to stand trial on charges of sexual exploitation.
Woodrow, now 16 and living with a sympathetic aunt and uncle, is one of the luckier youths, though he rarely sees his parents and says, plaintively, "I really miss them." Some boys end up in unsupervised group rentals they call "butt huts" because of the crowded sleeping, while others live in cars or end up in jail.
"The house is a milestone, but it's just a start," said Murphy, the assistant attorney general who has worked with state and private agencies to muster help. "We're finally reaching out, but it's been painfully slow."
The church settlement is essentially one town crossing the border, a jumble of walled compounds, trailers and farm fields at the base of spectacular red bluffs. Nearly all of the 6,000 residents follow the dictates of Jeffs, who they believe speaks for God. Women wear ankle-l
Jeffs, 51, is in jail in Purgatory,
But his allies still control the church, former members say, and teenage boys continue to trickle out of the community, by force or by choice.
Andrew Chatwin, 39, the uncle who took Woodrow in, left the sect 10 years ago. He explained how the expulsions usually happen: "The leaders tell the parents they must stop this kid who is disobeying the faith and Warren Jeffs. So the parents kick him out because otherwise the father could have his wives and whole family taken away."
The sect, which has smaller outposts in other states, has no ties to the mainstream Mormon church, which outlaws polygamy. Leaders of the sect refuse to speak to the press, and the mayors of
With Jeffs and other polygamists, the authorities in
In April, six banished teenagers who brought what became known as the lost-boys suit against church leaders agreed to a settlement in which $250,000 would be used to promote education and emergency support for expelled youths. The money will be raised by selling some of the church's large property holdings, now in receivership because church officials never appeared in court to defend against the lost-boys lawsuit and others. The court-appointed agent controlling the properties also gave each of the plain
"I absolutely believed I was going to hell," Gilbert recalled.
For a time, Gilbert lived in the nearby town of
"A lot of guys go off the deep end," Gilbert said. "For me, it meant a ton of alcohol and partying."
Now he works in construction, has been married for a year and has a child.
Gilbert estimated that 100 boys from his school class, or 70 percent of them, had been expelled or left on their own. There was no way to verify the numbers.
"There are a lot of broken-hearted parents, but you question this decision at the risk of your own salvation," Gilbert said.
The problem of surplus males worsened in the 1990s when the late prophet Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs's father, took on dozens of young wives - picking the prettiest, most talented girls, said DeLoy Bateman, a high school teacher who watched it happen.
Warren Jeffs, taking the mantle after his father's death in 2002, adopted most of his father's wives and married others. He also began assigning more wives to his trusted church leaders, former members said. Forced departures increased.
Shannon Price, director of the Diversity Foundation, an educational nonprofit group near
Established by Dan Fischer, a wealthy former sect member, the Diversity Foundation has been a rare source of aid for such boys as well as girls who have left the sect to avoid polygamy, helping many go to high school and college, and raising public awareness about their plight.
The new venture, an eight-bedroom house in St. George, is being run by the two nonprofits with private grants and $95,000 from the Utah Legislature.
The one thing nearly all the youths share is a strong work ethic and experience in construction. But many, moving from total control to total freedom, get in trouble with drugs, alcohol and crime.
"These are kids, and they still need a connection with adults who can nurture them," said Michelle Benward, clinical director of New Frontiers for Families.