Forced marriages. Underage sex. Teenage mothers.
That is the portrait emerging of the hundreds of girls who have been removed by the state from a polygamist sect’s compound that is at the center of one of the largest child welfare investigations in American history.
But what about the boys who are among the 416 children taken from the YFZ (Yearning For Zion) Ranch?
There are believed to be far more girls than boys among the children in custody. And the Texas boys are thought to have escaped the hardships common in other Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints communities, where boys are routinely expelled.
On Friday, during a chaotic child custody hearing in San Angelo, a lawyer for the children said two dozen boys had been taken from the FLDS compound near Eldorado.
State child welfare officials disputed that number, saying the population of boys was “substantially higher,” without giving an exact figure.
“We don’t have a solid breakdown on that right now. … I’m sure we have estimates, but I don’t have anything reliable,” said Greg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Put out on the streets
Observers say the boys at the West Texas compound are believed to be favorites of Warren Jeffs, the so-called prophet of the FLDS even as he serves time in prison for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
But in the sect’s much older communities near Salt Lake City and in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., welfare workers have long known about boys separated from their families, put out on the streets and considered “dead” by their loved ones after drawing the ire of church leaders.
“Many of these boys come from good families. But their fathers know that if they don’t put their child out on the street, his entire family will be put out on the street,” said Shannon Price, director of the Diversity Foundation in Salt Lake City that helps victims abused by the polygamy faith.
The FLDS has traditionally kept the number of boys in their polygamist communities low. That way the male leaders can have their pick of young “plural wives,” without the worry of younger competition, said Brenda Jensen, a former “polygamy kid” who now works as a volunteer for The Hope Organization. The nonprofit group in St. George, Utah, helps abuse victims from polygamist relationships.
The FLDS, has long been headquartered in the twin towns of Colorado City and Hildale, where most of its estimated 10,000 members live, and began building the YFZ Ranch in 2004. It split from the mainstream Mormon Church in 1890 when the latter rejected polygamy.
FLDS leaders, under the direction of Jeffs, can be ruthless in the ways they kick boys out of their communities in Arizona and Utah, Jensen said, stressing that she was expressing her own feelings as a child of polygamists, and not the views of The Hope Organization.
Boys as young as 13 have been torn from their families and left on the unfamiliar streets of Salt Lake City and Las Vegas for committing such infractions as talking to a girl, or rolling up their sleeves — a no-no for showing skin in public, Jensen said.
The boys are ill-equipped to deal with their new world.
“You might as well put them on another planet. No training. No food. No idea on how to get help or what to do,” Jensen said. “Some are so heartsick they can’t do anything.”
There may be as many as 2,000 of the young castaways, known as the “Lost Boys” by the people who try to help integrate them into a world they have been taught to distrust.
Sam Brower, a private investigator in Cedar City, Utah, who has tracked the plight of Lost Boys, said many “have just been discarded on the side of the highway. … Many have turned to drugs and alcohol and end up on the streets of Vegas.
“They know absolutely nothing about the outside world. They have little education. … It’s very rough for them.”
Jensen said the boys in the FLDS, after graduating from home school, win favors from “the priesthood” by going on two-year “work missions” away from their families. They work for free for the church but are still vulnerable to expulsion if they slip up.
With the boys gone, the girls, fresh from graduating, are married off to “these old grizzly men,” Jensen said.
“Usually, your graduation dress becomes your wedding dress,” she added. “Those were the lucky ones. Some would just get tapped on the shoulder, pulled into a room and come out married.”