ST. GEORGE, Utah – More teen-agers are apparently taking advantage of a leadership crisis within the church that dominates the polygamist border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., to run away.
Eight boys and girls reportedly fled the area Saturday night, and more are expected to follow after the recent shake-up in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, those helping the children told The (St. George) Spectrum. Two teen-age girls left last week.
The latest children either left by themselves or in groups of two, said Flora Jessop of Phoenix, a child-abuse advocate who is working to assist the runaways.
The youths are being sheltered in private homes in nearby communities.
Jessop said she suspects Arizona and Utah will be pressed for additional resources in the next few weeks.
“I expect there to be a whole lot more (runaways),” she said. “When you’ve got something threatening the lives of people, threatening families, they need safety and security. They do not have that anymore.”
A major restructuring occurred within the church leadership on Jan. 10 when Prophet Warren Jeffs excommunicated about 20 people, including Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, 71, and his 80-year-old brother Louis, who many observers thought would have assumed leadership in 2002 when former Prophet Rulon Jeffs died.
Instead, Rulon Jeffs handed control of the church – which endorses polygamy as a central tenet – and its estimated 10,000 members to his son Warren.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an offshoot of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Polygamy was among the central teachings of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith. But the practice was abandoned by the mainstream church more than a century ago as the Utah territory sought statehood.
Two girls fled Colorado City last week out of fear that Jeffs would order them to marry older men, Jessop said. Women and children are considered the property of the church and can be assigned to other men in the twin towns.
A Juvenile Court in Arizona ruled Friday that they would be allowed to remain in foster homes instead of state custody. Those two girls seem to have given encouragement to teens in similar situations in the Short Creek Valley, Jessop said. “That’s what these kids have been waiting for, to make sure they’ve got a safe place to go,” she said.