Are they refugees from an authoritarian religious sect, or are they just rebellious teenagers?
Different portraits are being painted of Fawn Holm, 16, and Fawn Broadbent, 17, by activists who deplore underage plural marriage and by the girls’ parents, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The Fawns, as they are called, are not the only teens to have left the strict life of the FLDS Church, headquartered in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. They were aided by Flora Mae Jessop, who left the community herself as a teenager and for years has been agitating against those who would marry underage girls to men who often have other wives.
But both Jessop and the girls’ parents criticize the way Arizona has handled the matter.
The girls have been in hiding since Feb. 12, when they purportedly left notes in an Arizona hotel saying they feared being returned to their parents. Police have listed them as missing and on Feb. 19 released a photo of the two and asked the public to watch for them.
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Jessop says she doesn’t know where the girls are, though they have been in daily phone contact with a relative who says they are well but won’t come forward unless they are guaranteed they won’t be forced to go home.
Meanwhile, the cloudy facts of the case are being sorted out in custody mediation hearings this week in Maricopa Superior Court in Phoenix. A hearing for Fawn Holm took place Tuesday; one for Fawn Broadbent is scheduled for Friday. Attorneys for the girls’ parents did not return phone calls Wednesday.
The saga began in mid-January when Jessop, of Help the Child Brides, drove the girls to the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.
Rod Parker, an attorney for the FLDS church, has said the girls “wanted to be free to go kiss boys at the mall and stuff like that. They didn’t like their parents’ discipline.” And Fawn Holm’s parents acknowledge they were having curfew disputes with their daughter.
But the girls say they are rebelling against the community’s religious strictures and felt they were on an imminent bride-to-be list.
In a Jan. 15 interview with the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., Fawn Broadbent said she wanted to make her own decisions — such as who she will marry and how much education she wants.
Jessop says the girls left home five times before. Both have older siblings who also have fled, including Carl John Holm who, with his wife Joni, of Sandy, is seeking custody of the Fawns.
Earlier this month, the girls stayed at a “safe house” associated with Jessop’s group while Arizona Child Protective Services tried to sort out the issue of custody — which by law must include possibly reuniting them with their families.
That effort and orders barring Jessop and Carl and Joni Holm from contacting the girls — requested by their parents, who felt the girls were being manipulated — contributed to the collapse of the fragile process two weeks ago.
Within days, the Fawns vanished. In her letter, written on lined notebook paper, Fawn Holm wrote that she “was hoping that Arizona would help me. But I thought wrong. . . . Well, I want you to know that I left because all they seemed to want to do is to send us back to like Prison [Colorado City]. Well, I won’t go back so I guess I’m going to be running until I’m 18.”
Joni Holm claims the girls attended school only through the fifth grade.
“Our purpose was to help transition her and this other girl into our home, get back in school and back on track in education,” Joni Holm said.
But Fawn Broadbent’s father, Mathew, said the girls had refused to go to school. In fact, he and his wife, Catherine, are willing to let their daughter move to Sandy, provided it is not seen as an admission she was mistreated at home.
“We just want her to live a decent life,” he said. “The girls have really pushed to be together and to have them placed together in a foster home would be hard. We feel a lot more comfortable with them there [in Sandy].”
Esther Holm described her daughter as a loving child, but troubled over the fact that some of her brothers had left the community.
“She’s had a really hard time. We know that. We haven’t talked religion to her in our home for a long time. This is my 18th teenager,” she said. “I’ve never had anyone take a child away from me. This is just terrible.”
For her part, Jessop said she was merely acting as the girls’ protector, and that she got the news media involved to publicize their plight and keep them from being immediately returned to their parents.