She escaped polygamy, and has a story to tell

It has been three years since Fawn Broadbent and Fawn Holm – who became known as “The Fawns” – made a dramatic flight from their homes in the polygamous community at the Utah/Arizona state line.

Broadbent, 20, has told the story many times now, on Dr. Phil, Larry King Live (three times), in Teen Vogue and to media from Japan, Germany and, just last week, England.

But her story of life within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the sect overseen by Warren Jeffs, remains compelling.

And so she keeps telling it, mostly because it allows her to spread another message, one about what teens experience – and need – once they leave the rigid lifestyle, where little emphasis is placed on education, where boys are funneled into work and girls into marriage.

Broadbent will join a panel of speakers at a town hall meeting in St. George, the third to include Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff of Utah and Terry Goddard of Arizona (see box).

People need to know, she said, “what’s going on, especially with education. I figure telling my story may help them gain a little bit of understanding.”

Like Broadbent, many teens who have left Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., the FLDS stronghold, never got past eighth grade until they fled.

The Fawns left in January 2004 with the help of anti-polygamy activist Flora Jessop, who made her own flight from the community decades earlier. The teens alleged they had been physically and emotionally abused at home and said they feared being married off, with no say, at a moment’s notice.

Their parents refuted those claims, saying the girls were merely rebellious teens.

As many as 400 teens have left the community over the past decade, according to a nonprofit group in Salt Lake City that works with many of them. Most are boys. Broadbent knows personally of only a handful of girls who have left the twin towns in the past five years or so.

Jessop arranged to have The Fawns’ escape filmed by a Phoenix television station and then kept them in hiding until their parents – and Arizona authorities – agreed to let them live in Sandy with Holm’s brother and his family.

Holm stayed there just over a year, and then moved to St. George.

She now lives in Boston, Mass., where she moved to receive intensive counseling, courtesy of Dr. Phil.

Broadbent has adjusted more easily to her new life, finding purpose in telling her story and pushing for help for young people like herself.

She was largely the inspiration for a resource Web site, set up through the Utah Safety Net Committee, aimed at teens who are more likely to surf the Internet than read mailings or, at least initially, reach out to government for help.

The committee also acted on another of Broadbent’s ideas: holding monthly group sessions for the displaced teens to meet, talk and share their experiences.

Her willingness to speak out is unusual.

“Most other kids don’t want to get involved because of the politics,” she said. “They’re afraid they might lose [contact] with family members.”

FLDS

The FLDS is also considered to be a cult of Christianity. Sociologically,the group is a high-control cult.

It could happen to Broadbent, too, but she refuses to stop sharing what she knows.

She is fortunate: While many such teens are cut off by their families, Broadbent talks with her parents periodically and even visited recently.

“We don’t talk about Warren Jeffs or religion,” Broadbent said. “It’s mostly small talk.”

Of Broadbent’s 13 siblings, four brothers have also left the FLDS fold.

There are times she gets really homesick for the rural countryside, for her siblings and her mother. But there is no going home, no going back.

Instead, she focuses on a wide open future, even if it still shifts as easily and, given her youth, naturally as the red sands of southern Utah. Three years ago, Broadbent wanted to be a fashion designer; today she talks of becoming an attorney, even as she balks at the years of schooling that will require.

So first things first: Broadbent will head to Weber State University this fall, where a full-ride scholarship awaits. She wants to pursue a degree in criminal justice – though the prospect of college seems daunting. “I’m a little bit nervous,” she said.

She still has one hurdle: Despite cramming a lot of learning in the past three years, she has just under a credit left to complete her high school diploma.

Broadbent quit school in the eighth grade and tested at the 5th grade level when, at age 17, she arrived in Salt Lake City. That is part of the story she plans to share tonight.

“We’re not kids who are failing; we just haven’t been given the opportunity to learn,” she said. “We need the basics, because we don’t have that.”

And that education needs to be tailored to the unique situations of teens like herself. Education, Broadbent said, will “help us adjust and fit into the outside world better.”

Which is exactly where she wants to be.

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This post was last updated: Tuesday, April 24, 2007 at 4:52 PM, Central European Time (CET)