I got a call from my mother one Sunday evening in January, which was odd, because she never calls. There was panic in her voice. She said: ”Fawn has run away. If she shows up on your doorstep, please take her in.” Fawn is 16 and my youngest sister. I said, ”You bet I will.”
The funny thing is I hardly know Fawn. I’m 40 and happily married with four daughters, 15 to 22, but the moment I heard she’d run away, I felt a twang in my gut, because two decades ago I left my family, too, and never looked back. The next evening, my wife was watching the news, and there was Fawn with Flora Jessop, a children’s advocate who rescues girls from polygamy. I spoke with Fawn soon after. She told me that she didn’t want to go back home because she thought she’d be married by 18. At least two of my nieces were married at 14 and now have children, so the fear was real. I decided at that moment I’d fight tooth and nail to get custody of Fawn.
The first time I knew my family was different was when I woke up one morning and saw a strange purse on our kitchen table. That’s when my mother told me I had another mother who was going to live with us, too. I was 7. My parents are Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, a faction that broke off from the Mormon Church when worshipers in Salt Lake City officially renounced polygamy.
We moved to Salt Lake City when I was nearly 8. My dad tried to keep me and my siblings isolated from other kids and what he called their ”evil influences,” but we all went to public school, so it was hard. Once, I begged my dad to go roller skating. He said no, but I sneaked out anyway. He showed up at the rink, chased me down a back alley and beat the tar out of me. My father believed that the things kids enjoy, like roller skating and baseball, were a waste of time — I should have been home reading Scripture or doing chores. I was the oldest son. He’d call me out in front of my siblings to set an example.
By the time I was 13, I had started drinking and taking drugs. I did it to impress my friends, but more so to rebel against my father, who would inevitably find out and then beat me. A year earlier, I begged the Division of Child and Family Services to help me get away. Instead I was put in a foster home for about three weeks while my father and I attended counseling together. When D.C.F.S. told me I had to return home, I was devastated. I wasn’t sure how I’d survive. At the time, I had 18 siblings and we lived in a six-bedroom house. But by that point, my dad had forbidden my siblings to hang out with me.
When I was 16, I met my wife, Joni, at Salt Lake Donut, where I was working. Several months later, I asked her to marry me. I loved her, but I also wanted to get out of my father’s house. Since I was only 17, I had to get permission. My parents weren’t willing at first, but then they consulted their spiritual leader, who was, at the time, my great-grandfather Leroy Sunderland Johnson. He said, ”Don’t let these kids live in sin!” I was elated, but then only my mom and one sister came to my wedding. Being shunned by my family was harder than I imagined. Though my marriage emancipated me, Fawn’s would enslave her. I had to do something to help.
Flora Jessop had arranged for Fawn to stay at a safe house in Phoenix. The first few times we spoke, she was very cautious. All she knew about me was what my family told her — that I was supposedly covered in tattoos and consumed with self-loathing. Still, Fawn told me that she asked my mother if she could come live with me before she ran away. Despite my bad reputation, I was still a beacon of hope for her.
In mid-January, I went to Arizona to accompany Fawn to her first assessment meeting with representatives from Child Protective Services and other agencies. She told them that she didn’t want to return home. (By then, my family had moved to Arizona.) Fawn said she wanted to go back to school; she hadn’t been since fifth grade. One of my daughters is a year younger than Fawn, and her biggest concern is whether she will be a writer, an architect or a pop singer. I had to hold myself back from taking Fawn home with me right then and there.
Federal law says that Arizona’s C.P.S. has to make reasonable efforts to reunite parents with their children, unless there is a safety concern. I’ve heard of cases in which girls who ran away from their families because they were worried about being forcibly married wound up being returned home. Next thing you hear, they’re married, pregnant and trapped.
In late January, my mom called again, and I asked her point-blank to give me custody of Fawn. She refused. The next time I saw my parents was a few days later at a dependency pretrial hearing. I knew they would be angry. They came expecting to take Fawn home, not to see me. I’ll have to face my parents in court again in July, which I’m not looking forward to. But it’s worth it if the state places Fawn with me. My sister wants to live with me, but she doesn’t realize what this means — that her family will ostracize her, or how terribly painful that is. At least I can offer her a touchstone. I can say, I know what it feels like.