15 Nov 2010

Advocacy groups have different views on helping teens who leave Mormon polygamous families

The Salt Lake Tribune - December 20, 2009

Safety Net gets new roadmap for helping youth

Guidelines aimed at eliminating 'gray areas' and building trust with youth who leave polygamous communities.

By Brooke Adams

For years, teenagers have trickled out of Utah's polygamous communities for one reason or another -- many turning to private groups and state agencies for help, with no involvement from their parents.

Now, the Utah Safety Net is poised to adopt guidelines that for the first time recognize a parent's right to be informed about what's happening to any child the group helps.

The "Youth Protocol" would apply only to Safety Net members, but director Pat Merkley hopes it serves as a blueprint for other groups that assist youths from polygamous families.

"It has been a big source of contention" with the communities, who believe parents' rights and concerns are often ignored, Merkley said,

"We want different fundamentalist groups we work with to know this is how we will do this," she said.

The Utah Safety Net, created in 2003 by the Utah and Arizona attorneys general offices, is a liaison between polygamous communities and social service agencies. Merkley and case manager Chelsea Gambles, who is based in southern Utah, also work directly with individuals from polygamous backgrounds.

During the past year, Gambles has assisted about 15 youth -- mostly boys -- between the ages of 15 and 18 who've left their homes in the Arizona Strip, home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Centennial Park community. Merkley also has worked with a handful of teens in the Salt Lake Valley.

The teenagers' reasons for leaving home range from family discord to not wanting to comply with religious standards, Gambles said. She also said some girls have shared concerns they'll be pressured to marry once they turn 18.

Other teens are likely getting help from nonprofit groups focused on polygamous groups, or from siblings or other relatives who have left the fundamentalist Mormon lifestyle. In some cases, parents continue to aid children who've left home, Gambles said.

Gambles said she has pushed for guidelines because of "a lot of gray area in how you help these youth" with such needs as housing, food, jobs and schooling.

Merkley said there are "differing views" about how to deal with youth from polygamous families. One view: Teens should be helped to "escape." Another view: The family should be helped so a teen can remain home safely.

The proposed guidelines would require Safety Net members to determine whether a minor who is seeking help has experienced any abuse, neglect or dependency and then either contact parents directly or through law enforcement, youth services or DCFS.

A child might be encouraged to return home or, if that is inappropriate or not possible, offered help with parents' backing.

The proposed guidelines say the first option for housing would be with a relative, followed by other state and private placements.

The protocol also says emancipation may be the best option for a teenager, but staff will not push that choice. Instead, the Safety Net will provide referrals to legal services if asked about the process.

"We want to do it the right way, respecting the rights of parents and getting to the bottom of why they left," Merkley said.

Shannon Price, director of The Diversity Foundation, has worked with many FLDS teenagers, primarily offering them educational help. She said guidelines are a good idea but anything more than an "incredibly generic" protocol would be "almost impossible" because each case is so different.

Price said emancipation is the most common need of FLDS teens, but only one parent has participated in the process -- and that was to object. Emancipation, among other things, allows the youth to get a drivers license, enroll in high school and seek other assistance on his or her own.

Working with parents "hasn't been possible" in most cases, though Price said she "would love to have that for the full case management of a child."

Gambles has already made working with a teen's parents a priority.

"It's gone wonderfully," she said. "I let [parents] know I am in contact with their child, and you can hear the sense of relief in their voices."

A few parents have even called her when they know a child is about to leave home, asking for advice and help.

"They usually express some heartache about the child leaving ... and usually just say they want their child to be happy," she said. "There are close family ties that I didn't expect."

The new protocol

If it is approved in January, Utah Safety Net members will be expected to put into practice the "Youth Protocol" for dealing with youth who leave polygamous communities. The procedure calls for:

Assess the youth to determine if he or she has been abused or neglected. Seek information about vulnerabilities and needs.

Provided that safety is not an issue, contact the youth's parents. Ask if the parents want the youth to return home; if they do, encourage the youth to return home. Otherwise, seek the parents' involvement in placing the youth.

If a return home or placement is not possible, report the child to Family Services as a homeless youth.

If contact with the family is not possible, contact law enforcement to see if they are looking for the youth.

If they are not, help the youth find emergency housing.

Teach the youth about housing resources and help him or her apply for aid such as Medicaid and food stamps. Establish a plan for self-sufficiency and emancipation, if needed. Involve the child's parents if possible.

What's next?

The Utah Safety Net youth protocol, which has been vetted with Utah AG staff and the Division of Child and Family Services, will be voted on at the group's Jan. 7 meeting in Salt Lake City.

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