2 Apr 2011

Film documenting plight of teen boys abandoned and shunned by Mormon polygamists raises money for their recovery

Houston Chronicle - Texas March 31, 2011

Documentary follows teens exiled from polygamous sect


There's something about coming-of-age films, with their familiar sense of newfound independence balanced with a yearning for family connection, a desire to grow up but not too much, that American audiences love.

In many ways, this archetype is at the center of Sons of Perdition, an independent film showing in Houston for the first time next week.

But the teenage boys featured in this documentary have a darker, more painful background as exiles from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

They're called the "lost boys." Some fled on their own. But others had their coming-of-age moment thrust upon them by a prophet who forced them to leave their families and religious community to live completely separate from the polygamist compound where they grew up.

That prophet was Warren Jeffs, the now-imprisoned leader of the 10,000-member FLDS sect, which split from mainstream Mormonism more than 120 years ago to continue the disavowed practice of plural marriage.

Over his nearly decade-long reign as head of the FLDS church, he rid the Colorado City, Ariz. , settlement of hundreds of young men while older leaders continued to take young women as wives. Jeffs is currently in a Texas prison, awaiting trial for sexual assault and bigamy.

"It's related to Jeffs. Sociologists would say it's an inevitable demographic shift that has to occur for that marriage pattern to continue," said Martha Bradley, an expert in Mormon history and dean at the University of Utah. "It's really an extreme test of loyalty for Jeffs to order one of their followers to get rid of their teenage son."

The boys who leave are, in their families' minds and their own, "sons of perdition," destined for damnation for rejecting God's teachings.

"What do you do when you're 16, and you're told that you're evil and you're going to hell?" asked Tyler Measom, who directed and produced the film with Jennilyn Merten. They followed exiled teenagers through their initial culture shock and desperate homesickness for their families.

The FLDS Church has not issued a response to the film, said Rod Parker, their Utah-based attorney.

"It's made me really angry to watch their families fall apart over religion," Merten said. "Sam (one of the boys in the film) said, 'I don't think religion should ever come between family. Family should be your religion.' "

The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and will be screened Wednesday at Houston's 14 Pews. It will also air on the Oprah Winfrey Network this summer.

As former Mormons who made the difficult decision to leave the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Measom and Merten knew what it felt like to take that disappointing turn from such a tight religious group.

"It was a difficult, difficult process," said Measom. "You're disappointing family and community and everything you've come to believe."

The boys they met — Joe Broadbent, Bruce Barlow and Sam Zitting - had it much harder and may always struggle with living apart from their relatives.

"Getting involved helped expel some of that sympathy," Merten said. Their documentary has raised $100,000 to support ex-FLDS youth making the transition to living on their own.

She still follows Jeffs' trial and the state of the community, which appears to be in turmoil.

Though Jeffs hasn't formally resigned his presidency, church elder William E. Jessop became president of the corporation that is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints after filing papers with the Utah Department of Commerce on Monday, in what Jessop calls "an attempt to restore the church."

"It's really going to be interesting now to see, No. 1, Warren Jeffs' reaction, and No. 2, what the people's reaction will be," said Anne Wilde, co-founder of the polygamy advocacy group Principle Voices. Jeffs already ceded authority of the church once to Jessop in 2007, although Jessop didn't act on the directive at the time.

President of the church since 2002, Jeffs has spent most of the past four years behind bars. He was arrested in 2006 and convicted the next year on Utah charges of rape as an accomplice. The conviction was later overturned, and Jeffs was extradited to Texas. Trial is set for July in San Angelo.

Accusations against Jeffs date back to 2004, when his nephew Brent filed a sexual abuse suit against him. In Brent's book, Lost Boy, he writes that the leader abused him and his two brothers.

Even a guilty ruling for Jeffs may not shake the faith of his followers, who believe that persecution from outsiders is a sign that they are following the will of God.

"The idea of being a persecuted people means this plays into the thinking that, 'We're right. We're a special people,' " said Merten, who researched Jeffs for the film.

The allegations of sexual assault against children - raised by evidence found in the raid of their ranch in 2008 - may have discouraged members from taking younger wives.

"That's one very positive thing to come out of this; they've already started to be more cautious (about marriage ages)," said Bradley, the historian.

Measom and Merten said they're hopeful the FLDS community will become more open, allowing children to attend public schools and letting the lost boys reunite with their families.

Before coming to Houston, Sons of Perdition screened in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.

"We're hoping for San Angelo next," Merten half-joked.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

This article was found at:


Documentary on boys abandoned by or escaped from Mormon polygamists will air on Oprah's network

Interview with directors of "Sons of Perdition" documentary on teens exiled from Mormon polygamous sect

"Sons of Perdition", premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, tells stories of escapees from Mormon fundamentalist cult

Utah program to help families leaving polygamy expands to offer life skills to youth escaped from FLDS communities

"Lost Boy" - An Insider's Account of Life in the FLDS Cult [book]

Author who escaped abuse in US polygamy cult explains why Canadian constitutional case is so important in both countries

Stop Polygamy in Canada website has notes taken by observers in the courtroom as well as links to most of the affidavits and research the court is considering in this case.


  1. More young people leaving polygamous sect, aid workers say
    The Salt Lake Tribune Sep 10 2011

    Aid organizations say they are seeing more young people, especially young men, leaving or being asked to leave the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs. “We’re seeing quite an influx,” said Tonia Tewell, executive director of Salt Lake City-based Holding out Help, which provides housing and other aid to people leaving polygamous communities, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “There is no room for the youth to go whatsoever.”

    Speaking during a Safety Net meeting last week, Tewell said she’s seen a bump since the beginning of this year, shortly after Jeffs was extradited to Texas to face sexual assault of a child charges. From a pay phone in his jail cell, Jeffs excommunicated dozens of men and put new restrictions on the behavior of other members, like a ban on Internet usage, former members have said.

    Those who stayed in the community redoubled their efforts to become “pure” and increase their faith to free their leader. That’s resulted in more young people chafing against the new rules or being asked to leave the community if they don’t follow along, Tewell said. She’s getting a few new people seeking help every week, and her organization now serves about 150 people.

    Crises like the current ones — Jeffs being sentenced to life in prison after his conviction and a power struggle with a rival prophet — don’t usually make droves of people leave the FLDS, said Shannon Price, director of the Diversity Foundation. The sect has about 10,000 members based along the Utah-Arizona border.

    “How many crises has this community gone through?” she said. “All crises do is bring people who are very devout closer together.”

    Alhough the current turmoil hasn’t caused a bump in the numbers at her organization, which serves more than 400 young former FLDS members sometimes know as “Lost Boys,” Diversity’s numbers have been steadily increasing during the past several years, she said. So far this year, they’ve started helping 10 additional students with their college degrees.

    While older, more established FLDS members with families may be more likely to band together, younger people with fewer bonds have less reason to stay, she said.

    But they often have fewer tools to survive. While middle-aged FLDS people grew up during a time when members often went to public school and got college degrees, younger members have lived in a more closed, isolated community — FLDS children have not attended public school for 10 years, since Jeffs ordered them to leave in 2000.

    “There’s usually a delayed maturity,” Price said. Because their upbringing has been so different from other American teenagers, typical homeless shelters don’t work, Tewell said.

    “They’re still so different than the general population, I just think it would be a disaster,” she said. Many who left or have been forced out have arrest records, such as for drinking alcohol or scrawling graffiti.

    Joni Holm, who gives support to about 50 people leaving the FLDS with the Child Protection Project, also said that host families who take in those kids need to know how to help them.

    “We need to get a very strong mentoring program to teach these host families what is needed ... [so they can understand] the dynamic of what they’re coming from,” she said.


  2. FBI, S.L. County probe alleges fraud, sexual trysts in FLDS 'lost boys' program

    By Dennis Romboy, Deseret News March 14, 2012

    SALT LAKE CITY — Fraud, deceit, sexual trysts and an untimely death make up a sordid tale investigators say they uncovered among those who ran a government-funded shelter for "lost boys" of the polygamous FLDS Church.

    A yearlong investigation by the FBI and the Salt Lake County Auditor's Office resulted in federal prosecutors going to a grand jury seeking criminal charges against Richard Parks, the county's AmeriCorps program administrator for the past eight years.

    Parks, 64, of Salt Lake City, was indicted Wednesday on 25 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, making false statements and theft from a program receiving federal funds. The indictment seeks $95,154 in restitution.

    "It's an incredible story," said Jim Wightman, the county auditor's director of compliance and performance assessment. "It's off the charts. It involves so many aspects of Utah culture."

    Though the case doesn't involve huge sums of money, its tentacles reach the Utah Legislature, the Utah Attorney General's Office, Salt Lake County and St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson, who is accused of an Internet marketing scam.

    Auditors discovered a "remarkable lack" of county and state oversight of the program, according to a 78-page Salt Lake County Auditor's report obtained by the Deseret News. The report also found:

    • AmeriCorps workers at the lost boys shelter were overpaid a total of $21,937. (Workers are volunteers who receive a stipend for completing contracted service hours.)

    • Parks allegedly encouraged AmeriCorps workers in St. George to falsify time cards.

    • The shelter's clinical director and others were paid for full-time work though they enrolled as half-time AmeriCorps workers.

    • Parks allegedly obtained reimbursements for trips to St. George that were not business-related but to carry on an affair with an AmeriCorps worker.

    Reached at his home, Parks said he did not want to comment on the allegations. Parks' attorney, Greg Skordas, said he tried to resolve the allegations prior to the indictment, but couldn't reach an agreement with federal prosecutors.

    "We have a difference of opinion on his culpability," Skordas said.

    From October 2006 to October 2008, Salt Lake County's AmeriCorps program had an agreement with the nonprofit New Frontiers for Families and its House Just Off Bluff project.

    The eight-bedroom home near Bluff Street in St. George served as a haven for boys fleeing from or being kicked out of the FLDS communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. AmeriCorps, a national service organization that relies on volunteers, provided workers for the shelter.

    In addition to the AmeriCorps grant, New Frontiers received $250,000 from the Utah Legislature for the shelter. Johnson, a one-time multimillionaire philanthropist whom federal authorities indicted and sued in connection with alleged Internet marketing fraud, donated use of the house.

    St. George officials closed the shelter in October 2008 amid allegations that clinical director Michelle Benward was not properly licensed and that the house violated city zoning laws. Benward was fired at the same time.

    Benward later acted as the "whistleblower" in the case, Wightman said. She brought the pay and timecard irregularities to Salt Lake County's attention in December 2010. Salt Lake County ran the program because Washington County, where the shelter was located, did not have an AmeriCorps grant.

    Benward, too, received payments she was not entitled to under AmeriCorps policy, according to the audit.

    "We chose not to target her," Wightman said. "But she was working it from every angle."

    Benward could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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  3. continued from previous comment:

    Benward also told county officials that her sister, Jami Christensen, lived and worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer at the shelter and had an affair with Parks, who was married. Parks knew Christensen from a youth program she participated in when she was a teenager. He received travel reimbursements for at least three trips to St. George from Salt Lake City to meet Christensen, the report says.

    Christensen, who suffered from mental illness, died of a drug overdose in July 2010 at age 38.

    "Emails obtained from her sister's email account after her passing led Benward to believe Parks' relationship with Christensen may have played a role in her untimely death," the report says.

    Wightman said investigators asked Parks if he thought he contributed to Christensen's death. "Without hesitation he said yes," Wightman said.

    Investigators aren't sure what motivated Parks to allegedly authorize overpayments and encourage falsified time sheets, Wightman said, adding there was no evidence Parks benefitted financially.

    The report said Parks' job depended solely on the AmeriCorps grant and he lacked judgment in recruiting volunteers with whom he'd had along history, and then had an affair with one of them.

    "This created conflicts and pressure that fed his acts of deceit and fraud," according to the report.

    Parks felt pressure from state lawmakers and the attorney general's office to expedite the lost boys program and ensure its success, the report suggests. The house was set up quickly and without a proven track record, Wightman said.

    "The way I would characterize Rich is he saw that he had a program that was all up to him," he said. County administrators, Wightman said, trusted Parks due to his long history with AmeriCorps programs and paid little attention to the house because it was hundreds of miles from Salt Lake City.

    "I think Rich figured that out and took his carte blanche and ran with it," Wightman said.

    The report says state and county administrators were lax in their oversight of the program.

    "We concluded that obligation of due care was neglected in numerous instances at all levels of administration. This resulted in wrongful acts, some illegal and others negligently administered," the report states.

    The findings may jeopardize the county's ability to receive future AmeriCorps grants.


  4. First study of people who leave FLDS polygamous sect shows struggle

    Findings » Children most often leave for the freedom to control their lives.

    By Lindsay Whitehurst The Salt Lake Tribune June 16 2012

    Martha Barlow’s education ended in the fifth grade, when she was pulled out of school to work in a cabinet shop and a farm. She didn’t get back until eight months ago, when she left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

    "Not having your family is definitely a big thing," the 17-year-old said. "That’s really hard. Everything else is fine but that, just not having your family there to support you."

    Starting again in the 11th grade, she initially struggled to catch up on her academics, working on math through her lunch hour. But she got back up to speed in a year.

    Barlow is one of some 750 young people who have left the Warren Jeffs-led FLDS in the past eight years — sometimes known as "Lost Boys."

    She spoke Friday at the Safety Net Committee Conference, where officials announced a first: a study surveying young people like Barlow.

    "There’s just no manual, no academic research," said Pat Merkley, clinical director of the Safety Net, which was started by the Utah attorney general to ensure people from polygamous communities have access to services. The fourth annual conference Friday focused on youth in polygamous communities, from how infants create attachments to their parents to the range of educational experiences in different polygamous groups.

    There’s a dearth of scholarly research on fundamentalist Mormons, Merkly said, and without it, social workers and therapists have little to guide them.

    The results of the survey of 90 young former members of the FLDS held some surprises. For example, the majority of those surveyed said they chose to leave rather than being forced out.

    "They don’t leave because their families told them to," Merkley said. "That was the most heart-wrenching."

    The survey also indicated the majority don’t go because they were interacting with the opposite sex or watching TV, both of which are off-limits in the strictly conservative sect.

    Rather, a full 80 percent said they left or were forced out because the FLDS limited their ability to make decisions in their own lives.

    Once they do leave, 60 percent of the teens said they aren’t ever allowed to visit or call home.

    Despite being cut off from their families, the vast majority — 87 percent — said they were happy to be living outside of the sect’s home base of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, and were more optimistic about the future.

    "They’re happy to be gone, but it’s a complicated happy," Merkley said, speaking from her experience as a therapist for former FLDS teens.

    It took about seven months to conduct the survey, and Merkley hopes it will be a "springboard" for more research in the future.

    Partial findings were released Friday; full results will be published in a booklet or in a scholarly journal later.


  5. Son of Perdition: FLDS Escapee Builds New Life Outside Warren Jeffs' Control
    ABC 20/20


    July 18, 2013 - Watch the full story on "20/20: I Escaped My Life"

    Deep in the desert, at a roadside memorial, Willy Steed paid his respects to his friends, fellow teens who died in a car crash after a beer party.

    "I knew Vergie and Rachel and Jamieson…," Steed muttered.

    In any other place, this would be a tragic footnote to an all too common aspect of teenage life. But Steed's hometown is anything but ordinary. The young people who died weren't merely partying -- they were violating a strict religious code.

    Colorado City, population 8,000, sits on the border between Utah and Arizona. The residents are members of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a radical splinter group of the mainstream Mormon church exiled for their refusal to renounce plural marriage.

    To live there is to turn back the clock a hundred years. No Internet, no television, no contact with the outside world. Every aspect of life -- what people wear, what they eat, even whom they marry -- is controlled by the man they call their prophet: Warren Jeffs.

    Jeffs is serving a life sentence for the sexual assault of children. Last fall, a yearlong "20/20" investigation revealed that Jeffs was still controlling his people's lives from behind prison walls, banning toys, bicycles and the eating of corn.

    Boys and girls are forbidden from speaking to one another. Hence the secret desert parties.

    "There's a reason the young boys go out at night, and the young girls go to those parties," Steed said. "It's because they can drink, they can be themselves and they can put away all that stress."

    FLDS church teaching holds that to attend these parties is to become a "son of perdition."

    "Son of perdition means you are Satan's property, and that you will burn in hell when you leave this life for what you have done," Steed said.

    Had he stayed here, Steed's name might be on the roadside memorial's cross alongside his friends'. But just weeks before the accident, Steed left.

    "I realized I needed to get out and be who I was and not who everyone wanted me to be."

    Steed escaped with the help of a group called Holding Out Help, a nonprofit for those leaving polygamist groups. The couple who took him in, Pam and Ron Jenson, was shocked to discover Steed couldn't read. Like most boys in the FLDS, he was pulled out of grade school to work.

    The Jensons have helped Steed claim the childhood he lost: his first ride on a rollercoaster, his first birthday cake, and the brave new world of Facebook.

    Steed has also met new friends who have opened doors to new possibilities. In June, a photographer, seeing potential in Steed as a model, brought him in for a photo shoot, completing the radical transformation he's undergone physically and emotionally.

    "Someone saw me for who I was and singled me out and picked me because of that," Steed said. "All my life [I] never believed in myself. It was so easy for me to get lost in the crowd of family, but out here it's so easy to be seen in a crowd and not get lost."