|Feature | Halfway Home: FLDS Lost Boys Find Life Begins at The House Just Off Bluff|
By John Pike|
Salt Lake City Weekly
Anyone who's spent much time here knows the simple two-story building with a white exterior and the gold-scripted "82" on the front door. Locals call it "the house just off Bluff."
Located near the intersection of 700 South and Bluff Street, the house has a big picture window looking out on a busy street zoned for homes and businesses. There's a small, concrete stoop in front and a driveway leading back to a detached wooden garage. A couple of bikes are parked there, but only one car. A full-size punching bag hangs from a corner of the garage. Two threadbare couches and a barbecue grill add a homey touch to the back yard.
This is a place for teenage boys — usually about a dozen at a time live at the house. Under city zoning rules, the house just off Bluff is defined as a homeless shelter. It's a safe spot and if all goes well, a halfway point to somewhere better: School, work and eventually, healthy adult relationships. For the past eight years, beginning when the boys started fleeing from the FLDS border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the news media has called them the "lost boys." The boys themselves seem to understand the nickname is simply shorthand for a complex issue. But they dislike the name just the same.
They started showing up in St. George and other Washington County towns about the time their leader, Warren Jeffs, cracked down on the twin communities and severely limited sect members' exposure to the outside world. In 2000, Jeffs, considered the living prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, ordered all children removed from public schools. He wanted them home-schooled. Over the next few years, a legal net began to tighten around Jeffs for his alleged part in arranging marriages of underage girls to much older men. Convicted last year on two counts of rape as an accomplice, Jeffs is serving 10 years to life in the Utah State Prison.
The popular media account of the lost boys goes like this: Jeffs and other older FLDS men turned them out of Hildale and Colorado City because they created competition for older men seeking much younger women. People who have worked with the boys say there is some truth in that. But, says Michelle Benward, a psychologist who spends many hours a week at the house off Bluff, there is much more to the boys' backgrounds than the simple media spin.
"A lot of them are out [of the FLDS community] because they are simply going through normal teenage rebellion and the culture isn't as accepting of it as the rest of society. Some leave on their own when they realize they can't live the strict way their parents demand of them. There are different reasons for how they end up here."
Whatever the reasons for their exodus, the boys are now an integral part of St. George culture, and they continue to move through the house. In the past year, Benward says, 114 boys have come through. They are moving into jobs—mostly in the construction industry—and attend public school. They are learning about the dating scene. One thing is for sure: The lost boys of the twin towns have found a world they could never have imagined had Warren Jeffs not fallen so far.
Finding school by accident
It's just after noon on a midweek summer day, and there aren't many people around the house. Most of the boys work construction. The house is also home to one dog, a stray Chihuahua named Pepe, which one of the residents brought to the house.
Dixie High School sits about 4,000 feet from the house. Two of the house's current residents, Hyrum and Bruce (who fear repercussions from the FLDS community and asked their last names be withheld) say they happened upon the school one day when they were bored. Now enrolled at Dixie High School, they are trying to get the kind of education that was foreign in fundamentalist FLDS culture. They take biology and earth science, read the literary classics and hear wide-ranging lectures on history and civics. Hyrum is 17. He wants to graduate next spring with a high-school diploma.
Hyrum's journey started in the area known, historically, as Short Creek—famous for a controversial raid in 1953, in which law enforcement agents rounded up and imprisoned the men and left women and children behind. "The Creek," as the boys call it, later became the towns of Hildale and Colorado City. Hyrum fled to St. George about two years ago, then moved on to California, then to Salt Lake City and back again to St. George. Hyrum had been living out of a truck, Benward says, and found his way to the house through word-of-mouth among fellow lost boys.
"I call Hyrum a 'connecter,'" says Benward, who works for a social service agency called New Frontiers for Families. "He brings people around, he makes friends easily. Most of the boys aren't nearly as outgoing. Hyrum has made a lot of high school friends. They come over to hang out in the back yard, or shoot pool. Just do what kids like to do."
Sitting inside the house one day shortly before the new school year starts, Hyrum announces he may be the first of his group at the house to graduate from high school — not simply get his GED, as many of the others have. "It's either going to be me or my brother," he says, adding, "My brother's smarter than me. It kind of pisses me off."
At first glance, nothing betrays Hyrum's origins. He no longer wears the long-sleeved, button-down work shirt and closely cropped hair of FLDS men and boys. Hyrum wears a T-shirt and worn jeans, and his shaggy brown hair is parted on one side. His look would be forbidden in his hometown, yet his manners remain strictly the product of an authoritarian background. Hyrum is soft-spoken and responds with a "Yes, ma'am," or "No, sir." His friend Bruce wants to know what kind of language they can use during an interview with a reporter.
Hyrum says he had to learn how people lived outside what was once his home community. "When I got out, I really didn't know anything. I didn't have a lot of social skills, and I thought everyone was out to get me. But I've come a long way in two years. I started getting more social and going to parties, and I realized people weren't so bad."
Free lunch, school fees and college advice
Incarcerated FLDS leader Warren Jeffs has been blamed for turning his young followers out to fend for themselves, but some of them say they left on their own. Those who were forced to leave were accused by the sect of engaging in what are typical mainstream teenage behaviors — watching TV or movies, listening to CDs, talking to girls or breaking curfew. Estimates of their numbers have varied widely and due in part to FLDS secrecy, are tough to confirm. Most estimates, though, put the number of boys at about 400, and ranging in age from the mid-teens to mid-20s. A few girls have left, too.
In southern Utah, a bevy of legal advocates and social workers have intervened with the boys to help them earn their GEDs, find work and apply to Job Corps programs. Court-appointed guardians ad litem, who represent the minors in legal proceedings, often assist them in establishing emancipation from their parents.
What hasn't been so well documented is that, despite the odds of essentially losing their families and having to adjust to a new culture, some of the teens are gaining a formal education. Hyrum takes life a day at a time. He clearly enjoys being in high school.
"I love [school], at least the social part. The work's kinda hard, but I might as well do some while I'm there." He adds that, for him, the transition hasn't been all that bad, "My first day, I felt kind of sketchy, but I got to know people and after the first day, I even had a couple of friends."
He tries to stay open to people's questions about his life. "People at school know who I am," Hyrum says. "I always answer their questions. During an interview with a television station, "I brought the camera crews to school with me and told people I was in the middle of a crack intervention. I really don't care what people think about me. Well, some people I care about, but for the most part, no."
Guidance counselors help him with the minutia of school life—applying for need-based free lunch, fees, explaining attendance policies and the like. He's no longer shy about expressing his needs. "I just ask, or I ask Michelle and she calls them and asks for it."
Application of the federal McKinley-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has helped ease the way for the boys in public school. The law requires a free public education for all children in the United States — whether they have a permanent address or not. Under McKinley-Vento, school districts accept homeless youth who lack the requisite paperwork of children from permanent homes. And the boys at the house off Bluff qualify as homeless, says Washington County School District assistant superintendent Marshall Topham. Bob Greene, child services coordinator for the district, says about 27 former FLDS youths are currently receiving an education from the district. Of those, 17 are working toward a GED and 10 are trying to complete high school.
To supplement what the boys get in school, the house is stocked with adventure novels, school books and three computers. "I used to read a lot more, but now I mostly just do it in school. We have classes where we read books and stuff," Hyrum says.
His education has big blanks. "The last real grade I was in was seventh," he says. "When I came [to Dixie High], they put me in 10th. Hyrum wants to go to college, even if he doesn't know yet what he wants to study. Again, normal teen stuff. "I didn't really decide I was going to [apply to college] until I came here." The next thing that comes out of his mouth is something of a surprise, "I dunno. I'll probably fail, but it's worth a shot."
His friend Bruce shores him up—if the classes Hyrum takes in college don't work out, he can always change his major, he says. Hyrum pauses briefly and says, "Yeah, I dunno. I still think I'll fail."
Order in the house
Ex-FLDS member Dan Fischer began The Diversity Foundation, an agency to aid the boys after they began the exodus from their communities. Since then, financial aid has come from various sources. Deseret Industries and Washington County Protestant churches have donated clothing and furnishings. Wells Fargo Bank accepts donations to an account set up for the boys. In April 2007, a lawsuit filed against Jeffs three years earlier by five lost boys resulted in a settlement of $50,000 over five years to help the outcast teens complete their education. The money comes from the United Effort Plan Trust, the FLDS Church's financial arm.
The house residents have plenty of people to look after them and keep them on task. Mary Anne Holstrum supervises the house from about 6 a.m. to noon; she says that one of her morning jobs is making sure that the boys who have construction jobs leave for work on time. She has left a copy of Escape, the recent best-selling memoir by ex-FLDS wife Carolyn Jessop, on the living room table. There is a long wait list for the book at the St. George Public Library, Holstrum says.
The house runs communally. A job board in the main-floor kitchen shows that Tuesday is "deep clean" day. Holstrum apologizes for the work not getting done the day before. But, there's no dust or dirt on the hardwood floors, only a few dishes in the sink and the windows and mirrors are spotless.
Originally a home for senior citizens, the house has eight bedrooms, two baths, a kitchenette in the basement and a pool table. The boys have helped with the renovations.
At midday, a couple of boys saunter into the kitchen to make themselves lunch. The house grows more lively throughout the afternoon. Benward, who lives more than 100 miles north in Panguitch, is a sort of house mother/social worker. She spends two days a week at the house and often stays overnight. On this day, Benward arrives with Matt Bauer who lives at the house and supervises it full time. A couple of boys walk into the kitchen and wolf down some fast food at the kitchen table. Benward walks from room to room, texting messages on her phone, with Pepe the dog following at her heels. Hyrum offers to drive Holstrum home in Benward's car. It seems all teenager boys like to take advantage of an opportunity to drive.
A little smart, a little rebellious
Benward feels deeply protective of the teens at the home. She spends much of her time enrolling those under 18 in public school and helping connect them up with Medicaid for medical and dental care. The kids are bright but often delayed socially, she says. They tend to have difficulty making decisions when they first arrive, probably due to the strong authoritarian nature of the FLDS culture, she says. "I really think the ones that were a little bit smart and a little bit rebellious were the ones who left. If you see them here, they were probably too smart for the community they came from."
Free of their strict upbringing, the boys enjoy the same things as most kids their age do. They like earning and spending their own money—and money management is taught at the house. The boys have normal questions about the opposite sex, and Benward is not timid about answering them.
"I'm completely honest with them about sexually transmitted diseases and try to answer their questions about sex honestly," she says. The conservative community of St. George might find that candor objectionable, but Benward says, "I personally don't care. These boys have been sheltered all their lives, and they need the facts. My reaction to anyone who objects is ‘Any time you want to come here and see what we're doing, come on over.'"
There have been amusing conversations at the house about evolution and the existence of dinosaurs. FLDS culture teaches strict creationism. "I've asked [the boys] how they can believe in Jesus, or Santa Claus, when there's no physical evidence for them, but why they can't believe in dinosaurs when we do have physical evidence," Benward says. Her comment provokes immediate discussion in the kitchen among a few of the boys. One says he believes in Santa Claus but not dinosaurs. Another believes that fossilized dinosaur bones found in the Utah desert were placed there by humans. And, in what seems to come out of left field, one boy says landings on the moon have been faked, too.
When living in Hildale and Colorado City, most of the boys were shuttled into construction and other trades. At the house off Bluff, "most of them want a high school diploma," Benward says. "It's become kind of a competition for them to see who can do things, like who gets the first GED. It's been exciting to see them realize what that piece of paper can do for them."
It's hardly perfect at the house, and there have been problems along the way. Some do not adjust well, some have gotten into legal trouble and several have moved from the area. According to Benward's accounting, about 30 of the boys she is familiar with have enrolled in college with the help of financial aid. "I think they'll get their education and accomplish wonderful things," she says.
And there is always room at the house for those who simply need a family.
After several years, the house off of Bluff still mostly operates as a word-of-mouth community. Some who moved through the house and live on their own show up occasionally to help the younger boys. Sometimes, a new person in search of food, or a place to sleep, floats in for a while. Benward and supervisor Baur say all are welcome.
"Even if they come by just to shoot some pool or shoot the breeze, it keeps off them the street and out of trouble," Benward says. At least for now, this is their family. They'll move on from here and more will move in. "They have been transient, but their relationships aren't transient, their relationships are forever."
Originally published August 28, 2008
|For more information email:|