Elizabeth Mitchell has pointed me toward a strange little story that’s developing in Colorado City (formerly Short Creek) Arizona: The town’s children are fleeing. It started less than a week and a half ago, when two girls named Fawn Broadbent and Fawn Holm ran away for fear of being forced into polygamous “marriages”.
You’d have done the same.
It wasn’t the first time children have tried to run away from Short Creek. The difference was that this time, the authorities didn’t return the Fawns to their families. They escaped and stayed escaped. That story went round the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint) community at lightning speed, and in the week that followed, eight more children ran. All it took was the hope of real escape, and some indication that help was available in the outside world.
Polygamy is nothing new in Short Creek. The Arizona Strip—the isolated patch of northwestern Arizona north of the Grand Canyon and south of the Utah border—has always depended on its wearying inaccessibility and that handy Arizona/Utah boundary line to keep outside law enforcement at bay. It took a long time for that whole area to shake loose of polygamy after the practice was outlawed; but over time, as its holdout polygamist groups have gradually become more and more marginal and self-isolating, their communal behavior has just gotten pathological.
For instance, FLDS boys and girls used to court and marry in relatively normal fashion. Then Rulon Jeffs, their prophet at that time, decided that it was a sin for boys and girls to fraternize, or to seek each other out as potential spouses without priesthood supervision. Courting was replaced by the “placement” system, under which all marriages are decided by the group’s prophet. Teenage girls are assigned to much older and already-married husbands, essentially as chattel, in much the same spirit in which an Anglo-Saxon leader would hand out gold rings to his followers. This monopoly has made multiple wives an index of status and favor for men in the community.
Don’t imagine these households as cheery group or line marriages. Most of these women are leading bleak, impoverished, hopelessly dreary lives.
Placement marriage means FLDS boys are no longer permitted to have normal interactions with girls their own age, social or otherwise. Given that so many semi-related children are living jumbled together in overcrowded polygamous households, it’s not surprising that incest and sexual abuse have become common. The dislocations produced by the placement system have also led to supernumerary teenage boys literally being driven out of town—shipped off to the FLDS colony in Bountiful, BC, or assigned to two-year work missions at businesses operated by wealthier and more powerful polygamists (with their paychecks going directly home to the organization in Short Creek), or taken to Salt Lake City and dumped out on the street, or simply run out of town by the all-FLDS police.
The local slang term for marriageable girls is “poofers”. One day they’re living with their parents, attending school, just being teenage girls. The next day, poof, they’re gone. Marriages aren’t publicly announced or celebrated—often they’re scarcely celebrated at all—and the girls are given minimal advance notice. They just disappear into their husbands’ households: poof! Sometimes FLDS girls from the Arizona Strip are swapped for girls from the Bountiful colony, which makes the girls on both sides of the swap even more tractable.
(By the way, this is scarcely distinguishable from the methods used in the modern-day slave trade. The basic recipe starts when you separate the slaves from everyone who might protect or support them. You physically abuse them so they’re frightened and disoriented. You put them in a controlling environment where they’re powerless and deprived of outside information, and make sure that they don’t have proper ID, access to transportation, or money of their own. You repeatedly tell them that this is where they belong. And then you exploit the hell out of them.)
Once these girls have had babies, they’re stuck. They can’t abandon their children, and they have no more place to go than they did before. They can’t sue their “husband” for support; they were never legally married to him. They may not have a Social Security Number. They may not have a birth certificate. They have minimal education. They’ve been told all their lives that outsiders are sinful, dangerous, and malign. And everyone they know in the world keeps telling them that where they are is where they belong. So they still don’t run. And because they don’t run they have more children, often at a rate of one a year, which leaves them depressed and exhausted.
The FLDS community lives on land owned by their church, which effectively means it’s owned by their prophet. Members build their houses themselves at their own expense, but if they dissent, misbehave, or wind up on the losing side in political struggles, they’re evicted and shunned. Wives or children can be reassigned to other households. The mayor, city council, school board, and law enforcement personnel are all FLDS members, and the town hasn’t had a single contested election since the day it was incorporated as Colorado City.
One of the community’s biggest sources of income is government money. A large number of households are on food stamps, and many get childcare subsidies and free public health care. The local school district has 100 employees for 300 students, and quite a few of those employees have school district cars and credit cards for their personal use. I can’t do justice to the financial details.
For a good overall survey of this subject, I recommend the four-part series by Al Herron that was published by the Prescott Daily Courier. This source is typographically easier to read, but only has the first two installments. This source has all four.
If you want more, you can’t do much better than the investigative journalism of the New Times, which last year ran a series of eleven stories on the FLDS community, starting with this one. That story ends with links to all the later installments. And if this is all sounding just too alien to you, you may want to begin with this overview of Mormon fundamentalist groups.
Is there a moral here? There’s room for any moral you want to draw. My favorite is, “There’s a reason the founders of the Constitution thought separation of church and state was a good idea.” You’re welcome to draw your own.