Emerging from the Shadow of Polygamy

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Authorities in Texas removed more than 400 youngsters from a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints compound last week. Now, the children who once lived in near isolation must transition to mainstream society.

ALEX COHEN, host:

In Texas, child welfare workers are figuring out what to do with the more than 400 children now in their custody. The state removed these kids from the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the rural west Texas town of Eldorado. The children, some of whom are pregnant teenagers, have had little contact with mainstream society.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Joining us now is Elaine Tyler. She's the director of the HOPE organization. It's a group that assists people who have left polygamous families, and she joins us from Utah. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ELAINE TYLER (Director, HOPE): Thank you.

BRAND: Now, you've worked with lots and lots of young women who decided to leave the FLDS. When they first come to you, what are their immediate needs?

Ms. TYLER: Just to learn basic life skills, and basic survival skills, and start building up their self-esteem. They've been taught that outsiders are evil and going to harm them so, first we need to establish trust, and then we need to start making them feel good about themselves so that they can transition into mainstream society.

BRAND: Do they not know how to do basic things like shop at the grocery store?

Ms. TYLER: Most of the people do know how to shop at the grocery store, but they don't know how to budget their money because they've never been allowed to keep their own money. If the women work they usually turn it over to their husband. If the children work they either don't get paid or what they earn they have to give to their father. We need to get them where they can open a checking account, get a library card, and learn how to use the library, write a resume, I mean, just basic life skills that most parents teach their children these folks don't know. And it's not just the children that don't know it. The adult women don't know it either.

BRAND: What about basic academic skills?

Ms. TYLER: Oh yes. We've had a couple of teenage boys on our program. One was 17, and I took him to enroll him in the GED program, and I took him to Wendy's beforehand to feed him, and he couldn't even read the menu to read hamburger. He had to order by pointing to the pictures on the wall. And when we took him over to the college to get him enrolled in the adult GED program, he tested at a grade two. Seventeen-year-old young man. So, academically, that is one of the first things we try to do is get these kids to get their GED or, if they're young enough, to get them actually physically enrolled in high school because education, I think, is the key to this whole situation.

BRAND: So, when they leave, I guess they have nowhere to go, right? They're homeless?

Ms. TYLER: They're homeless. We've got a lot of the kids living in cars, they're just crashing at friends' houses. They call them butt-huts.

BRAND: What does butt-hut mean?

Ms. TYLER: Butt-hut just means it's a flophouse. That one person may get an apartment and then all their friends will end up coming there after work and they'll sleep on the floor and on sofas, wherever they can crash. But the kids call it butt-huts because I guess there are butts everywhere.

BRAND: You said one of the first things you need to do is gain their trust. How do you do that?

Ms. TYLER: It depends on how the people have been referred to us. If a friend or a family member whom we've helped before brings them to us, then I think they've already kind of opened the door of, hey, these are good people, you can trust them, they're just going to help you. If they're referred to us by say adult probation and parole because they've gotten in some serious legal trouble, then we're I think thought about as an offshoot from a government agency, which we are not. HOPE is a private non-profit charity, we are not a government agency. So, then we have to explain who are and why we're here and we're just here to help. Building trust with them takes a long time.

BRAND: And in many cases are you dealing with young people who have serious emotional problems from possible sexual abuse?

Ms. TYLER: Too many of these kids come out and they have been sexually abused, and they've got some real issues. And the girls come out and they carry guilt and shame. I try to keep impressing upon them, hey, you're a victim. You did nothing wrong. Somebody misused you and abused you and just getting them beyond that guilt and shame phase is huge.

BRAND: Well, that must take years.

Ms. TYLER: In many cases it does take years. Two of the other directors with the HOPE organization left the group out in Colorado City. One left 20 years ago, one left almost 40 years ago, and they're still dealing with the guilt and the shame and those issues. I mean, this is not a quick fix, this goes on for a long time for these ladies.

BRAND: Ms. Tyler, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Ms. TYLER: Oh, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

BRAND: That's Elaine Tyler. She's the director of the HOPE organization. It's a group that helps people who have left the FLDS.

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