Forced marriages. Underage sex. Teenaged mothers.
That is the portrait emerging for the hundreds of girls who have been removed by the state from a polygamist sect’s compound in West Texas that is now the center of one of the largest child welfare investigations in American history.
But what about the boys who are among the 416 children taken from the YFZ (Yearn For Zion) Ranch? The numbers of boys among the 416 children is believed to be far exceeded by the number of girls in custody. And the Texas boys are thought to have escaped the hardships felt by other boys — the “Lost Boys” — routinely expelled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) elsewhere in country, primarily in its long-established communities in Utah and Arizona.
On Friday, during a chaotic child custody hearing in San Angelo, a lawyer for the children claimed two dozen boys had been taken from the Eldorado compound owned and occupied by the FLDS.
State child welfare officials disputed that number, saying the population of boys was “substantially higher,” without giving an exact figure.
“We don’t have a solid breakdown on that right now ... I’m sure we have estimates, but I don’t have anything reliable,” said Greg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Observers say the boys at the West Texas compound are believed to be favorites of Warren Jeffs, the so-called prophet of the FLDS even as he serves time in prison for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
But in the sect’s much older communities near Salt Lake City, Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City,. Ariz., welfare workers have long known about boys separated from their families, put out on the streets and considered “dead” by their loved ones after drawing the ire of church leaders. Or simply making them worry that the younger, better looking boys will garner the attention from girls meant to marry older men.
“Many of these boys come from good families. But their fathers know that if they don’t put their child out on the street, his entire family will be put out on the street,” said Shannon Price , director of the Diversity Foundation in Salt Lake City that helps victims abused by the polygamy faith.
The FLDS has traditionally kept the number of boys in their polygamist communities low. That way the male leaders can have their pick of young “plural wives,” without the worry of younger competition, said Brenda Jensen, a former “polygamy kid” who now works as a volunteer for The Hope Organization. The nonprofit group in St. George, Utah helps abuse victims from polygamist relationships.
The FLDS, which splintered from the mainstream Mormon Church in 1890 when the latter rejected polygamy, has long been headquartered in the twin towns of Colorado City and Hildale.
Members of the sect, estimated to have as many as 10,000 members at one time, began building the sprawling YFZ Ranch near Eldorado in 2004.
FLDS leaders, under the direction of Jeffs, can be ruthless in the ways they kick boys out of their communities in Arizona and Utah, Jensen said, stressing that she was expressing her own feelings, as a child of polygamists, and not those of The Hope Organization.
Boys as young as 13 have been torn from their families and left on the unfamiliar streets of Salt Lake City and Las Vegas for committing such FLDS-sanctioned infractions as talking to a girl, or rolling up their sleeves — a no-no for showing skin in public, Jensen said.
The young boys are ill-equipped to deal with their new world.
“You might as well put them on another planet. No training. No food. No idea on how to get help or what to do,” she said. “Some are so heartsick they can’t do anything.”
There may be as many as 2,000 of the young castaways, known as “Lost Boys” by the people who try to help them integrate into a world they’ve never known, and have been taught to distrust.
Sam Brower, a private investigator in Cedar City, Utah who has tracked the plight of Lost Boys, said many “have just been discarded on the side of the highway ... Many have turned to drugs and alcohol and end up on the streets of Vegas.
“They know absolutely nothing about the outside world. They have little education ... It’s very rough for them,” Brower said.
Jensen, with The Hope Organization, said the boys in the FLDS, after graduating from home school, win favors from “the priesthood” by going on two-year “work missions,” away from their families, working for free for the church, but are still vulnerable for expulsion if they slip up.
With the boys gone, the girls, fresh from graduating, are married off to “these old grizzly men,” she said. “Usually, your graduation dress becomes your wedding dress,” Jensen added. “Those were the lucky ones. Some would just get tapped on the shoulder, pulled into a room and come out married.”