There’s more support than ever for those ‘escaping polygamy’

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Meri Brown, left, from the TV program "Sister Wives," carries on a conversation with a friend near the starting line of a 5K run to benefit Holding Out HELP, a group that helps people leaving polygamy. Holding Out HELP's founder, Tonia Tewell, is center. The run started at Draper City Park, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

Rose believed God would punish her for leaving her family in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That punishment might have included, she feared, a car wreck.

“So when I stole the van,” Rose said, “I was driving 5 miles an hour, or something, down the road so I didn’t crash.”

Rose was 17. She didn’t know where to go. She eventually found help through relatives who previously had left the FLDS. If her younger siblings want to leave someday, she has a plan ready to assist them.

The exodus of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who have left the FLDS and other polygamous groups in the past 20 years has given rise to a formal and informal network of service providers.

Some are registered charities that use private donations or government grants to lend assistance to anyone wanting to leave polygamy or a bad circumstance in a polygamous household.

The less-formal network — like the one often depicted on the reality television show “Escaping Polygamy” — is made up of people who previously bolted from a polygamous group. They often are family but can also just be someone who knows the struggles the fleeing person faces.

“It was really hard to get out when it shouldn’t have been so hard to leave polygamy and oppression,” said Jessica Christensen, one of the stars of “Escaping Polygamy.” The show’s new season is airing on Mondays on Lifetime.

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune Amanda Kingston, left, Shanell DeRieux and Jessica Christensen, stars of the television show "Escaping Polygamy," listen to a hearing on a bill that would amend Utah's bigamy statutes in the Utah House of Representatives Building in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.

Christensen and her co-stars grew up in the Davis County Cooperative Society, often known as the Kingston Group. When she and her sister Andrea Brewer left in 2004, there were a few anti-polygamy organizations that would help people like them, but it was difficult to meet family and friends who had left before them.

“At that time, people would just sort of disappear,” Brewer said. “But now, with social media and things like that, people know what’s out there.”

Christensen, Brewer and other women who exited the Kingstons have started their own nonprofit called Hope After Polygamy. The organization seeks to connect people leaving polygamous households with housing and existing service providers such as counselors and schools.

The “Escaping Polygamy” stars have lobbied the Utah Legislature to pass laws targeting polygamists. Other organizations take a neutral stance on polygamy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tonia Tewell, executive director at Holding Out HELP, embraces Amanda Moncur at Kelly Cardenas Salon in South Jordan, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. The salon tries to help people leaving polygamous sects by offering them haircuts. For some, it's the first time they've been free to express themselves with a haircut.

Tonia Tewell, founder of Holding Out HELP, assists people in or exiting polygamous households in finding housing, schooling or job training. Tewell said some of her recent clients have been faithful FLDS members who have been unable to find a place to live.

Tewell doesn’t believe Utah needs more nonprofits to help people leaving polygamy. But these nonprofits need more funding.

She’d like to see a model similar to that for refugees, with housing, on-site counselors and legal assistance. Many people leaving polygamy are in — or are about to be in — divorce or child custody disputes. Others are minors who don’t want to be sent home and don’t have their birth certificates and other personal documents.

“They’re pretty much refugees,” Tewell said, “except they speak English.”

Tewell isn’t from a polygamous household. She started Holding Out HELP after she was asked by a former plural wife in 2007 to host a family trying to leave a polygamous group.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Shirlee Draper, a member of the Board of Trustees of the United Effort Plan Trust, talks about HB99, the latest bill seeking to clarify that polygamy is a felony in Utah. Draper was photographed in Hildale, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.

At Cherish Families, a nonprofit in Hildale, Utah, home to many current and former FLDS members, the staff and board members are in or from plural families. One of those staffers, Shirlee Draper, left the FLDS 14 years ago.

She stayed in a plural marriage four years longer than she would have because she was afraid the nonprofits that existed to help people like her back then would place her in front of TV cameras to speak ill of polygamy. Those nonprofits had the stated goal of opposing polygamy.

“Looking back, I’m not sorry I didn’t ask them for help,” Draper said. “I’m not sorry my image wasn’t exploited in the media.”

Cherish Families helps people regardless of what their beliefs are, Draper said. The charity helps clients find housing, counseling and other services in what Draper calls a “culturally competent” fashion. Staffers and volunteers understand what the former FLDS members are experiencing.

That includes the loss of a community structure in which decisions — from what to read to where to work to whom to marry — were made for them.

“When a person loses that sense of belonging,” Draper said, “there’s a sense of hopelessness.”

Rose, now 20, asked that only her first name be used. She still has FLDS family members and they would be upset if they knew she spoke with reporters.

She doesn’t want to alienate that family. Some of her younger siblings have spoken to her about the possibility of leaving. She’s already reached out to Holding Out HELP.

“We want to be able to help them,” Rose said.

And if they don’t want assistance from Rose or Holding Out HELP, there are other family members and, nowadays, plenty of support groups they can call.