- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

The raid this month on a polygamist sect’s Texas ranch left more than 400 children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in state custody.

Under any circumstances, children have trouble adjusting to a world in which their parents suddenly are gone. But in this case, these children likely will be put in an outside world that they have been raised to see as evil.

To better understand their plight, The Washington Times spoke with three former members of the FLDS as well as Rowenna Erickson, a founding member of Tapestry Against Polygamy (Polygamy.org).

The Utah-based organization supports children and vulnerable adults seeking to leave the polygamous lifestyle.

“Polygamy is one big male excuse” for sex, Mrs. Erickson told The Times, using graphic language.

She grew up in the Latter-day Church of Christ, a polygamous Mormon sect also known as the Kingston family. At age 20, she became the second wife of her older sister’s husband; the couple bore eight children together.

“My children and I lived in dire poverty in a two-and-a-half bedroom house,” Mrs. Erickson said.

Her husband lived separately from the family, and she was prohibited from disclosing their true relationship to others — including to the couple’s own children — so as not to raise the suspicion of the civil authorities.

“My children didn’t have a father,” Mrs. Erickson said. “They had to grow up with my sister’s children calling him ‘dad,’ while my children could never call him by anything other than his name. My children never had an identity of a father.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Erickson thinks that her children are more fortunate than FLDS children who are raised as a group, because many FLDS children also do not know their mother’s identity.

“These children have difficulty bonding or relating to others,” she said.

Former FLDS member Rena Mackert agrees. Born and raised in the FLDS, her earliest memories are those of being severely beaten and “sexually abused by my father from the time I was three-and-a-half years old.”

As a teenager, Mrs. Mackert was assigned to marry her stepbrother, with whom she had three children. Shortly before the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, her husband, who had not taken a second wife, announced that he was not a believer in polygamy and was filing for divorce.

The FLDS subsequently assigned Mrs. Mackert to marry a man who was more than 30 years her senior and the husband of her sister. Mrs. Mackert refused.

“They told me I had the spirit of apostasy … and took away my children,” she said. “I was told they were conceived under the covenant of plural marriages and that I no longer had a right to them.”

Her children were placed with her parents — a situation that terrified Mrs. Mackert, given her father’s abuse — and told that she had abandoned them.

The FLDS banished Mrs. Mackert from the community and prohibited her from seeing her children. Only a chance encounter with a lawyer led to her children being returned about a month later. By that time, Mrs. Mackert had given up hope, not realizing what legal assistance and resources were available to her.

This is one of several difficulties that women and children face in adapting to life in a nonpolygamous society, she said. Obtaining adequate counseling and therapy also can be difficult.

“Any time I tried to get psychiatric help, I had to educate them,” she said. “It could take months.”

Additionally, having been excommunicated from the FLDS for apostasy, Mrs. Mackert had no friends or family to whom she could turn.

Yet the most haunting aspect of departing the FLDS was the perpetual feeling that she would be condemned to hell for having rejected polygamy.

“The only way they would allow me to leave was for me to accept that I was damned,” she said, adding that she was petrified of people in the real world.

The children seized by Texas law enforcement will require a lot of emotional and psychological support, Mrs. Mackert said.

“Life in the FLDS is so restrictive that when these children finally get out, believing they’re condemned to hell, unless there are good people in place to help them navigate through all this the kids that have left have ended up with alcohol problems, drug problems, stripping and prostitution, crime and prison,” she said. “When you believe you’re damned to hell, you begin to live it.”

Young men are particularly vulnerable to crime and prison, Mrs. Mackert said, because they lack the education and the skills to find employment, have been raised to disrespect the laws of the outside world and to “tell the truth to the FLDS but lie to everyone else.”

In what has been called the “lost boys phenomena” by social workers and law enforcement, a large number of teenage boys will find themselves excommunicated for minor infractions once they reach puberty.

“The older men don’t want fresh competition for the young girls,” Mrs. Mackert said.

The teenaged boys are then left on the street to fend for themselves.

“Most of these young men don’t make it,” Mrs. Mackert said, especially if they’ve been sexually molested. “Many end up committing suicide.”

Former FLDS member Carl J. Holm understands all too well the plight of lost boys. The 44-year-old Utah resident left the FLDS when he was 16. His parents and most of his 34 siblings still belong to the sect.

“It was nice to have a large family,” Mr. Holm said, “but we also had a lot of restrictions.”

He was not allowed to leave his yard or associate with other children in his neighborhood. He was physically abused and heard stories about sexual abuse from females within the community.

“You have a girl who’s under 16 being married off and having children,” he said. “That’s child abuse.”

Mr. Holm underwent his own legal difficulties prior to leaving the FLDS.

“There was a lot of anger and bitterness in my life, and I was trying to strike out,” he said, adding that the resources available to lost boys today were not available when he left.

The polygamous lifestyle has affected Mr. Holm’s relationship with his own wife and children, he said. For instance, he is still timid about the outside world.

For this reason, Mr. Holm has provided shelter and support to many lost boys making their way out of the FLDS and into wider society.

About half of the lost boys choose to leave because they find the abuse and restrictions unbearable, he said, while the other half are forced out when they begin competing with the older men for the young women.

Mr. Holm supports Texas’ removal of the children from the compound.

“This is not an issue about their faith but about what the FLDS is doing to young boys and girls,” he said.

Kathleen Mackert, Rena Mackert’s sister, expressed the same feelings. As a victim of abuse from a young age, she first tried to commit suicide when she was 6.

One week past her 18th birthday, she was forced to marry her stepbrother, with whom she had been raised in the same household and who was 10 years her senior.

“We were relatively close in age compared to many marriages,” she said. “It’s very confusing emotionally; one day he’s your brother and the next day he’s your husband.”

Although Kathleen Mackert was 18 when she married, several of her sisters married when they were 17, and she knows of younger marriages still.

“My brother married a 14-year-old,” she said.

These experiences take years of therapy to overcome, she said, because even the most minor incident can trigger traumatic childhood memories.

“I would have a complete nervous breakdown if a man told me I was beautiful, because that’s what my father would say before he molested me,” she said. “I applaud the State of Texas for the way they’re handling this. What’s going on down there has nothing to do with religion but with children being abused.”

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