The Exiled Children of Utah

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Douglas C. Pizac / Getty (2)

Merril Shapley (right) testifies at the trial of Warren Jeffs (left)

Warren Jeffs, head of the breakaway polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), has been convicted in a St. George, Utah, court, of being an accomplice to rape, for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her first cousin. He faces other charges in Arizona and federal court. While this first case focused on the marriage of a young girl, many young boys' lives have been severely affected by the FLDS, and the Utah trial opened a window into their sad stories.

Take Merril Shapley, who testified last week. He was unsure, nervous and scared as he sat in the witness box just feet from the man he regarded as The Prophet. Warren Jeffs had chosen Shapley's wife, announced it to them both and within hours had presided over their marriage. Shapley, 24, a construction worker, had been called by the defense to persuade the jury that "Uncle Warren" was a gentle man who helped steer young couples through troubled marital waters.

Clearly nervous when asked to spell his name, Shapley slowly said "M...E...R...R...I....L" punctuating each letter with a swallow. He had left school at eight years old to join his father's construction crew, he said, and works as a framer in booming southeastern Utah, building townhouses for retirees and outlet malls for tourists. Like most FLDS members, he was not accustomed to conversation with strangers.

For Elaine Tyler, the founder of Hope Organization, which works in St. George to salvage the young lives shattered by the FLDS culture, Shapley is a public glimpse of what she sees as the "dirty little secret" of the booming town of St. George — the use of child labor, dubbed "mission work" by the FLDS, to outbid competing construction companies. Tyler worries that the number of "kids from the creek" is reaching critical mass. The expulsions and runaways continue. "They are living someone else's madness," Jensen said.

The construction crews work across the region, but home is Hildale, Utah, and neighboring Colorado City, Arizona, two ramshackle settlements 40 miles from St. George and set on a high prairie in a glorious mountain setting. For every tongue-tied Merril Shapley who has chosen to stay, there are other boys, perhaps as many as 1,000 or more, who have been cast into exile for offenses as trivial as acting out or watching forbidden movies. Dubbed the "Lost Boys," — exiled boys far outnumber girls — they live in low rent apartments or on the street, in the backs of cars in St. George, or Salt Lake City, even as far away as Las Vegas and Phoenix. They live rough-and-tumble lives, sometimes getting in minor trouble for drinking and fighting, others falling deep into tragedy and drug addiction, some even work as prostitutes on the Vegas strip.

Shapley's cousin, 17-year-old John Smith [a pseudonym at his request since he has family in Hildale] was expelled three years ago — an elder brother, one of 12 siblings, came to him one day after work and told him and his 13-year-old brother to pack their things and go. "I was kicked out for being a teenager," Smith said. He and other kids would buy small televisions and build huts or underground hideaways in the mountains where they would watch movies. Their behavior — much of it typical for teenagers "in the world," as they call the non-FLDS realm — would prompt admonitions from elders like "If you are not worthy, you can't get married."

Critics and state officials say the reason so many young men are expelled is not because they are failing to meet priestly standards, but for darker reasons: to winnow the bachelor pool so the group's leadership can add more young wives to their families. "No matter what happens to Jeffs, there's going to be a huge problem with little girls marrying old men, and huge problems with kicking boys out so they can marry these little girls," Tyler said. [Adults are exiled too. A year before Smith was expelled, his father was "kicked out" and his mother, who had 12 children by him, was married to another man with six wives.]

Smith does not like to be called a "Lost Boy." He and his fellow exiles, including his 16-year-old girlfriend, call themselves the "kids from the creek" — a reference to Short Creek, which runs through the border community. He has been working, like his cousin Shapley, as a framer since he was 13. "I know how to work; people from the world would be probably be more lost than us if they had to," Smith said. Now, he works for a non-FLDS construction company, sharing an apartment with several other exiles. "I spend my money on cars, bikes and hospital bills," Smith said, explaining that bike-riding at skateboard parks is his passion.

Awareness of the plight of the "kids from the creek" began in Utah about four years ago. Volunteers working with street kids and runaways began to notice a new breed of homeless teen who didn't have the survival and social skills other teens had. But long before public awareness began to rise, Brenda Jensen, a co-director at Hope Organization, took runaway boys into her home. She fled the FLDS 30 years ago and married a fellow exile from another polygamist group.

"They don't have the spontaneity you expect in a young person, they look like war refugees," Jensen said. The biggest difficulty for the "kids from the creek" is lack of social skills. "No responsibility for their actions is taught — God said they should do it, or the brethren said do it, or the Prophet said do it — there's no personal responsibility."

Their allegiance to each other and family members makes pursuing legal redress difficult, according to Paul Murphy, an assistant to Utah's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. Any attempts to try to hold parents accountable has been rebuffed by the boys. In meetings with Shurtleff, Murphy said, the kids have warned they would stop cooperating if agencies moved against their parents.

State legislators passed a new law permitting exiled kids to seek emancipation in court, allowing them to take charge of some of their affairs — getting a driver's license, or a copy of birth certificate to enroll in school. In St. George, the juvenile justice system requires the exiles to get a GED, counseling and drug treatment. Smith, who had been forbidden from continuing at school in Hildale, is studying for his GED at night and while reading is difficult, math is no problem. "I do that all day," he said, referring to his carpentry work.