ST. GEORGE — Those who choose to exit polygamous communities frequently rely upon the assistance of outsiders.

Holding Out HELP founder Tonia Tewell speaks during fundraising event, St. George, Utah, Nov. 17, 2023 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“It is because of the kindness of some very good people … that my kids were able to escape,” said Jeff Black, one of the featured speakers at Holding Out HELP’s annual fundraiser in St. George earlier this month.

Another participant, private attorney Roger Hoole, said, “These kids, they don’t recognize that they’re being victimized. They just don’t. It’s all they know. They live in fear and they don’t even recognize the fear that they’re dealing with.”

Nevertheless, Hoole said there are plenty of little things people can do to help. 

During the event’s Q&A session, panelists suggested reaching out with acts of kindness, such as offering a plate of cookies or asking for help doing yard work.

One mother named Gladys, a former polygamist whose last name was withheld, spoke of positive interactions she’d had with strangers while shopping in a store.

“One person said, ‘Can I just give you a hug?’ and it meant the world to me,” Gladys said, adding that another person gave her $20 and said, “I feel like you need this.”

“If someone handed my daughters a gift card, or $20, or whatever, they could stash that away until they have enough to buy that phone so they can make that phone call,” Gladys added.

“People might shun, push it away and not want it,” she added. “Don’t give up. Keep trying.”

Added Hoole: “There are so many little things you can do to start helping them open their eyes a little bit. And we know it works because a lot of people have come out and they tell them their stories. It can take years of little teeny things before they’ll get to a point where they can consider maybe leaving.”

Such a process can take years, he said.

Panelists answer questions from audience members during annual fundraising event for Holding Out HELP, St. George, Utah, Nov. 17, 2023 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“It’s very difficult,” Hoole said. “I believe that a lot of the FLDS who are completely devoted, in the back of their minds, they have that little thought and they’re trying to push that thought away all the time. But that little thought is there, that it’s not right.”

Hoole encouraged people to go out of their way to befriend those in the FLDS community.

“Any little thing you can do to help them and let them know that you’re not evil, you’re not mean and you’re not going to hurt them, will make a difference,” Hoole added. “And then, at some point, they’ll come to your house and they’ll say, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ or they’ll ask for some follow-up, and then it turns into a different thing.”

Approximately 160 people attended the two-hour fundraising event, which took place at South Mountain Community Church in St. George. 

As she welcomed the attendees, Holding Out HELP founder Tonia Tewell said the nonprofit organization’s mission is “to provide those from a polygamous culture, the care, support and resources to become independent and self-sufficient.”

Tewell said she started the organization nearly 16 years ago after she and her husband first took in a mother and children who were seeking to quit living a polygamous lifestyle.

“Esther, who is your emcee tonight, landed on our family’s doorstep with her four precious children,” Tewell recalled. “After she left, we had family after family in our home for three years straight.”

Tewell noted that there are currently an estimated 60,000 fundamentalists who practice polygamy in North America. Although most live in Utah and neighboring states, they can also be found in other areas of the country along with parts of Canada and Mexico, she added.

The majority of polygamists belong to or are affiliated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, although there are a number of other smaller groups, including Apostolic United Brethren.

Leandra Black (left) and her parents Erna and Jeff Black answer questions about their experiences within the FLDS community during annual fundraising event for Holding Out Help, St. George, Utah, Nov. 17, 2023 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“These people that live in these communities are so kind, they’re so sincere, they’re God-fearing, they’re hardworking,” Tewell said. 

Nevertheless, she said, they have been indoctrinated to abide by whatever their prophet and other top church leaders tell them to do.

“If he says, ‘I want your 12-year-old daughter to go to another family, or your 12-year-old daughter to go marry this man or your 12-year-old son to go into the workforce, I’m going to do exactly that,’” Tewell said, expressing how those who comply typically respond. “Because the consequences can be dire otherwise, and you could lose your family. You could lose your community. You could lose your salvation. And worse yet, whatever you do, you could lose your children’s salvation. So you’re going to do exactly what you’re told.”

Speaking from her own experience, Esther added, “I think for any parent, this is pretty much their worst fear: to be separated from your children, and not to know where they are or what is happening to them, especially in a community where sex and labor trafficking are very real experiences.”

During his remarks, private investigator Sam Brower spoke of his extensive work with former and current members of the FLDS community.

He also talked about Warren Jeffs, the 67-year-old self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS Church, who is currently serving a life sentence in Texas for aggravated sexual assault of a child.

“Warren Jeffs has been locked up since 2006,” Brower said. “He’s been in there for quite a long time. I actually think he’s starting to like it there because he can keep doing the same things. He can keep pushing the envelope, keep taking advantage of people, keep ruining people’s lives and doing what narcissistic demigods do, without having to worry about being on the run or anything like that.”

Displayed on a large screen behind Brower as he spoke were pages of text containing selected revelations from Jeffs, as relayed through one of his would-be successors, Helaman Barlow Jeffs. 

“Hi everybody, I brought my scriptures,” Brower quipped. “They’re just not mine. These are the scriptures from the dark side.”

Brower said that many years ago, when he started looking into what was happening in the FLDS community, he couldn’t believe it.

“It blew my mind,” he said. “I mean, I had no idea something like that could happen in America, that somebody would have the power to tell the families that you guys are not going to be married anymore, that your children aren’t your children anymore, and you’re going to be required to call somebody else father. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

“I found out that it went on, repeatedly, over and over again in this community … And the depths of that kind of depravity of their prophet, Warren Jeffs, is just unbelievable.

Private investigator Sam Brower speaks during annual fundraising event for Holding Out HELP, St. George, Utah, Nov. 17, 2023 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“So when I’m asked the question if the trafficking is still going on, you don’t have to take my word for it,” he added, pointing to the text on the screen. “It says it right here in these papers. So it’s probably wise to listen to him, to take Warren at his word when it comes to that.”

During the panel discussion, Washington County Sheriff’s Lt. Aaron Thompson spoke of the challenges of pursuing criminal charges against polygamist leaders. He pointed out that it was a food stamp fraud case that ultimately landed FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs in prison.

“That was the discussion that we had throughout my case with the other agents that were involved in this was, you know, how do we take this to court and not make it about religion when it’s a religion that turned into a criminal organization that’s controlling the people?” Thompson said. “If there are crimes being committed, they’re not going to use a cloak of religion to be able to get out of those,”

Jeff Black, whose daughter Leandra was also one of the featured speakers and panelists, said the tactics used by Warren Jeffs were “dehumanizing” and “done through fear.”

“Literally, you had to dehumanize yourself, from the standpoint that you could not have feelings,” he said. “People were being sent away because Warren said, ‘Oh, you had the wrong thought.’ You had to control every thought … one thought will get you sent away.

“Some of these children … it surprises them when the so-called wicked Gentiles are nice to them and treat them like humans. They’re sometimes not used to that because they’ve been so dehumanized through the process that they have been put through.”

Black noted that he and his wife Erna are one of the “lucky few” ex-FLDS families who have all of their children with them. The family was reunited in 2017 when their oldest daughter stepped in and rescued her siblings who were being harbored out of state. The Blacks have shared their story publicly on the “Growing Up in Polygamy” YouTube channel.

Also in attendance at the fundraising event were two authors who’ve written first-hand accounts about their experiences. Charlene Paul, author of “Devotion Deception Deliverance – Isaac’s Story,” and Kristyn Decker, author of “Fifty Years in Polygamy,” had copies of their works for sale.

A couple of videos were also shown during the event, including a three-minute clip from ABC’s Dateline.

At the conclusion of the evening, Tewell thanked all those who participated and attended for their support and said an information meeting will be held in early January or those who want to sign up as volunteers. 

For more information about Holding Out HELP or to make a donation, visit the organization’s website, email or call 801-548-3492.

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