People who flee polygamy may become eligible for victim reparations grants

Tonia Tewell (left), seen here at Weber State University in 2013, testified Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, at the Utah Capitol in favor of a bill to make victims of polygamy eligible for state reparations grants. Tewell is founder of Holding Out Help, a nonprofit that assists people who flee abusive polygamist situations.

SALT LAKE CITY — Women who fled polygamist clans told stories of sexual abuse and family destitution, urging Utah lawmakers to make victims eligible for state reparations grants.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 7-0 Friday afternoon in favor of House Bill 214, sponsored by Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden.

The measure, which now goes to the House floor, specifies that victims of bigamy would be allowed to apply for assistance grants from the Utah Office for Victims of Crime. The agency helps cover crime victims’ medical care and mental health counseling, among other expenses.

Nicole Van Tassell Henderson said she left the United Apostolic Brethren in 2016.

“I had 15 children in 19 years, which in itself is a form of domestic abuse,” she told the committee, according to an audio recording of the meeting. “I am trying to save those children and stop the cycle of abuse.”

Three former wives of the Kingston clan, also known as the Davis County Cooperative Society, said many people who have fled polygamy would benefit from the bill.

“A lot of people who leave polygamy end up in abusive relationships because they are not getting the therapy they need,” said Emily Tucker, who left the Kingston group in 2001. “This bill will help with that.”

Luann Cooper said she left the Kingstons 18 years ago “and I have been in and out of therapy since.”

A woman who was married to a Kingston disciple for 10 years, Melissa Ellis, said her husband was pursuing girls from 12 to 18 years old to become plural wives and she finally could stand it no longer.

“I stopped sleeping with him and so he raped me,” she said.

One day she saw a billboard promoting Holding Out Help, a nonprofit that aids former polygamist members.

“I took my four kids and a suitcase and left,” she said.

Brielle Decker, a former wife of Warren Jeffs, head of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints polygamist group, told the committee she’s now an activist for victims, and she still needs help herself.

“I recently came off of Medicaid myself and could really use the therapy funds,” Decker said.

Tonia Tewell, founder of the Holding Out Help nonprofit group, told several “horrific” stories of women, children and teen boys who were abused and either fled or were kicked out.

“We’re not for or against polygamy,” she told lawmakers. “It would be bad for me to paint a picture that every polygamist is neglectful or abusive.”

Nevertheless, the needs of those who have been hurt are great, Tewell said.

When people leave the abusive situations and reach a helpful environment, they find it difficult to talk and are “emotionally shut down,” said Larry Beall, director of the Trauma Awareness and Treatment Center.

“I want to affirm that the medical and mental health needs are real,” Beall said. “Post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression. ... There’s like a stage they have to go through as they leave to have physical safety first and then a process of gaining emotional safety.”

Data from Tewell’s nonprofit shows that of people it has helped, 89 percent had no assets, 92 percent were abused and 75 percent were sexually abused. Almost all suffer from PTSD and many have no more than an eighth-grade education.

“In many cases these individuals were born or were coerced into these situations,” Andersen said. “To free themselves, these victims often leave everything they know behind and generally have zero family support.”

Victims can apply for grants even in cases where crimes are not prosecuted or suspects convicted. Gary Scheller, director of the crime victims agency, said only eight bigamy cases have been filed in Utah courts since 2012.

The fund is financed by fines and surcharges levied against people convicted of crimes.

Andersen, a retired accountant, is volunteer coordinator for Family Promise of Ogden, a group that helps homeless children.

“It’s a victims’ advocate bill, not necessarily an anti-polygamy or a law enforcement bill,” Andersen told the committee. “We hope this bill will help others get out before suffering this abuse.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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