When a child is born into the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints, he or she learns quickly that "perfect obedience produces perfect faith."
In the rise and fall of the Warren Jeffs dynasty, families along the Utah-Arizona border have been uprooted for years. With little to no education, job skills or social skills, the women who mothered sometimes dozens of children had to learn to fend for themselves — some bearing the burden of caring for their children alone or facing reality while being exiled from their families and the only community they've ever known.
More often than not, ex-FLDS families are plagued with suicide, drug addiction or they've been completely ostracized from their relatives. Large families resulted from plural marriage, which added to the social pressure to remain faithful to FLDS teachings as to not receive that same fate. In a religion with a sharp focus on women working within the home and raising their children, former FLDS mothers are learning how to negotiate their own salvation with caring for those around them.
But the only group offering support from the inside after poignant turning points in the community's history has only been in existence for just one year. Creekers Foundation CEO Leona Bateman started the nonprofit as a way for women in Short Creek to gain social skills, get support from women with similar experiences, and otherwise fill a void in the community while recovering from a religious "brainwashing."
"I've seen so much change through Creekers Foundation that I can't stop even if I wanted to," Bateman said.
When her husband had convinced her they were leaving Short Creek nearly five years ago, Bateman knew she was going "straight to hell."
She still lived in the shroud of Jeffs' teachings and believed apostates were equal to the devil. She feared that supernatural forces would create a lightning strike at any moment upon the wicked. She was afraid to lose more of her family members.
So upon hearing her husband tell her he'd known their successful business' assets were being liquidated into the church, and, perhaps for some of Jeffs' personal luxuries, Bateman fled to Spring Creek, Nevada, and said her mental health was headed downhill fast.
“If you're not making it to heaven, you're a bad mother, you're a bad wife, and you're destroying your children.”
Leona Bateman, CEO of the Creekers Foundation"If you're not 100 percent faithful and someone tells on you, you'd lose your family instantly and you got kicked out," Bateman said. "If you're not making it to heaven, you're a bad mother, you're a bad wife, and you're destroying your children."
Bateman comes from a family of 32 brothers and sisters and has 12 children of her own. At age 15, her son was kicked out of the congregation by Jeffs.
"We didn't have anything to do with our son for about another 15 years," Bateman said. "We had talked to him a few times, but we didn't let the family see him. It's very common, it happens with everybody in the FLDS."
Her son was dropped off in St. George, and Bateman said he was in and out of prison after getting involved in drugs. Eventually, he got clean, and the family welcomed him back after they reconnected, realizing it was a mistake to distance themselves from him.
At that time, the state was giving Short Creek residents their homes back after they had been seized in light of the United Effort Plan. While they only planned to clear out their home and get back out of town, Bateman said her children, including her oldest son, begged her to stay. They've now been back for just over a year and a half.
"We decided to stay just until the end of the school year, but we ended up loving it," Bateman said.
But, unbeknownst to her, her son was again involved with drugs shortly after their return. He later committed suicide.
"I don't know exactly why he did it, but I do," she said. "He didn't want to disappoint us again, and he couldn't live with himself."
The Creekers Foundation was born in memory of her son, as well as the women in the community who have family members who met with the same fate. But even with the winds of change blowing through the area, Bateman said she's been met with resistance from the community, and she sometimes fears the unknown.
"With nine sons, I've been scared that another is going to kill himself," Bateman said, adding that her brother also hung himself years ago when she was still an FLDS member. She said she couldn't help him because he was an apostate.
"There's probably not a family that hasn't been affected with some kind of suicide," Bateman said.
Margaret Williams grew up in Colorado City and has remained in the town her entire life, but she was never involved in the FLDS group. As a kindergarten teacher, Williams has seen parents slowly make the transition to begin allowing their kids to attend public school.
Oftentimes, Williams will sit down and talk with mothers who were craving to just have someone listen. She said some mothers would sit and talk with her for hours.
"I would just have tears streaming down my face and I'd say, 'I honor you,'" Williams said. "The courage that it took even for them to take their children and enroll them into public school ... It was huge."
One generation in particular, aged around 10-18, are perhaps having the hardest time adjusting to public school and maintaining their education, since the timing coincides with Jeffs' time as the prophet, Williams said.
Home schooling was the only acceptable option for most families, but there were also restrictions on the children who went to public or private schools, like not being able to read books with animals in them.
"I remember being embarrassed when the teachers asked me about that, but it's very real," said Joan Barlow, a member of the Girlfriend's Club, a support group for FLDS and ex-FLDS women. She's the mother of 19 children.
Without socialization, sometimes even within their own families, children entered school grades behind and lost much of their natural sense of curiosity, Williams said.
As they grow up and move on from the strict teachings of the church, many youth — sometimes as young as 15 — are placed on the streets without knowing hardly anything of the world outside of Short Creek. Oftentimes, the inability to say "no" to drugs was the cost of their freedom.
“As a culture, we're taught to just hold it all inside, put on a face, and raise the kids.”
Joan Barlow, Girlfriend's Club member
Ashlee Barlow, a Girlfriend's Club member, left the church when she was 16 years old. After her parents' divorce, she chose to live with her mother, who was an apostate. She said she was seen as "more wicked than the wicked" and had to watch as many of her friends fell victim to drug abuse.
They were taught to not seek help, Barlow said.
"If your kid was on drugs, you didn't talk about it, you didn't tell your friends that your son was kicked out, and you hid your sins," Bateman said.
"As a culture, we're taught to just hold it all inside, put on a face, and raise the kids," Joan Barlow said.
Some families didn't even leave their own homes, Bateman said. She said the lack of socialization plagues many FLDS women, even those who have been out for years.
"I’ve heard a lot of the young girls, they say that they can't even go to work without even taking a shot of whiskey or vodka to even speak up or get a job," Bateman said.
Physical abuse was allegedly a common occurrence in the church before Jeffs became the prophet. One of the reasons Jeffs was an admirable leader among FLDS women was because he ruled that any man who physically abused a woman or a child was "out," Bateman said.
Today, sexual and mental abuse is allegedly more common. Women who are disobedient are oftentimes forced to sleep in trailers, given little food, and forbidden to communicate with others. Bateman said, even in her own marriage, if she didn't obey her husband, he would refuse to sleep with her for a long time.
The repercussions of the intense isolation and sexual abuse echo into these women's lives outside of the FLDS community.
"We’re getting so much worldly attention that all these young girls are getting taken advantage of," Bateman said. "They’ve never dated, they don't know how to say 'no,' they don’t know it’s OK to not be submissive."
That's why Norma Dockstader decided to get involved and offer martial arts and self-defense classes under Creekers Foundation to the women and girls in the area.
"We need to offer self-protection for these women because rape is happening," Dockstader said. "We want to teach them how to get out of that situation."
Bateman said she could recite hundreds of stories of sexual abuse, suicide and drug use within the community, which is why there are still so many FLDS members to this day.
"They're scared that if they leave, they're going to live on the streets or in prison because they can't make it alone," Bateman said.
As their children leave — either by choice when they come of age or by exile before that — the women in Short Creek now at least feel like they don't need to do it all alone.
By helping the children through assisting the mothers in the community, Bateman said they're able to move along 10 times faster than they ever could.
Barlow said it's "bizarre" to watch adults in the community process out of the religion.
"On one hand, they'll make the leap, but they'll hang on to certain pieces," she said.
According to Bateman, they figured about 40 women would show up to the Girlfriend's Club's first event, but more than 200 people came.
“People die for freedom, and I finally understand that.”
Leona Bateman, CEO of the Creekers FoundationSince then, Creekers has held 35 educational workshops and several social events. The foundation will bring on programs as needed, and it has four so far: The Girlfriend's Club, Brave Youth, Gems Mentoring, and Evolve.
"The whole attitude of the women in the Girlfriend's Club has shifted from victim to victor," Williams said
"People die for freedom, and I finally understand that," Bateman said. "I've been through hell since I left, but I would never go back."
For information on the Creekers Foundation and its programs, go online to creekersutah.com.