Carolyn Jessop

It has been a busy month for Carolyn Jessop.

In addition to myriad media interviews, promoting a best-selling book and taking care of her family, she just returned last week from her third trip to Texas helping educate government workers, volunteers and professionals about the unique culture of the Fundamentalist LDS Church.

Jessop, Shannon Price and other Utahns have been sharing their insights into the religion with Texas authorities. Both Jessop and Price still strongly believe Texas is doing the right thing by placing more than 450 children into state custody and investigating allegations of abuse.

"There's a level of concern and a professionalism and a desire to do the right thing there that continues to amaze me," said Price, director of the Diversity Foundation, which provides assistance for former members of polygamous lifestyles.

But as a woman who used to live among them, Jessop says the daily headlines from Texas continue to stir up a mixture of emotions for her.

"It's horribly conflicting because if I didn't escape when I did, I would be behind that guard tower in Texas with no escape, with my children taken away from me," Jessop said. "And I don't see myself as a bad mother."

At age 18, Jessop says, she was forced to become then 50-year-old Merril Jessop's fourth wife. Jessop is the leader of the YFZ Ranch, and she said he serves as the first counselor of the FLDS Church.

"For me, the thing that is heartbreaking is when I see the faces of people such as Sally, who's a wonderful person, who has a handicapped son," she said. "It breaks my heart. But protecting the children has to be the priority."

Price also feels conflicted. She has family members who belong to the FLDS Church and has personally known some of its past leaders.

"That fence is not a gated community. It's a fence to keep people in and others out," Price said.

"There are very bad people in this community that have asked good people to do bad things and bad people to do bad things," she said, adding that many women, children and men have been victimized.

"When I look at the long-term health of this community there's a lot of sorrow there. But I have to still have hope."

Jessop has no doubt that the troubles the group is facing in Texas are because of one man — Warren Jeffs, considered by FLDS to be their prophet.

"The Warren era has completely taken this community apart," she said. "There are so many fundamental values that held us together for generations that he wiped out."

Growing up in the communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, Jessop said the standard age for a girl to be married was 18. That standard was raised to 21, she said, but Jeffs lowered it back to 18, then even lower.

"Then he took it down to 15, and the community didn't like that," she said. "Warren just took this thing apart from the inside out."

Jessop recalls being appalled at Jeffs' alleged actions involving alcohol, which she said is allowed by many in the church but not in excess. She described some of his pregnant wives "self-medicating" with alcohol at his encouragement.

"They had happy little drunk babies very often," Jessop said. "In my opinion, that was child abuse."

Strict and unusual mandates involving the elimination of the color red and pets and historical literature from the community were also extremely troubling for Jessop, and she lost all respect for him.

"If the society had not changed in such a severe way, although I wasn't happy in my marriage, it wasn't severe enough that I would have escaped," she said.

Jessop is angry that so many mothers refused to cooperate with authorities and identify their children. "They're accountable for their kids being in the system right now," she said.

Her biggest fear now is that the group will band together to protect their leaders at the cost of losing the children.

Price said that given the sheer numbers of children and the difficult behaviors of the parents, she's amazed that Texas officials have stepped to the plate to protect the children.

"This is a huge expense and undertaking to them," she said. "But it's not unlike it was with (Hurricane) Katrina. You see the devastation, and you have to go in and do something about it."


E-mail: bwest@desnews.com