In March 2016,two Navajo siblings filed suit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—also known as LDS or Mormon Church—in the Window Rock District of the Navajo Nation Court. In their suit, the siblings allege that they were sexually abused numerous times in several homes during their time in the “Indian Placement Program,” a foster care program operated by the church. All names and identifying information of the plaintiffs have been changed to protect their privacy.
‘Wrestling a Shadow’
He had decided to call it quits. After buying two fifths of whiskey and two cases of beer, Plaintiff X had secreted himself away in a hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah, planning to drink himself to death. For more than three decades, he had been haunted by memories of violent physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Mormon foster parents, with whom he was placed in the seventh grade. By early 2014, however, the weight of his past had reached a point where he could no longer face the prospect of living another day in pain.
“I drank for five days straight,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in an exclusive interview in Ogden, Utah, in September. “I wanted to end it.”
But on the fifth day, he fell into unconsciousness and wound up in a Salt Lake City hospital with life-threatening liver and kidney damage. When he came to, the doctors told him in no uncertain terms that if he did not quit drinking he would die.
It was a turning point for the shy, 48-year-old Navajo Nation citizen. After dropping out of high school in the 10th grade, he started drinking heavily and spent the next 33 years running from his demons. On his hospital bed, confronted with the very real prospect of leaving his wife and family, X made the decision to turn and fight.
“There was a lot of suffering that went on, a lot of self-doubt, a lot of suppression,” he says quietly. “I kept [the abuse] hidden. I didn't tell anyone. But I was angry. I didn't trust white people. I was never a person who talked a lot. I kept it all inside, and it nearly killed me.”
When he was released from the hospital, X returned to the only place that he felt could help him on the long road to healing, the only place where he would be understood: His home community on Navajo Nation territory in New Mexico. During the next several months, he fasted, went on long walks and prayed. He turned to traditional methods to begin healing not only his body, but his mind and spirit, which had been broken by years of alcohol, depression, anxiety and sleeplessness, common symptoms among many survivors of sexual abuse.
Against all odds, he got sober in June 2014 but still he wrestled with the shadow of the abuse that he had suffered during his time in the LDS foster program.
This spring, however, all of that was about to change.
‘Something Rose Up In Me’
On March 25, 2016, X was reading the morning newspaper when he came across a headline that stopped him cold: Sex Abuse Claim Filed by Navajo Siblings. Immediately, he was riveted by the story of a brother and sister—now both adults—who allege they were sexually abused numerous times during their time in the LDS Family Services program operated exclusively by the Mormon Church.
For X, who was by then sober and back with his family, the story was all too familiar. Like the siblings in the lawsuit he, too, had been a victim of physical, emotional, cultural and sexual abuse during his time in church-sanctioned foster care. He, too, had told his caseworker, who did nothing; he had pleaded to go home and was ignored.
“Something rose up in me,” he says, his voice rising in amazement. “I didn't even finish reading the story—I literally jumped up and started pacing. I couldn't believe it. After 35 years, someone finally broke the silence. It finally gave me the courage to come forward and tell my story.”
When he collected himself, X immediately called William Keeler, the Gallup-based attorney who specializes in religious sexual abuse cases and is lead counsel for the siblings. After 35 years, X had a lot to talk about.
“I had kept it all inside for 35 years,” he says. “And Bill's secretary is the first person I ever told. Oh my gosh, I couldn't stop talking—we were on the phone for an hour. I became a plaintiff that same day.”
Shortly afterwards, for the first time in his life, X sat down and began writing about his experiences in the LDS Family Services. As he wrote, the memories that he had tried to bury for so long came flooding back, piece by painful piece.
“I started remembering everything,” he says. “It all started coming back—things that I hadn't thought about in years. All these years of not getting it out was useless. But you have to take back what was taken from you. I cried, but it was tears of joy, because everything that was painful was lifted.”
‘The Lamanite Curse’
From 1947 until 2000, the Mormon Church owned a non-profit corporation known as LDS Social Services, which operated the “Indian Placement Program,” or “Lamanite Placement Program.” The LPP was designed to target and recruit thousands of Indian children from reservations and Indian communities across the country, convert them to Mormonism, and send them to Utah to live with white Mormon families. It is estimated that approximately 50,000 Indian children went through the program.
Defined as an “educational opportunity,” as opposed to foster care, the objective of the LPP was the assimilation and “whitening” of Indian children as a divine imperative outlined in the Book of Mormon, which teaches that there are two distinct phenotypes of Indian people: Nephites, light-skinned, “righteous and civilized people;” and Lamanites, “idle, savage and bloodthirsty,” for which they were “cursed by God” with dark skin.
It was believed that by educating and assimilating Indian children into Mormon culture and religion that they could be “lightened,” thereby breaking their Lamanite (or dark-skinned) “curse” and restoring the prophecy of their redemption. In 2013, the Mormon Church officially renounced the doctrine.
During the following decades after the launch of the program in the late 1940s, however, tribes across the country began complaining bitterly about the tactics and activities of Mormon missionaries on their lands—so much so that when the commissioner of LDS Social Services Harold C. Brown testified at the 1977 Senate hearings on the Indian Child Welfare Act he was repeatedly heckled and booed by the Indian people in the audience, according to those in attendance. Because the church had defined the LPP as an “educational placement,” rather than a “foster placement,” it had fought against early drafts of ICWA that would have required the church to follow federal law, and had vowed to block its passage.
Brown testified that Indian parents had not only “requested” that their children be placed in the program, but that the children were able to terminate their stay “at any time.” He said that caseworkers were required to visit the children “at least” once a month, and were required to visit their Indian parent “at least three times a year.”
In response to questions about tribal notification, Brown replied that the church would have “difficulties” in notifying the tribes as to the whereabouts of their children because tribes “would not know what to do with the information if it came.” Finally, he added, Mormon parents had “a right to privacy and confidentiality." Senator James Abourezk (D-SD), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at the time and the original author of ICWA, struggled to keep order during Brown's testimony, according to transcripts from the hearing.
“There was a great deal of anger, a great deal of angst among Indian people about the Mormon Church's activities on the reservations that emerged during the development and passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act,” says attorney Bert Hirsch, who was the chief of staff for the Association of American Indian Affairs at the time. “They felt that their kids were being 'captured' and weren't being allowed to return to their families—not all of them, but enough that it became a big problem.”
“They fought us tooth and nail during the passage of ICWA,” says Dr. Evelyn Blanchard, (Laguna Pueblo/Yaqui) who has worked in the Indian child welfare field for over 50 years. “Of course, since they were taking kids from jurisdictions from all over the country and sending them to Utah, we wanted them to have some kind of oversight. But we were not successful, because they are powerful and they objected to any kind of authority.”
A compromise was eventually reached, however, when a key provision concerning “educational placements” that would have required the Mormon Church to comply with ICWA was removed from the original language of the Senate bill. ICWA was eventually supported by the church and passed by Congress in 1978—the same year X went to live with his abusers.
‘A Community Torn Asunder’
When X was in the fourth grade, he says that two men in short sleeved white shirts and ties came to his parent’s home on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and spoke to them in English. Because he had only ever spoken Navajo, he did not understand what was happening. But shortly thereafter, he was sent to local LDS classes and baptized into the LDS Church, since non-LDS members were not allowed into the program.
“We didn't know what it was about,” he says. “We didn't know what was going on or where we were going. We were boarding school kids. We were with each other all day, every day, along with our cousins and friends.”
But that familial and community fabric was ripped asunder when X was taken to the local bus station where six Trailways buses were waiting to take him and dozens of other kids in his community to their new homes in Utah.
“Those buses already had kids on them, I could see them through the windows. I could tell they were from other reservations,” he recalls. “ Then they tore us away from our parent’s arms and we were screaming and crying because we didn't know what was happening. We didn't want to go.”
On the bus, X eventually cried himself to sleep. When he woke up, he was in Ogden, Utah. There, he went through another trauma when he was separated from his siblings.
“We were ripped apart again from our own brothers and sisters,” he says. “So that was the second trauma.”
According to court documents, X was sent to live with a Mormon family for his fifth and sixth grade years without incident. But when he returned to Utah for his seventh grade year, he was sent to live with a different family, where his life turned into a nightmare.
Treated more like a “live-in servant” than a member of the family, X says his foster parents made him work and do chores while the couple's biological children read books, hung out in their rooms and got to play, a common refrain among those interviewed by ICTMN in regards to their time in LPP.
Additionally, he says he was marginalized to living in the basement and was treated with contempt and thinly-veiled racism.
“The first thing the foster mother told me was the 'house rules,'” he says. “She told me I had my own glass, plate and silverware, and that I was not to eat or drink from any of their other dishes. The same was true of my sheets and linens. I was never to use any of their things. Ever.”
The physical abuse began occurring almost as soon as he went to live with them, where he was slapped, beaten, pushed down stairs and whipped with a belt. During bible study one morning, for example, X struggled with the pronunciation of a word from one of the scriptures when his foster mother became angry and hit him, drawing blood. When he rode one of the children’s bikes, he says his foster mother pulled him by the hair of the head and twisted his ears until they bled. When he forgot to take out the trash, he was beaten.
Lifting his head, X points a two-inch scar on the bottom of his chin, which he says was caused by his foster father, who slammed his head into the kitchen counter. He pulls his hair back to reveal a bald patch about the size of a golf ball on his hairline—which he says was also caused by his foster father when he shoved X's head into a bookshelf in a fit of anger. In both cases, X says that neither parent sought medical treatment for his injuries and that they kept him from leaving the house for days afterward, instructing him not to tell anyone what had happened.
As time went on, however, X says his foster father also began sexually abusing him on a regular basis, including fondling, sexual molestation and mutual masturbation. Eventually, X began locking his bedroom door and blocking it with an end table at night in an attempt to keep his foster father from entering his room, but it was no use. The father gained entry and continued molesting X, while hiding his actions from his wife. Terrified, X was afraid of him and felt powerless to stop it.
“I hid in the canning room, I hid behind the hot water tank. I tried to keep him out. I cried a lot,” he says. “I just wanted to go home.”
That Christmas, X did go home and says he went straight to his grandparents house and told them in Navajo that he did not want to go back. He also told his mother about the physical abuse, but says he did not disclose the sexual abuse, “Because I was too ashamed. I didn't want them to treat me different.”
But when X returned to his foster parents at the end of the holiday season, he says they were even more harsh and hostile with him. He says his foster father got in his face, telling him, “Don't say a word.”
Around this time, according to X’s account in public court documents, Brother Skadlock, a Mormon caseworker finally showed up—six months into X's stay with the couple. Desperate, X told him, “I'm getting beat up by them and he's touching me.”
Instead of immediately removing the boy from danger and reporting the situation to the police, the caseworker responded by asking X to “stick it out” until the end of the school year. Crying, X told him that he didn't want to wait. The caseworker then asked X to pray with him and then he left.
Afterwards, X said he also reported the abuse to his Boy Scout scoutmaster, who X had respected and hoped would help. The Scout master listened intently and seemed understanding, telling X that he would “see what he could do.” Again, nothing happened. The abuse continued.
Eventually, X was sent to a different home, where things improved. But the damage was done. Haunted by his abuse, he dropped out after the 10th grade and he resorted to alcohol to self-medicate and drown out his psychic trauma.
He eventually married a Navajo woman and had three children, but his heavy drinking continued for the next three decades, culminating in his final descent into suicidal despair in 2014.
‘A Last Resort’
In March, the church and the other defendants were sued in the Window Rock District of the Navajo Nation Tribal Courts. In June, X became a plaintiff and filed his own suit.
Though the Mormon Church did not respond to requests for comment, the church issued a statement in April.
“No court in the United States has held a religious institution responsible for failing to protect its members from abuse by other members. To do so would turn religious institutions into police instruments, its leadership into law enforcement officers.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that their clients had previously sought to address their complaints with the church privately—but they were ignored. These suits were, they say, a last resort.
In its legal response to the lawsuit filings, the Mormon Church disputed the tribe's jurisdiction and counter-sued the Indian plaintiffs, asking a federal judge for the District of Utah in Salt Lake City to remove the case from the Navajo Nation tribal court and transfer it to federal court. At the August hearing, Judge Robert Shelby told the parties that he would take the case “under advisement.” No decision has yet been rendered, though Shelby did issue a restraining order to prevent the case from moving forward in Navajo tribal court.
In August, the Navajo Nation filed a motion to formally intervene as a party in the case, which was granted by Judge Shelby.
“We filed in Navajo Tribal Court because it falls under the tribe's jurisdiction,” says Craig Vernon, lawyer for the plaintiffs. “The church came on to Navajo land specifically to engage in the identification and recruitment of Navajo kids, entered into agreements with tribal members and took Navajo children from their homes over state lines. They were notified repeatedly about the abuses that were happening and not only failed to report, but specifically instructed its members to not cooperate with the authorities. This is a crime. Our clients are looking for answers, thinking that they were the only ones. They deserve their day in court.”
Currently, says Keeler, there are four plaintiffs. “Though we have heard from many others, we're in kind of a holding pattern right now until we see what transpires with the jurisdiction and forum issue.”
As part of their requested relief, the four plaintiffs are seeking letters of apology; a letter of apology to the Navajo Nation; policy changes within the church, as well as unspecified financial damages.
To this day, X still sleeps with the light on at night. It is a leftover coping mechanism from his time in the LPP. By coming forward—both with his lawsuit and by telling his story—he hopes to give others who may have suffered from sexual abuse the courage to seek help.
“The church can't suppress this anymore. They can't hide. They should have stepped up in the beginning,” says X, who now has two grandchildren. “I was cheated in life. But I know now that that is why I survived—because the Creator knew that I could be a healer and help others to heal. I want others to not hide, to tell people what happened. To get help.
“I want them to heal.”