Judge levies nearly $1 million on FLDS church in child labor case, but some say it won’t matter

In this file photo used for illustrative purposes only, FLDS children are seen outside the Dairy Store in Hildale, Utah, Feb. 23, 2016. A judge has ordered the FLDS church, bishop Lyle Jeffs and associate Brian Jessop to pay nearly $1 million in restitution for unpaid child labor | Photo by Kimberly Scott, St. George News

ST. GEORGE —A federal judge has ordered the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, FLDS church bishop Lyle Jeffs and his business contractor Brian Jessop to pay nearly $1 million dollars in back wages and compensation to then-underage FLDS members who worked in local pecan fields from 2008 to 2013. 

This Jan. 21, 2015, file photo shows Lyle Jeffs leaving a federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah | Associated Press  photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

U.S. District Judge Jill N. Parrish delivered the ruling Oct. 27 after reviewing evidence that included a 2012 video captured by CNN showing women and children harvesting nuts at the 125-acre Southern Utah Pecan Ranch in Hurricane. 

The underage workers were procured under the auspices of Jessop’s now-defunct company, Paragon Contractors, and violated the child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to 2019 court documents. 

Jeffs, Jessop and the FLDS church have been told to dole out a total of $593,415.62 in back wages and $312,079.30 in damages. 

Shirlee Draper is a former FLDS church member and director of Cherish Families, a nonprofit based in Colorado City, Arizona, that provides tools and resources for generational success to individuals and families from an FLDS background. 

Draper told St. George News that she doubts the judge’s sanctions will have any true impact. 

Shirlee Draper, former FLDS member and director of operations for the nonprofit Cherish Families, speaks at a meeting of the Washington County Republican Women, St. George, Utah, Nov. 4, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Sarah Torribio, St. George News

“I think reparations are always appropriate to consider, but I think in this case it’s a little bit of a fool’s errand in that there is no FLDS church really,” she said. “I mean, it consists of Warren Jeffs, and he’s in prison and has no assets, so the chances that there’s ever going to be a dime paid is extremely small.”

Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for aggravated sexual assault of a child under age 14 and sexual assault of a child under age 17. His brother Lyle Jeffs, who served time in federal prison for food stamp fraud, reportedly doesn’t have much money, either. 

“I think this is going to be more of a statement, like a slap on the wrist,” Draper said.

It took a village

In April 2017, Paragon Contractors and Jessop settled a dispute with the U.S. Department of Labor by agreeing to pay $200,000 in back wages to those who worked the pecan fields as kids. 

Draper said the FBI reached out to her at that time, asking her to find people to apply for the reparations. She reached out to people she knew in the community and put the word out on social media. Few opted to file the paperwork. 

“Most of the people I talked to said, ‘You know what? I don’t consider that that was a problem. I learned a lot from it. I don’t have an issue with it,’” Draper said. “There really is that sense, it’s like me and my childhood, that it was a village. I loved my upbringing and I’m not going to go back and say it was horrible.”

A Hildale resident who left Colorado City and the FLDS church in the fall of 2015, told St. George News that she tends to agree. She asked that her real name be withheld to protect her family’s privacy.

She and her family joined in the pecan harvest in 2012 and 2013.

“I had five kids that went every day,” she said. “Yes, they deserve something, but I really doubt they will ever see anything.”

She said that looking back, she views the work as a form of control on the part of a sect that sought to direct every facet of members’ lives, but at the time, she was happy to pitch in. 

“It didn’t feel like abuse, more of a ‘blessing the prophet,’” she said. 

Her kids, now grown, don’t look back at their agricultural work as abuse either, she said, adding that there was a holiday atmosphere to the endeavor.

“It was real fun for us. The kids liked it because when we picked nuts, we didn’t do school,” she said. “Nut gathering was a priority. We loved to sing, mostly religious songs.”

She said that during the pecan harvest, which took place in winter, women and kids age 10 and up worked Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. She acknowledged that the work was sometimes hard. 

“We took bags and picked nuts up off the ground. It was very cold and sometimes rainy,” she said.

Despite the hard work, everyone looked forward to lunchtime, she said.

“The older girls would make soup and sandwiches. They fed us down to the nut field.”

She felt compelled to ultimately leave the FLDS church, she said, because she failed to see the sense in many of the rules and tenets. Still, she holds fond memories of life in the tight-knit community. 

“I really miss the hometown feel that I grew up in,” she said. “I am very proud of my heritage.” 

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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