The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did nothing to protect two Navajo children from sexual abuse in the 1970s and early 1980s while they were enrolled in a program to convert and assimilate Native American students, according to a lawsuit filed in Navajo Nation District Court last week.
The plaintiffs are asking for unspecified damages, as well as a letter of apology to them and to the entire Navajo Nation; a change in church policy requiring church members to report charges of sexual abuse to the police; and the creation of a task force that would help to restore the Navajo culture that some participants say the program effectively erased.
Now-adult siblings RJ and MM—The Daily Beast does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse—left their home on a reservation in Sawmill, Arizona, at ages 10 and 11, respectively, to be part of the Mormon church’s Indian Student Placement Program, a controversial voluntary foster care initiative that baptized some 40,000 children between 1947 and 2000 and brought them to live with white, Mormon families during the school year.
During his year in the program, RJ says, he was sporadically sexually molested by members of his foster family. When he told an LDS Social Services caseworker—a paid employee tasked with overseeing the safety and well-being of Native children in their new homes—RJ was moved to another foster family. But the alleged abuse continued, both for him and for his older sister, MM. According to the complaint, MM was raped by a friend of her foster family and later molested by her foster father.
No criminal charges were filed at the time, according to the plaintiff’s attorneys.
The LDS Church did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast. In a statement released last week, it said: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind and works actively to prevent abuse. The Church will examine the allegations and respond appropriately.”
Yet the complaint alleges that the Mormon church “failed to take reasonable steps and failed to implement reasonable safeguards to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by certain foster family members.” Furthermore, it says the church had no system in place or procedure to supervise employees and volunteers to ensure the children’s safety.
In fact, the LDS Social Services was inadequately staffed, according to a report in Indian Country Today, which reported that in 1966 there were only 19 caseworkers for 1,569 Native students in the program.
“Some students were on the program for years and never saw one,” Brigham Young University professor Jessie Embry told a reporter.
“It’s more than just the sexual abuse, it’s the cultural harm,” the siblings’ attorney, Craig Vernon, told The Daily Beast.
“Doctrine didn’t give them the right to take [RJ and MM] off the reservation because they thought it was the fulfillment of a prophecy. Everybody’s got the right to believe what they want to believe. The First Amendment protects that. But when you encroach upon someone else’s culture in order to fulfill your own prophecy, which is what they did, it is damaging and there’s no surprise that abuse happens because of the fact that these people were seen as literally second-class citizens.”
Indeed, though some former participants in the program say Mormon foster families gave them educational opportunities that the reservation and their birth families could not, a chorus of others argues that the perhaps well-intentioned program was driven by racist ideology and left cultural, physical, and psychological scars on thousands of Native American children.
The Lamanite Student Placement Program, as it was originally known, was started informally in 1947 with a single student; by its peak in the 1970s, some 5,000 Indian children were living as foster kids in the care of white Mormon families.
The program wasn’t purely benevolent. Native Americans hold a special place in Mormon mythology. According to The Book of Mormon, American Indians are descendents of the Lamanites, a tribe from ancient Israel, who had been cursed for their godlessness with darkened skin.
According to the text—supposedly handed down to Joseph Smith on metal plates in 1827—after the Mormons bring the gospel to the Lamanites, “their scale of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be white and delightsome people.”
The LDS church changed the verse in 1981, exchanging “white” for “pure,” but church leaders speaking of the student placement program at the time left little doubt about the literalness with which Mormons read the whitening prophecy.
Speaking before the 1960 General Conference, the LDS church’s then-president and prophet Spencer W. Kimball claimed that the skin of children who moved into white homes during the school year had turned shades lighter.
“The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation,” Kimball said. “At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl—sixteen—sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents—on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather. There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.”
In the 1980 book Without Reservation, Kay Cox, who had taken in 14 Navajo foster children under the program over 16 years, acknowledged the hardships for American Indian kids, including not being able to speak their native tongue at school or to family members. Cox wrote that one Native girl “bathed in Clorox to try to get rid of her brown skin.”
Oral histories, academic papers, and news reports all tell the stories of former child participants who describe being forced to convert, ripped from their families and separated from siblings, and enduring a humiliating rite of passage just to enter the program—being packed into buses, bathed and inoculated by strangers, who then cut their long hair or shaved their heads. Once with their foster families, some children found themselves in a kind of indentured servitude—working on the farm, or being the de facto babysitter for a house of younger children.
On a Facebook group for former participants, one man wrote, “Hopefully the world won’t judge the church and the program too hard due to someone’s terrible action, and hopefully they’ll be prosecuted under the law. The church is still true and I for one, am very grateful the LDS church and Spencer W. Kimball for starting this program. Even though I loved my family on the reservation and hated to leave, the reservation had nothing to offer me, verse what the placement program had.”
The final student to go through the Indian placement program graduated in 2000. The church has never formally discontinued it.