This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
West Valley City • It was Rulon's first week with the Hamiltons. That's when they received what Laura Hamilton calls the "downloads."
Each night, 15-year-old Rulon would tell Laura and her husband, Daniel, about his time living in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Rulon told them he hadn't talked to his father since age 5.
He told them about being seized by child welfare agents in Texas.
He told them about being seized by child welfare agents in Idaho.
He told them about deciding to leave the FLDS last year, only to be arrested by Draper police and put in a juvenile detention center in Utah.
After a few days, Laura and Daniel they wanted to be more than Rulon's foster parents. They wanted to adopt him.
"Ru was immediately a part of the family when he came here," Laura, 38, said in a recent interview at her West Valley City home. "There was no way I was going to leave him without a family."
Adoptions are costly and time-consuming, but Rulon's case was more difficult than it could have been. One factor was Rulon's birth parents, apparently still faithful FLDS members who did not always cooperate with the government or respond to legal notices.
The Hamiltons and their attorney also say they received substandard support from the Utah Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). At one point, an email shows, an employee there discouraged Laura from adopting Rulon.
Tonia Tewell, director of Holding Out Help, which assists people leaving polygamous communities, said Rulon's case is one of the happier ones.
But Tewell said the state frequently tries to send children back to polygamous households, out of what she believes is a reluctance to offend those communities or create protracted legal disputes even in cases in which children are abused or neglected.
"It's out of fear for this freedom-of-religion stuff," said Tewell, adding, "This is not about religion. This is about abuse."
Hildale to Texas • Rulon's biological mother, Marie Holm Steed, had nine children with her first husband, Thomas Steed. When he died in 1988, she became the third wife of his brother, Joseph Steed, and had seven more children with him, including Rulon. He was born in 1999 in Hildale.
Rulon told The Salt Lake Tribune he isn't sure how many siblings he has. One website that tracks polygamous families says Joseph Steed had 13 wives.
When Rulon was 5, FLDS President Warren Jeffs, in one of his many purges, evicted Joseph Steed from the faith. Rulon said he hasn't talked to his father since and has seen him just once at a funeral in Colorado City, Ariz., in 2012.
Rulon's biological mother was reassigned to be a plural wife in another family, and she and her young children were sent to live on the new FLDS ranch in Eldorado, Texas. They were one of the first families sent to live at what Jeffs described as a sanctuary for his handpicked elite. Rulon remembers seeing what became the Yearning For Zion Ranch transform from a big piece of dirt in the desert of southwest Texas to a community with industrial dairies, housing, a school and a temple.
Then, in 2008, Texas authorities received a call from someone claiming to be a girl held on the ranch against her will. The call turned out to be bogus, but once on the YFZ Ranch, law enforcement found teenage girls who were pregnant or caring for their own young children. Texas authorities removed all the children about 430, including 8-year-old Rulon and his full sister from the ranch.
Rulon spent a couple of months in state custody. First he was housed in the pavilion of a Baptist church and then at a historical landmark called Fort Concho. Later, he was taken to a youth ranch near San Antonio, about four hours from the YFZ.
Eventually, Texas returned the children to their families. Rulon went back to live on the YFZ with his mother and remained there until he was 12. He and his family then lived in a series of homes in Hildale and Colorado City. His schooling stopped during that time.
'Worse than a jerk' • When Rulon was 14, his mother, crying, told him Jeffs had a revelation that Rulon had been disobedient and needed to be sent away. Rulon still doesn't know what, if anything, he did wrong.
Rulon and nine other boys were sent to live in a rented house on the outskirts of Pocatello, Idaho, under the care of Nathan C. Jessop.
Jessop, Rulon said, "was worse than a jerk." He would expect the boys to have mowed and cleaned the yard, or have done other chores, while he was gone all day.
Those chores were rarely finished, Rulon said. Jessop would berate and hit the boys with the boards or brooms. One boy was confined for up to two days in a furnace room, where he was provided meals but could leave only to use the bathroom, a Bannock County sheriff's report said.
Meanwhile, Rulon said, he began to hear stories about people who had left the FLDS and began to think about leaving, too.
In the summer of 2014, one boy fled to Holding Out Help and then reported the Pocatello home to the FBI. The feds contacted local authorities.
On Rulon's 15th birthday, sheriff's deputies removed the nine boys, ages 12 to 17, still living there. Jessop eventually pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of child abuse. He served 10 days in jail.
A judge ordered Rulon and five other boys returned to their parents.
Rulon said he did not enjoy his time back in Hildale and Colorado City, and his mother sent him to help an adult brother working as a foreman at a concrete construction company called Paradigm Contractors in Cedar City.
That didn't go well, either. Rulon said his brother was "not a very nice guy." The brother drank alcohol and did other things FLDS members are not supposed to do, despite constantly worrying Rulon would report him, Rulon said. Other workers didn't like his brother and, by extension, didn't like Rulon, he said. When Rulon wasn't pouring concrete in Utah, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, he found himself alone in a house in Cedar City.
In January 2015, Rulon decided he had had enough. A friend gave him Tewell's phone number.
To comply with Utah's child custody laws and avoid being accused of kidnapping, Tewell contacted Marie and told her that Rulon was placed with a family in Draper. Marie called Draper police and reported her son as a runaway.
When police arrived at the Draper home, Rulon said he wouldn't go back to his family. So at Marie's direction, Rulon said, officers took him to juvenile detention.
New family • On Valentine's Day 2015, Laura and Daniel Hamilton started receiving text messages from fellow parishioners at K2 The Church, which works with Tewell. The parishioners knew the Hamiltons were approved foster parents and wondered if they would take Rulon.
The next day, Laura, Daniel, their three children and their then-6-year-old foster daughter, Natalya, whom Laura and Daniel were adopting, went to see Rulon at the secure group home where he was staying. They wanted the whole family to decide whether to have Rulon live with them.
"It was so awkward," Laura said. "He wouldn't look at us. He answered all of the questions we had very honestly, and we could tell he was being very genuine, but he was terrified."
In the meeting room, Natalya tried to touch and play with Rulon.
"He about freaked out," Laura said. FLDS kids are not accustomed to having strangers touch them.
Rulon and the Hamiltons discussed what each wanted and their plans for the future. The Hamiltons decided they wanted Rulon to come home with them.
First, a judge had to decide where to place Rulon. At a hearing on Feb. 17, 2015, according to the Hamiltons, an assistant attorney general representing DCFS argued Rulon should be taken to Arizona. His mother was in Colorado City and Rulon had lived there with her before working with his brother.
To the Hamiltons, it looked like Utah officials were trying to send a problem to someone else.
But 3rd District Juvenile Judge C. Dane Nolan noted that Rulon was born in Utah and had most recently lived in the Beehive State. Nolan also was the judge in Natalya's foster care and adoption case. He placed Rulon with the Hamiltons.
"Rulon was lucky enough to have a judge that was looking out for him," Laura said.
The family enrolled him in school. He caught up quickly. He also shared his past in those "downloads."
Nolan required Rulon to have regular telephone conversations with Marie Holm, and the calls could be upsetting. Rulon said his biological mother tried to bribe him into returning to the FLDS by offering him a car.
One night, Laura and Daniel were fighting with Rulon about finishing his homework before watching television. That's when the couple decided they wanted to adopt Rulon, they said. They realized that even when they were mad at him, they loved him.
Rulon decided he wanted to be a member of the family after seeing how Natalya's adoption worked and how happy it made everybody.
The state, however, seemed reticent about an adoption for Rulon.
Attempting adoption • In an email exchange at the end of July, Laura told DCFS Resource Family Consultant Jamie Hayden that she and Daniel preferred adoption to a permanent foster-care arrangement.
Hayden replied by listing the financial benefits of keeping Rulon as a foster child. "This is your best, fastest and affordable option for him and your family," Hayden wrote.
Laura said she minimized her contact with DCFS after that.
Often, when reunification with parents is not feasible and there is a stable family ready to adopt a foster child, the state will petition the court to terminate the parents' rights so the adoption process can start. But the state did not do that for Rulon.
Instead, the Hamiltons had to hire their own attorney, Frank Call. In a recent interview, Call said he and the Hamiltons took over what the state should have been doing terminating the rights of a parent who neglected her son and "effectively enslaved him to the clan."
"Polygamist compounds are inherently dangerous environments for children," Call said, "and it sometimes appears that the state is treating abusive or neglectful polygamists parents with kid gloves."
Daniel Burton, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said Wednesday the state did not file the termination motion because there was no conclusive finding of abuse. Also, Burton said, Rulon's case was unusual in that it was the Hamiltons and the court pushing for the adoption, not the state.
"We didn't see the need to step in and seek that termination," Burton said.
The juvenile court denied a Tribune request to hear audio recordings of the hearings concerning Rulon.
Marie agreed to terminate her parental rights. Call was unable to find a specific address for Joseph Steed, who had been living elsewhere in Idaho when Rulon lived in Pocatello, so the Hamiltons placed notices of the hearing in Idaho newspapers. The father never showed, and Nolan signed the order terminating his rights Jan. 4.
Rulon's adoption was completed a few weeks later. The Hamiltons say adopting Rulon took 1½ months longer and cost thousands of dollars more than adopting Natalya.
Being a teenager • Now Rulon is 16. He calls Laura and Daniel mom and dad. The family even laughs at mishaps. Daniel and Rulon were recently cleaning the garage. Daniel came across a BMX bike, hopped aboard and told Rulon, "Let me show you how it's done." Daniel popped a wheelie, landed on his left ankle and broke it. Rulon had to get him help. He acted in a recent school production of "Guys and Dolls." Later this month, he'll attend his first prom.
In another year, he'll be ready for college. He wants to be a veterinarian and maybe own a business one day. Since he was once a ward of the state, Rulon is eligible for tuition assistance. Laura works at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, and that job provides tuition benefits, too.
Marie has sent the Hamiltons a few of Rulon's baby pictures. Other than that, he has no mementos of his time in the FLDS. His bedroom in West Valley City shows no signs of that life.
Instead, there's a television, a guitar, a remote-control car and some gloves and goggles for riding dirt bikes or ATVs all normal possessions for a Utah teenager.