By Lilly Fowler
Native Americans who were part of a little-known Mormon program from 1947 to the mid-1990s share much of the same story. Year after year, missionaries or other members of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints approached these families and invited their children into Mormon foster homes. As part of the Mormon Indian Student Placement Program, Native American children would live with Mormon families during the school year, an experience designed to “provide educational, spiritual, social, and cultural opportunities in non-Indian community life,” according to the Church. Typically, the Mormon foster families were white and financially stable. Native American children who weren’t already Mormon were baptized. And some of them now claim they were sexually abused.
“They knew there were things going on. They just turned around and closed their eyes to it,” said BN, a former participant of the program who has filed a sexual-abuse lawsuit against the LDS Church, and who remains anonymous in court documents, in an interview. So far, three sexual-abuse lawsuits involving four past participants have been filed in Navajo Nation District Court. No criminal charges have been brought against the defendants, who are also anonymous in all pleadings. The alleged victims include a brother and sister who were both in the program. The brother, referred to in court documents as RJ, claims in the lawsuit that he was not only sexually abused, but physically and emotionally abused, and forcibly had “his mouth washed out with soap whenever he spoke Navajo to the other placement children in the home,” according to court documents. A fourth lawsuit is pending, according to their lawyer, Craig Vernon.
The LDS Church maintains that the “plaintiffs’ allegations are just that—allegations,” according to David Jordan, its lawyer. While many of the perpetrators named in the suits are dead, “I can tell you that the surviving family members of the alleged abusers with whom we have been able to speak do not believe the allegations,” Jordan claimed. “I also want to emphasize that the Church would have had absolutely no motive to send a child back into an abusive environment if a report of improper conduct had been made by any of the plaintiffs.” The Church has not answered the allegations other than to challenge the jurisdiction of Navajo court, and has asked a federal judge to prevent the cases from going forward in tribal court.
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