Is Escaping Polygamy real? The dark truth behind the series

The documentary series Escaping Polygamy followed three sisters – Jessica Christensen, Andrea Christensen, and Shanell DeRieux – helping people escape polygamous groups like the Kingston clan, the FLDS Church, and the AUB Chruch. The sisters were members of the Kingston clan before escaping the oppressive group. 

In the series, Jessica, Andrea, Shanell, and later Kollene Snow meet with ladies looking to ditch the cult and do everything they can to facilitate their exit. They also help the escapees adjust to life outside the controlled environment of polygamist cults. 

Lifetime has released four seasons of the show, and there are rumors of a fifth season. Escaping Polygamy is not a scripted series – girls in polygamist communities in Salt Lake City, Utah, are being forced into marriage. 

“You’re just supposed to get married as young as you can,” Jessica Kingston, a former member of the Kingston clan/ The Order, told The Salt Lake Tribune. The 2018 report by the outlet found 65 marriages among members of The Order in which the bride was younger than 18. 

Former members said there may be hundreds more marriage certificates across America’s West. The group’s leaders circumvent marriage laws in Utah or travel to states where it’s legal to marry relatives or children under 18. 

As soon as they hit puberty, girls in The Order are asked to pray about potential husbands. The girls see early legal marriages as better than getting matched with a much older polygamist. 

“Most of the time, the girl’s only choice is to have babies because that’s how we build The Order – by population,” Shanell DeRieux said. Some members dispute the assertion that The Order forces girls into marriage. 

“It wasn’t forced,” an unidentified lady who married at 16 said. “It was all on me, and, for the most part, that’s the case — where it is the girl’s decision whether she wants to get married at that age.” She claimed she married because she fell in love. A statement from the Davis County Cooperative Society (another name for the Kingston clan) said:

“The DCCS reaffirms that each individual has their free agency to choose whom and when they will marry. They should refrain from this decision until they can be well informed to make a mature and thoughtful decision before entering into marriage.”

Former sect members told The Salt Lake Tribune that marriage was the best choice amongst many bad options. “To get out of this shitty situation, I have to get into another shitty situation,” Kollene Snow said. 

A key way the leaders of the Kingston clan prevent members from leaving is by completely controlling their finances. Every earner deposits their money into the Davis County Cooperative’s bank and can’t withdraw it without authorization. 

The Order’s control over finances features in Escaping Polygamy as the leaders prevent anyone leaving the group from collecting their savings. The group’s dictatorial control over finances means they can take a person’s property if they threaten to leave. 

“Some people think, well, I want to just leave,” Mary Nelson, a former member, told CBS News. After Mary left the sect, her parents refused to hand her the $17,000 she’d saved from years of working in the bank – they would only release the money if she married the person they wanted. 

Mary’s parents demanded she marry her 17-year-old cousin. “I just started crying,” Mary said. “My dad says, ‘Isn’t this what you want? Don’t you want to have kids in The Order?’ I said I don’t know what I want. And he is like, ‘You do know what you want.’”

According to Mary, The Order told young girls: “You should love that person just because you know that that’s what the Heavenly Father wants you to do.” As the approximately 7,500 members of the clan struggled to feed their families, the top brass, including Mary’s father, used the members’ money to fund their luxurious lifestyles. Mary said:

“He’ll draw out a few thousand dollars a week, maybe even more, and he’ll buy the newest Apple products. He’ll buy computers and all kinds of electronics. And people out there are struggling to put food on their table.”

Mary left the group and became a whistleblower, uncovering a scheme by her cousins to defraud the government of $511 million. In May 2022, Shanell DeRieux told FOX13 that the group teaches money to steal from the government. She addressed the outlet as part of an investigation into Vanguard School, a public school with strong ties to The Order. 

Jessica, Andrea, Shanell, and Snow were the perfect people to help girls escape forced marriages as they’d endured the terror inflicted by The Order. 

Andrea Brewer left the group when she was 12 with the help of her aunt, who filed for a protective order for Andrea and her sister Jessica. Brewer joined the foster system and eventually got adopted. 

Aged 14, Jessica was forcefully engaged to her 42-year-old uncle. Thanks to her aunt, Jessica escaped, joined the foster system, and landed adoption a day before her 18th birthday. 

Shanell DeRieux married one of her first cousins when she was 18. With support from her mother, DeRieux left The Order after enduring abuse from her husband. 

Kollene Snow was 16 when she married her second cousin. Snow left after her husband expressed interest in marrying another wife. 

The Escaping Polygamy hosts were lucky to have support when they left the group. Yolanda Barlow, a girl who escaped from the FLDS Church, said in Escaping Polygamy: After the Escape that she struggled economically and socially after leaving the sect. 

“When I got out, I kind of thought it’d be real easy — I’d just get a job, go to school, get all my stuff together real quick, get a car,” Barlow said. “But it’s a lot harder than I thought. Over the course of about a month, I probably applied to about 32 different places trying to get a job.”

“My social skills weren’t where they needed to be. It’s so hard for me to just go up to a stranger and start talking to them because all my life I was raised, ‘Don’t ever talk to anybody out of the religion.’”

Andrea Brewer studied law in Seattle and became a civil litigation lawyer. She also runs the non-profit organization Hope After Polygamy, which helps people adapt to life after leaving polygamous sects. The organization’s website reads:

“Our mission is to connect individuals who have left polygamy to resources in their communities and provide assistance for their journey to the outside world. We award scholarships for education toward a GED up to a bachelor level degree, including trade-skill certificates.”

Jessica Christensen is a social worker and an advocate against forced marriages. She also raises three daughters alongside her husband. Via a 9th April 2022 Instagram post featuring her family, Jessica celebrated the joys of being a mother:

“I love being a mom. After watching each one of my tiny 2-3lb babies fight to live, having a miscarriage, and my childhood mother choosing a religion and spouse over her children, I vow to never take my role as a mother for granted! Every day, the ups the downs, the laughs the cries, I appreciate every moment I get with my kiddos!”

Shanell DeRieux remarried and is actively engaged in the fight against The Order. She told FOX13 she worries about her siblings who attend the Kingston-controlled Vanguard Academy. 

Shanell addressed the Utah State Charter School Board, asking for the state to hold Vanguard Academy accountable for the money it gets from the state. She also wants the school to change its Kingston-influenced board. 

“Why has it taken so long?” Shanell asked. “Utah should get in there and fix it. It’s Utah’s problem. Vanguard is clearly not fixing its problem.”

Kollene Snow became an aesthetician, model, and dancer. Per Kollene’s Instagram page, she has an OnlyFans account.