As the Internet explodes with the news of Josh Duggar’s admitted molestation of allegedly five young victims, we have learned a lot about the ways in which the Duggars responded to the situation. What hasn’t been so clear is what the appropriate response to his behavior should have been. How do experts handle situations such as this one? What are the most effective clinical approaches to this problem?
Keeping children safe from abuse is the purported goal of a number of institutions throughout the country. Yet clearly the Duggars – both the young girls who were victimized and Josh, the perpetrator -- fell through the cracks on this one. What’s most concerning is that it is possible that this is not an isolated incident within this religious sect, and that many more children may be at risk.
The greatest concern here for all of us should be appropriate treatment for the perpetrator and the victims, who seem to have been forgotten by both their parents and their brother. You can probably chalk that up to their uber-patriarchal, women-hurting, woman-hating belief system. But society should have an interest in stopping this type of abuse regardless of who is doing it (looking at you, powerful white men), and stopping this type of abuse requires treatment. It isn’t safe or healthy for any perpetrator to not seek appropriate, evidence-based, clinically effective treatment. Nor should any child, regardless of his or her parents' religious beliefs, have to be subjected to this type of abuse, so it goes without saying that the girls should also receive the best treatment available. So what does that treatment look like?
If a parent learns that a child has been sexually abusing a sibling they are required to report this abuse to the appropriate child protection service agency in their area. If the child is over the age of 12 the child protection agency is required to report this behavior to the police. The police will decide whether to charge the perpetrator. Children under the age of 12 cannot be charged with an offense. While it may be incredibly stressful for a parent to report this behavior, not reporting it continues to put the victims in the home at risk. It also minimizes the possibility that the offender will get appropriate treatment that will help prevent him from offending in the future.
One program that deals with this issue and operates in a number of different states is the National Youth Advocate Program. Here, treatment for sex offenders is offered through a specialized program called PASS. The PASS program utilizes a cognitive-behavioral approach in individual, group and family therapy sessions. Generally treatment through this program takes 30 weeks to complete. The cognitive-behavioral approach helps young offenders learn how to recognize, change and re-form patterns of thinking and acting. Strategies to prevent relapse are emphasized, and clients are taught how to take responsibility for their behaviors. They also work on developing pro-social skills.
Josh Duggar and his family worked hard to eradicate what they saw as “threats” from people who are transgendered. Yet most sex offenders and child molesters are either related to the victims or somehow otherwise associated with the family. Strangers commit just 2 to 3 percent of all such offenses, and teens are responsible for about half of all child molestations.
The Duggars should be well aware of these statistics, especially since they have personal experience with sibling molestation. But rather than raising awareness around these issues and trying to put in place policies that could help keep all children safe from sexual abuse, they chose to vilify those people with whom they don’t agree, without any evidence that the populations they were vilifying were any more likely to offend than their own son.
Obviously treating juvenile sex offenders is not easy. Barriers to treatment for offenders are many, even when the abuse is reported and handled properly. Some of these barriers include the perpetrator’s own resistance as well as cognitive distortions regarding their behaviors. One of these distortions includes the idea that the perpetrator is entitled to sexual gratification, regardless of the feelings of the victims. Unfortunately this sense of entitlement is a part of the very fabric of the religious system on which the Duggars build their “family values.” Why would a child who is being raised to believe that a wife must always be available to meet her husband's sexual needs understand that not all women are there to meet his sexual needs? Other distortions include justification: she wasn’t dressed modestly!; the victim stance: what’s not fair is the way that I’m being treated!; and minimization: what I did wasn’t really that bad.
Of course, it can scar victims for years, or life. Many studies have shown that survivors of molestation report suffering from feelings of shame and guilt, struggling with substance abuse, experiencing difficulty with low self-esteem, and dealing with depression. Survivors may have trouble trusting others, which leads to their inability to develop and nurture friendships and intimate relationships.
It’s interesting to look at risk factors for sibling sexual abuse and how those align with many of the Duggar family dynamics. One of these includes being responsible for younger siblings. This responsibility can lead to an abuse of power; clearly older children caring for younger ones is a dynamic in the Duggar household. Another risk factor is physical or emotional neglect. With 19 children, it’s likely that at any given moment somebody is feeling neglected! Sometimes these behaviors can be a way to try to give and/or receive physical or emotional comfort in a home in which these things are lacking. Inadequate, misleading education about sex and healthy sexual behaviors as well as inadequate socialization are two additional risk factors. Teens who aren’t permitted to socialize outside the home may be more likely to abuse their siblings. We know how the insular Quiverfull community feels about outside influences; in fact, the Duggars epitomize many of these common risk factors.
In an ideal world, this is what would have happened when the Duggar parents learned of the abuse. They would have immediately reported the abuse to the child protective agency in their area. At that time the police would have been notified, and it is likely that Josh would have been removed from the home until it was determined that all of the children were safe. A thorough investigation would have been conducted, and treatment for everyone involved would have been provided. In treatment Josh may have had to consider the effects of his actions on the girls, to try to develop empathy for them, to take responsibility for his actions, and to come up with a relapse prevention plan. He may have had to write them a letter with specific details regarding these issues. Before he could be reunited with them, long before he could even consider returning home, determinations would have been made about a number of issues. Are the Duggar parents capable of supervising him? Are they capable of keeping the victimized children safe, and do the children trust in the parents’ abilities to protect them from this kind of harm? Are there clear rules in place to prevent future abuse? Are the needs of the victimized children being met? This type of treatment is complex and thorough, and apparently not the type of treatment in which the Duggars participated.
Supporters of the Duggars have called on the rest of us to show compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are unfortunately qualities that have been gravely lacking in our juvenile justice system and indeed in many of these supporters' own previous statements about how to deal with wayward youth. Criminalizing youth because of their race or sexual orientation is a priority for these leaders; yet the moment one of their own is caught up in this situation they change their narrative. They are “tough on crime” because they know that this toughness is unlikely to ever be applied to them. They can call on powerful friends to fail to report crimes and to destroy evidence, if necessary. One of the problems with sex offender registry laws is that the limitations are so constricting that parents may be less likely to report abuse because they fear ramifications far into the future, and many parents who find themselves in this tragic situation are not in positions of power so that they can avoid these negative consequences for their children.
But the Duggars held themselves to a different standard. Indeed, rehabilitation of “criminals” is not seen as a worthwhile goal for many members of the religious right, although they themselves seek forgiveness for their transgressions. Their focus (for the criminalized “other”) tends to be on punishment. Yet the tragedy here is that Josh Duggar received neither punishment nor treatment. The greater tragedy is that it is unlikely the girls received the type of trauma-informed, evidence-based therapy that could have helped them to heal.
Obviously the goals of treatment for the perpetrator are first and foremost to prevent relapse. If possible, reunification with the family can be a goal as well, if, and only if, the parents are able to protect the non-offending children in the home. What the Duggars believe is so far removed from evidence-based treatment that it is hard to imagine how anyone in the family can be healthy or functional. Maybe this awful situation can provide an opportunity for all of us to rethink how we deal with incidents such as these, really focusing on ways to treat people who commit crimes and to prevent harm to all children, even those whose parents believe that if they were abused, it is because they did something to deserve it.