What the Duggars should have done for all of their kids: Here's how to respond to sexual abuse by a minor in the home

Josh Duggar is not unique — and there are best practices for treating abuse and preventing reoccurrences

Published June 4, 2015 5:28PM (EDT)

             (TLC/Beth Hall)
(TLC/Beth Hall)

I somehow hadn’t known who the Duggar family was until InTouch broke the news about childhood sexual abuse occurring within their clan. The story caught my eye because, as a case about a minor molesting younger minors, it bore similarities to a dark chapter in my own life. Starting at age 4, I was repeatedly molested by a teenaged relative my parents had taken in. Decades later, the man who abused me was sent to prison for doing the same thing to another girl. Overcome with the sense that this horrible turn of events might have been prevented if I’d have told about my abuse when it occurred, I became fixated on some questions. What would my parents have done if I’d mentioned to them what was happening to me? What could they have done? How can abuse be prevented, or at least nipped in the bud?

I hoped to find these issues discussed in the media onslaught that’s followed the Duggar revelations—especially in Megyn Kelly’s interview with the parents last night—but I haven’t seen much that would be of help to other families facing the same situation. The focus instead is on the particular and prurient details, and often on the Duggar’s belief system—their hypocrisy, homophobia, prudery, and sexism. In my opinion these values are rightfully condemned, but they’re a distraction from—and contribute to a distortion of—an all-too-common problem that crosses ideological as well as class and race lines. Of the approximately 1 out of 5 children who will be sexually abused, approximately a quarter of them will suffer at the hand of another minor. The majority of offending youths are themselves victims of childhood abuse of one kind or another—but not all of them are, and no demographic is immune to these scourges, either. We’re all more likely than we want to believe to find ourselves in a situation where a young person we love is found doing sexual harm to a child.

Again and again last night, Kelly asked the Duggars “As parents, what was it like?” What was it like around the dinner table once the issue of Josh Duggar’s inappropriate touching had been brought in to the open? What was it like to when he confessed for a third time, and admitted to sexually touching a very young child?  The audience wants to hear them describe it—their fans because it makes them look sympathetic, I suppose, and their foes because they want to see the Duggars squirm.  But I think there’s a more useful question for us to ask at this point: What would it be like for us?

Consider it. You realize your son is sexualizing younger children—or that your nephew is, or your godchild is, or even—rare but not unheard of—it’s a female relative or friend who’s the violator. What do you do? What is the best course for the victim? What will minimize the chances that the perpetrator will become a perpetual abuser, a pedophile? What will maximize the chance that he will grow into a healthy adult? Try to envision yourself responding in the most effective and level-headed way, not succumbing to one of the extreme reactions that people facing instances of child sexual abuse most often take—head-in-the-sand denial because it’s too ugly and incomprehensible to face, or outsize hysteria that benefits no one. When we think of child sexual abuse as something that only monsters like the easily-reviled “them” are capable of, we’re less likely to notice it when pops up in our own backyards.

At the end of her segment, Kelly listed some facts about child sexual abuse, giving the number of the national child abuse hotline for people to call if they know of someone in need of help. She closed by stating that according to a Department of Justice study, 85-90 percent of young teenaged offenders are never arrested for sex crimes again.

It’s important to recognize that rehabilitation is possible, but what does this statistic tell us, when the great majority of offenders of any age—including Josh Duggar—are never arrested in the first place? I suspect the rate of actual recidivism is much higher. The only person I’ve seen lay out a clear path for parents to follow if they discover that a minor in their household is acting out sexually with other children is author and death row investigator Rene Denfeld, in a private forum that I am quoting with her permission. As a foster parent and the mother to three former foster children, she’s been trained how to deal with sexually reactive kids. She said she would take the following steps if she found one of her children being sexually abusive:

1. Immediately remove the child from the home and find treatment and counseling for everyone involved.

2. If the child returns home, institute a safety plan, including line-of-sight supervision and door alarms. Continue treatment.

3. Prioritize the healing of the victims. If the acting-out child cannot return home, then find them an alternative, healthy safe place.

“They are not animals,” Denfeld writes. “If we truly want to prevent pedophiles and rapists, we need to understand these acts have causes. I have seen several instances where sexually acting out kids were successfully treated, and are now happy, loving, good adults.”

The Duggars could have actually handled the child sexual abuse happening in their home much more poorly than they did. According to them, after the first time Josh told them what he’d been doing, they established safeguards to protect the girls in their bedrooms. They said everyone involved received counseling from certified sources. It’s tempting to speculate about the effectiveness of this counseling and the way the Duggar world view compromised it, but speculation is all it can be.

I’m worried about the people Josh Duggar molested and how they must feel in light of the attention being drawn to them now—clearly their privacy has been grossly violated. I worry especially that growing up in a fundamentalist household has deprived them of some of the resources I believe helped me minimize the long-term effects of my molestation, and that I think would help anyone navigate this latest, public turn. But this kind of hypothesizing and hand-wringing, though natural and easier to write about than the conflicting studies about what treatments work best and whether minors who offend are likely to become long-term pedophiles, is least useful to those of us—which should be all of us—who are trying to figure out how to reduce instances of child sexual abuse going forward.

By Zoe Zolbrod

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir "The Telling" and the novel "Currency." Her essays have appeared in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus, where she is currently the Sunday co-editor. Born in Western Pennsylvania, she now lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children.

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