Dec 24, 2012

Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics: Clarifying the Confusion

Langone, Michael D., Ph.D., and Martin, Paul, Ph.D., “Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics: Clarifying the Confusion,” Christian Research Journal, Winter 1993
In the late 1960s and early 1970s increasing numbers of parents began to observe and report striking and frightening changes in their young-adult children. Formerly serious, high-achieving, well-adjusted students would suddenly drop out of school, shun their families and friends, and devote themselves completely to unusual groups that parents and others quickly identified as cults. In many cases, parents also worried about their children’s physical well-being because of the groups’ dietary, health, work, or sexual practices. Although evangelical parents obtained some information focused on doctrinal and historical issues from organizations such as the Christian Research Institute, parents who did not identify with evangelicalism had nowhere to turn and usually worried alone for long periods of time. Gradually, they began to find and help each other.

Occasionally, these individuals would find a mental health professional or clergyman who sincerely listened to their concerns. Parents would usually voice such observations as: “That’s not my kid;” “He talks like a robot, as though he were programmed;” “She was fine, but now she seems like a different person.” Soon, these parents and professionals realized that they were observing a process akin to what was popularly known as brainwashing. But they didn’t know what to do. Their children wouldn’t listen, or their responses to all questions and complaints seemed programmed. They sometimes succeeded in persuading their children to leave the groups, and the term “deprogramming” was used to describe the process of countering the cults’ “programming.” Partly because of these successes, the cults’ antagonism toward parents hardened. Parents found they could no longer gain access to their children.

Seeing no other options, some parents—with the help of former cult members—began to take their adult children off the street, bring them to secure places, and detain them there until they had listened to a detailed critique of the cultic group. Frequently, these encounters lasted three days or more. But the process usually worked. Hundreds of cult members renounced their cults. In time, the term “deprogramming” came to be associated with this initially coercive process, even though originally “deprogramming” did not imply coercion. Soon, a network of deprogrammers developed, with some even earning their living as deprogrammers. Although most parents were ethically and emotionally conflicted over the deprogramming process, it seemed at the time to be their only option in a desperate situation. Hundreds of these parents felt as though deprogramming had brought their children back to life. The ex-members felt that they had been liberated from a psychological prison.

Because deprogramming had come to be associated with coercion and confinement and because it so often worked (about two-thirds of the time), it caused quite a controversy. Cults railed against it, in large part because it was effective in persuading their members to leave. But even some cult critics denounced it on legal and ethical grounds. Others additionally felt that a more sophisticated understanding of cults opened up alternatives to deprogramming. These persons—some of whom were helping professionals or clergy—believed that parents tended to let their emotions dominate their actions. They began to help parents with their distress and help them communicate more effectively, so that they would be able to persuade their children to speak with someone knowledgeable about cults. The term “voluntary deprogramming” came to be associated with this process. It soon became clear, however, the adjective “voluntary” did not remove the negative connotation “deprogramming” had acquired. Gradually, the term “exit counseling” replaced “voluntary deprogramming.” (Some exit counselors prefer the term “cult education consultant,” but that term has not yet caught on.) Today, there are many exit counselings and few deprogrammings.

Exit counseling refers to a voluntary, intensive, time-limited, contractual educational process that emphasizes the respectful sharing of information with cultists. Because some persons who perform deprogrammings like to call themselves "exit counselors," the two terms are sometimes confused. A recent [Christian Research] Journal article on “exit counseling” angered many exit counselors in large part because it failed to stress the distinctions between exit counseling and deprogramming.

These distinctions, however, are important. Deprogramming entails coercion and confinement. In exit counseling the cultist is free to leave at any time. Deprogramming typically costs $10,000 or more mainly because of the expense of a security team. Exit counseling typically costs $2,000 to $4,000, including expenses, for a three-to-five day intervention, although cases requiring extensive research of little-known groups can cost much more. Deprogramming, especially when it fails, entails considerable legal and psychological risk (e.g., a permanent alienation of the cultist from his or her family). The psychological and legal risks in exit counseling are much smaller. Although deprogrammers prepare families for the process, exit counselors tend to work more closely with families and expect them to contribute more to the process; that is, exit counseling requires that families establish a reasonable and respectful level of communication with their loved one before the exit counseling proper can begin. Because they rely on coercion, which is generally viewed as unethical, deprogrammers’ critiques of the unethical practices of cults will tend to have less credibility with cultists than the critiques of exit counselors. Neither the authors, the organizations for which they work, nor the publisher of this journal endorse involuntary deprogramming.

Ethical concerns obviously are much greater with regard to deprogramming than exit counseling. Deprogramming advocates maintain that its coercive aspect is a regrettable but necessary step in freeing people from evil groups. They point out that the law has long recognized that competing rights and needs can sometimes produce situations wherein an undesirable action might be necessary to prevent something worse. This has often been called the “necessity” or “choice of evils” defense. An example would be running a red light in order to get a bleeding person to a hospital. Running the red light is a legal violation, but in such an emergency it would likely be deemed to have mitigating circumstances. Obviously, with regard to deprogramming the central question is whether the evil to be countered is terrible enough to mitigate the culpability of the coercion.

Determining the ethical defensibility of a particular deprogramming is not always simple. Generally speaking the most sensible cases will involve minor children, especially when the cult prevents parents from seeing or communicating with their child. With regard to adults in cults, a reasonable likelihood of imminent danger to the life of the cultist is probably a critical factor in ethically defending a deprogramming. Imminent danger, however, may not always be a sufficient justification of deprogramming because other interventions may be reasonable to pursue (e.g., obtaining a court order to remove the endangered person from the group).

Whether a particular judge or jury will accept the necessity defense for a deprogramming is a matter that is independent of, though related to, the ethical defensibility of the deprogramming. A parent, for example, may believe that his or her child is in imminent danger, that an exit counseling is not possible, and that there is not sufficient time to obtain a court order. The parent’s opinion may be sufficiently reasonable, based on the facts of the case, to be ethically defensible. However, a judge might reject the necessity defense because he or she believes that there had indeed been time to obtain a court order, or that it was reasonable to first attempt an exit counseling. The judgment of the legal system determines the acceptability of a necessity defense, regardless of the ethical defensibility of a particular deprogramming, although the more ethically defensible a deprogramming is the more acceptable is the necessity defense likely to be.

Historically speaking, when deprogrammings have resulted in lawsuits or criminal charges, judges and juries have in many cases decided in favor of parents and deprogrammers. In other cases courts have exonerated the parents but held the deprogrammers liable. Occasionally, both parents and deprogrammers have been held liable. Although there have been attempts to pass laws that would essentially sanction deprogrammings in advance, these attempts have failed repeatedly, in large part because many believe that such laws would create more serious problems than they would solve. Thus, the ethics and legality of deprogramming have been and continue to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

In order to evaluate the ethical and legal implications of intervening on behalf of a loved one, we suggest that families consider the following questions:

  1. Is the family’s decision based primarily on the welfare of the cultist, rather than entirely on their own psychological needs?
  2. Do they have adequate information to conclude that their loved one is indeed imperiled by a cultic group and that an intervention is warranted? Have they consulted with experts, including legal experts, if warranted? Before they implore their loved one to make an informed decision about cult affiliation, they ought to make sure they have made an informed decision about intervention.
  3. Have parents contemplating an ethically defensible deprogramming carefully considered whether there are any less restrictive options with a reasonably good chance of eliminating the imminent danger? The greater the danger and the lower the probability of success of less restrictive alternatives, the more ethically defensible will be the deprogramming.
  4. In the case of deprogramming, is the family’s decision sufficiently well informed that they would be emotionally and intellectually able to defend it in court if need be? Families should remember that they may have to demonstrate that the deprogramming was necessary, not merely that the cult is harmful. Because not all jurisdictions and judges will accept the necessity defense, parents and/or deprogrammers may be charged with a crime regardless of the apparent “necessity” of the deprogramming.
  5. Have they carefully checked on the competence and integrity of those who may conduct the intervention? Although many helpers are ethical and competent, we have heard reports indicating that some have exploited vulnerable families and/or may not be as competent as they claim, at least with regard to certain cases. If families fail to investigate a prospective helper, they may be led to participate in an unethical and possibly illegal and ineffective intervention.
  6. Ethical helpers will not rush families to a decision (whether for deprogramming or exit counseling) merely because it meets the financial or emotional needs of the helper. Most deprogrammers and exit counselors work hard to help cult members make informed decisions about their group affiliations. Some, unfortunately, do not pay as much attention to their ethical obligation to make sure that the families with whom they work have made truly informed decisions. If they did, there would, in our opinion, be even fewer deprogrammings than currently occur.

Dr. Langone is executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association (formerly The American Family Foundation [publisher of The Cult Observer]. Dr. Martin is director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center [and Chairman of the American Family Foundation’s Victim Assistance Committee].

This article first appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of the Christian Research Journal, P.O. Box 500, San Juan Capistrano, California 92693.