From Cult Observer, Volume 10, No. 4 -- 1993.
This article first appeared in the Winter 1993
issue of the Christian Research Journal, P.O.
Box 500, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693.
Reprinted with permission.
"Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and
Ethics: Clarifying the Confusion"
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
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
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 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 counseling and few deprogramming.
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 deprogramming 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
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
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 alter-natives, 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.
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.