You've written about "gold star pedophiles," people who are attracted to children but have not and would not touch a child, and the trap they're in when seek treatment. Which really gave me unexpected empathy for them.
As a parent myself, I struggle to know what would be the appropriate steps to take if we were ever faced with a Josh Duggar situation. I think a lot of people, while condemning the Duggars (for so very very many things) also wonder what the hell they would do if it was their 14-year-old son, wanting to get the kid and the victims treatment without ruining his or their lives.
Seeking Unexpected Empathy
Your letter arrived moments after I watched a TED talk given by a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) who works with juvenile sex offenders. Meghan Fagundes lives in California, where she works with minors who've committed sex offenses. Most of the sex offenders she works with are boys and most have offended against family members, usually younger female siblings. Fagundes' TED talk focuses on stereotypes and myths about juvenile sex offenders and the harm these myths do—to juveniles who've offended, to victims and potential future victims, and to families. Everyone should take the time to watch Fagundes' 2014 presentation at TEDxAustinWomen:
One thing Fagundes didn't address in her presentation: What the hell parents should do if they discover that one of their children has sexually abused a sibling or a friend. I reached out to Fagundes, SUE, and shared your letter with her. My conversation with Fagundes is after the jump...
Dan Savage: What should Josh’s parents have done?
Meghan Fagundes: From what I understand about the way they handled the abuse, it seems that it could have been addressed differently. Ideally, as soon as you make the discovery that your child has sexually abused someone, you help your child get treatment for sexually abusive behavior. If your child has abused one of your other children, you also immediately obtain mental health services for the child who has been abused and take steps to make sure that child, and any other children at risk, are kept safe from further abuse. You commit yourself to be supportive and involved with your child’s treatment (both abuser and abused), and in addition, you find your own support for working through the multitude of inherent emotions—sadness, guilt, shame, anger, grief, etc.
That said, watching the Duggars describe how they did handle it was like watching so many families I’ve worked with. For those of us who have never been in their shoes, it’s tempting to say how we would have done things “better”; however, we underestimate the tremendous lengths the human psyche will go to in order to protect us from potentially damaging psychological experiences. Most parents who discover their children have sexually abused are hoping that the problem will go away on its own, that it won’t happen again, that the victim wasn’t really harmed, etc. They oftentimes don’t want to talk about it or address it because it’s shameful, uncomfortable, heartbreaking, and because doing so means that they have to accept the reality that this has happened in their family. They frequently feel a tremendous sense of guilt. So they might use denial, or minimize the abuse; sometimes, they don’t address it at all until it turns into a legal issue and they have no choice. Additionally, most parents have no idea who to turn to for support, and with such a stigma attached to sexual abuse, it takes an incredible amount of courage to speak up and ask for help. Because of that, many of them react in ways that those of us not in their position don’t understand.
DS: What would you tell a parent who discovered that their kid had sexually abused a younger sibling to do?
MF: First and foremost, I would encourage them to ensure the safety of their children and/or any other children who might be at continued risk for sexual abuse. For example, by having the child who sexually abused someone stay for an agreed upon period of time with a supportive relative or friend, and/or by keeping all of the children highly supervised at all times if they are together. Having a conversation with the child who has been abused is imperative; to find out what they need in order to feel safe, to help them understand they did not do anything wrong and that they can come to you if they need to, and to connect them to a mental health professional that can provide them with age-appropriate support for sexual abuse. As soon as possible, I would encourage the parents to talk to the child who has sexually abused to better understand what happened and to connect that child with treatment specifically for sexually abusive behavior.
Together with the mental health professionals, the family should be able to create a safety plan and to get a better idea of how they can create a healing, safe environment for their children. Also, I would want the parents to know that their feelings—angry, confused, guilty, appalled, grief-stricken, ashamed, numb—are all a natural reaction, and that no matter how they feel, their child’s choice to engage in sexually abusive behavior is not their fault. If they are struggling to deal with the aftermath of the sexual abuse, I would encourage them to get their own mental health support. This is especially critical if the parent has their own history of abuse.
DS: How do you get your kid into treatment without potentially ruining your kid’s life?
MF: That question so profoundly reflects society’s feelings towards those who sexually abuse.
The idea of getting treatment for something is typically associated with improving the quality of one’s life, but because of the stigma, saying, “I sexually abused someone” means taking a risk that your life—personally, professionally, financially, emotionally—could be destroyed. If we want people to get better, to hold themselves accountable for what they’ve done and to get help, we can’t slap labels on them and treat them as some sort of pariah when they do. We can hold them accountable for their actions and express our feelings about what they’ve done without treating them in a way that makes them fearful to speak up. So, unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this. Families who engage in treatment for sexually abusive behavior have to be prepared to navigate the reactions they receive if they choose to be open about their decision. It’s not the treatment itself that has the potential to ruin the child’s life—on the contrary, it’s been shown to be helpful—the destruction comes from stereotypes perpetuated out of anger, fear, and misinformation.
DS: Should parents go to the police? Must parents go to the police? Are parents required to report this kind of abuse to the authorities? Or can parents seek treatment without involving the authorities?
MF: The laws about who is a mandated reporter vary from state to state. In most cases, the mandate for reporting suspected child abuse applies to certain professional roles only, with other parties being encouraged, but not required to report. This website is a great tool for looking up the specific requirements for each state: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/state.
When the parents seek out treatment for sexually abusive behavior, they are reporting the abuse to a mental health professional, who is a mandated reporter. That mental health professional will be required to report the abuse to that state's Child Welfare Services, who will then make their own decisions about whether to intervene, depending on the situation. Some parents call Child Welfare on their own, because they find it's a good way to get connected to resources they otherwise wouldn't have known about. Many are scared about what might happen if they call. And yes, some parents call the police. I know kids who have gotten the help they needed because their parents called the police and the court required them to complete a treatment program for sexually abusive behavior. And I know of kids whose parents called the police and they were sent straight into a detention facility for a very long time and then were released without ever completing the treatment that they needed. It really depends on so many things. But the more open we are to discussing these things, the more likely it will be that we can figure out how best to get these kids the help they need, which ultimately prevents more victims.
DS: The stigma is so great, and there's so much misinformation out there, and both combine to create a disincentive to report abuse or seek help. Families will try to “handle it” privately—that’s apparently what the Duggars did. Is that always a recipe for disaster?
MF: Secrecy is a fundamental piece of sexual abuse. Breaking the silence is the healthy way to address that. Most families are not well-equipped to deal with the reality of having a child who has sexually abused, especially if one of their other children is the victim. Having someone who is professionally trained to provide the kind of support and safety necessary is critical. Reach out. You are not alone. There are thousands of families who have experienced what you’re going through—you don’t have to try to figure it out all by yourself.
And for all of us, it’s important to remember that as long as we continue to perpetuate the stigma around sexually abusive behavior, families will continue to be less inclined to seek help. I’m not at all saying that we have to be okay with what they’ve done, but as long as we continue to vilify juvenile offenders (for example, by perpetuating the erroneous belief they are all pedophiles who cannot be helped), we actually silence the people who need the help the most.
Some helpful links and resources:
National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453)
UPDATE: A followup question for Meghan Fagundes:
DS: Do juvenile sex offenders who are taken in for treatment—or reported to the authorities—wind up on sex-offender registries for the rest of their lives?
MF: Generally speaking, no. The overall sentiment is that juvenile registries are more harmful than anything, and some sexually abusive youth never go through the legal process, so that would not be the outcome for them. However, there are some that do have to register. This is another one of those things that depends on so many factors, one of them being that different states have different laws about who is required to register as a juvenile: http://www.csom.org/train/juvenile/7/7_4.htm.
That said, even if you live in a state without juvenile registration requirements, if you are adjudicated for a sex offense as a juvenile, but don't complete your probation requirements by the age of majority, you are often then required to register as an adult. I've known kids who sexually abused someone at the age of 14, who, by the time they went through the legal process, found an opening at a treatment facility and completed the program, and/or served their time in a detention facility, were well over the age of 18. At that point, if they were still on probation, and then, for example, violated their probation requirements (even with an unrelated charge), it would be possible that they would have to register for life as an adult sex offender.