Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants
Carol Giambalvo, Joseph Kelly, Patrick Ryan, Madeleine Landau Tobias
A group of thought reform consultants, popularly known as exit counselors, propose detailed ethical standards to guide this new profession. In addition to a preamble, these standards include sections on the responsibility of consultants toward professionalism, toward clients, and toward the public. The second section outlines standards pertaining to the consulting relationship, confidentiality and records, and financial matters. The third section is divided into subsections on educational programs and advertising and presentation to the public.
Editor's Preface (Michael D. Langone, Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal)
In the mid-1970s increasing numbers of parents began to consult mental health professionals and clergy about their adult children=s involvements in new religious groups that many called cults. Parents reported that formerly well-adjusted and engaged young adults (many were college students) changed radically, sometimes over a short period of time. These young adults typically dropped out of school, shunned their families and friends, and devoted themselves full time to working for these strange new groups to which they had pledged their total allegiance. Many parents concluded that their children had undergone a type of brainwashing.
Unfortunately for these parents, few helping professionals took their concerns seriously. Most assumed that these parents were overprotective or that their children were merely"going through a phase." But a handful of professionals, including Dr. John Clark on the East Coast and Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer on the West Coast, listened to the parents and began to speak out publicly. Soon, small and loosely organized groups of parents began to form in different parts of the country.
Several of these groups joined to form the Citizens Freedom Foundation (CFF), later renamed the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). CAN became the leading grassroots organization for this movement. One informal group in Massachusetts gave birth, so to speak, to the American Family Foundation (AFF), which has become the leading professional organization concerned with cults and psychological manipulation. Both AFF and CFF/CAN were chartered in 1979.
While these groups were developing, parents were doing what they could to rescue their children and sometimes other family members from what were perceived as dangerous situations. Through trial and error, the controversial process of deprogramming developed. In the 1970s, for many parents, deprogramming became the preferred means of rescuing a cult member. Although initially the term deprogramming encompassed interventions that were voluntary (the cult member was free to leave at any time) and involuntary (restraint was used for at least part of the time), in time the term came to refer primarily to involuntary interventions. Much confusion occurs today when people mistakenly use deprogramming in its original sense because they unintentionally give the impression that they are talking about involuntary interventions when in fact they may be referring to voluntary interventions.
Even though incorrect, the widespread belief among many parents that (involuntary) deprogramming was their best, if not their only option was not as unreasonable at that time as it seems today. This belief was so widely held and so supported by media accounts that several state legislatures considered conservatorship legislation, which would have enabled the parents of a cult member to legally extricate him or her for psychiatric evaluation. Such legislation was tantamount to a legalization of deprogramming. Though arousing passionate opposition, this legislation garnered significant support. In New York state, for example, the legislature twice passed the legislation, only to have it vetoed by the governor. Ultimately, however, the opposition to deprogramming and the growing recognition of the effectiveness of less restrictive alternatives ended all legislative efforts for conservatorship bills.
Deprogramming was controversial because it involved forcing a cult member to listen to people relate information not available in the cults.
Cult members were sometimes abducted from the street; although more commonly they were simply prevented from leaving their homes, a vacation cabin, a motel room, or whatever location was chosen for the deprogramming process. Deprogrammings often succeeded in extricating the family member from the cult; one study found a success rate of 63%. Nevertheless, deprogrammings failed more often than many persons realized; and sometimes lawsuits were filed against parents and deprogrammers.
Deprogrammings were arranged through informal, quasi-underground means. Much secrecy surrounded the process for many years. Mental health professionals were almost always"out of the loop" -- in part because most did not want to become involved for ethical and legal reasons and in part because their expertise was to a large extent irrelevant to the deprogramming itself. The main role of the mental health professional was to help families cope with their alarm about a family member in a cult and to help former cult members and their families cope with the many problems that accompanied reentry into mainstream society. However, sometimes mental health professionals, clergy persons, or former cult members were able to persuade those still in a cult to talk voluntarily about their cult involvements. Sometimes these conversations resulted in a decision to leave the cult.
Because of these successes, the legal risks entailed in deprogramming, and the ethical discomfort many parents and deprogrammers felt, non-coercive means of helping cult members reevaluate their cult affiliations began to get more attention. By the mid-1980s it had become clear to many persons that what had come to be called exit counseling was at least as effective as deprogramming and certainly was much less risky--psychologically as well as legally. A few individuals committed themselves to doing exit counseling and refused to do"involuntaries."
Even within the exit counseling field, further branching off has occurred. Some tend to be technique oriented and/or advance a particular religious perspective. Others are information oriented. They introduce themselves as individuals with important information. Although they may have a preference regarding how the cult member chooses to respond to that information, they take pains to avoid manipulating the cult member.
During the past few years, some exit counselors, who prefer to be known as thought reform consultants, have been trying to professionalize their field by establishing ethical and competency criteria. Although this process of professionalization continues, the following set of ethical standards developed by a group of exit counselors demonstrates how much this field has developed during the past 20 years.
Thought reform includes the use of highly manipulative methods and processes such as undue social and psychological influence, behavioral modification techniques, disguised hypnosis and trance induction, and other physiological and psychological influence techniques. These techniques are used in a coordinated and systematic way without the informed consent of an individual. Thought reform is commonly associated with cults, but it can occur in other contexts. For our purposes here, cult refers to groups that tend to be deceptive, psychologically and/or physically abusive, and exploitatively manipulative.
Many different approaches have been applied to the problem of freeing people from the hold of thought reform programs. Early in the history of the problem, some concerned families resorted to methods which we in the 1990's, consider unethical. Deprogramming was the process of countering the cults' programming; the process often meant taking adult children off the street or detaining them until they listened to a detailed critique of the cultic group.
Later, as the techniques and process evolved, the term exit counseling was adopted, indicating a voluntary respectful approach. However, there was no universal consensus among those in the field about ethical criteria. This created some problems. First, anyone could declare him- or herself as an exit counselor. Second, the terms exit counseling and deprogramming were often confused and used interchangeably. The labels did not indicate what the individuals were doing or their competency, ethics, or approach.
The ethical standards here have been developed and subscribed to by a group of consultants who prefer the term thought reform consultant to describe their profession.
Consultation refers to a voluntary relationship between a professional helper and help-needing individual, family, group, or social unit in which the consultant is providing information that enables client(s) to more clearly define and solve the problem(s) for which they sought consultation.
Thought reform consultation is the presentation of information concerning the principles and practical applications of thought reform. This presentation is done in a manner that is legal and conforms to the following ethical standards.
The consultation involves a respectful dialogue in an open environment, supplemented by educational materials, such as pertinent literature, generic source materials, informational multi-media presentations, and personal testimonies.
As thought reform consultant we voluntarily agree to subscribe to these ethical standards.
The existence of ethical standards also stimulates consultants to show greater concern for their own professional functioning and for the conduct of fellow professionals, such as educators, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, clergy, and others in the helping professions. As an ethical code, this document establishes principles that define the ethical behavior of those who have subscribed to it.
SECTION I. RESPONSIBILITY OF CONSULTANTS TOWARD PROFESSIONALISM
SECTION II. RESPONSIBILITY OF CONSULTANTS TOWARD CLIENTS
This section refers to practices and procedures of individual and/or group consulting relationships.
The term "client" herein is defined as: the person(s) coming to a consultant for guidance or information in order to help an individual involved in a cultic relationship. If the client decides to pursue an intervention aimed at helping the involved person reevaluate his or her commitment to the group practicing thought reform, the involved person becomes the primary "client" when the intervention begins.
A. General Standards for the Consulting Relationship
B. Confidentiality and Records:
C. Financial matters
SECTION III. Responsibility Toward the Public
A. Educational Programs
B. Advertising and Presentation to the Public
This article appeared in AFF's Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996
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©Copyright by Carol Giambalvo, June 1995 except where noted
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