"Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics: Clarifying the
Volume 10, No. 4 -- 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
childrens 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
Occasionally, these individuals would find a mental
health professional or clergyman who sincerely listened to their concerns. Parents would
usually voice such observations as: "Thats 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 wouldnt 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 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 important.
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.
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 parents 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
In order to evaluate the ethical and legal implications of
intervening on behalf of a loved one, we suggest that families consider the following
1. Is the familys 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 familys
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
Dr. Langone is
executive director of the American Family
Foundation [publisher of The Cult
is director of the Wellspring Retreat and
Resource Center [and Chairman of the American Family Foundations Victim
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.