Duggar case raises questions on risk, reporting, re-offending

By Janine Weisman
August 21st, 2015

Clinical psychologist Carlos A. Cuevas, Ph.D., often uses examples from media coverage in his classroom discussions at Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice where he is an associate professor.

The Josh Duggar case will not be one of them.

“I won’t use it, but I guarantee I’ll have some students ask me about it,” said Cuevas who specializes in the assessment and treatment of survivors of victimization and trauma and sexual offenders in his private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The oldest of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s 19 children publicly apologized last May after news reports he had molested four sisters and a family friend when he was 14 and 15 years old in 2002 and 2003.

The disclosure led cable network TLC to cancel “19 and Counting,” the series about the conservative Christian family of homeschoolers from Arkansas. Called “17 Kids and Counting” when it started in 2008, the series was considered TLC’s most popular.

Cuevas said the Duggar family’s unique circumstances make it difficult to use them as an example his students can relate to in class. But he remains a careful observer of media coverage of sexual abuse cases.

“My concern is that the way it gets presented sometimes really is detrimental to victims and it’s detrimental to encouraging people to come out and to disclose,” Cuevas said.

The Duggar case will raise awareness on an important issue that can easily be overlooked, said Lisa M. Jones, Ph.D., a research associate professor of psychology and senior researcher at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.

“I think in general, cases like this in the media are positive because it helps remind the public and even mental health providers that this is something that occurs in families where you might not think that it would,” Jones said.

News organizations obtained a 2006 police report detailing when police interviewed Josh Duggar, several alleged victims and Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar at the Springdale Children’s Safety Center in Arkansas. No charges were ever filed because the statute of limitations had run out. A judge later ordered the record expunged.

“There was a little bit of sweeping it under the rug, and that’s not okay,” Jones said.

Jones said the case calls attention to children’s advocacy centers designed to talk with children when there are concerns about the possibility of sexual abuse in a child-friendly environment. Making families aware of these centers can help them navigate how to respond if sexual abuse strikes close to home, she added.

One out of three sexual abuse offenses brought to the attention of police involve juvenile offenders, Jones said.

“It is important to respond to victims and make sure the victims are safe. That should be the priority response,” Jones said. “It is complicated when sexual abuse happens within a family, and parents feel protective of the victim and the perpetrator. That’s a kid too. That’s one of their children also. It really is very hard.”

Josh Duggar is married and his fourth child was born in July. But without knowing issues specific to him and his risk factors, there is no way to predict if he is a threat to his own children, Cuevas said.

“We have a lot of evidence that shows that adolescents don’t necessarily go on to become offenders as adults,” Cuevas said.

Juvenile offenders tend to be opportunistic and impulsive, Cuevas said, adding that the likelihood of them re-offending is higher for other offenses rather than sexual. Therapists treating adolescent offenders must work on general delinquency prevention as well as help them to understand healthy sexual behaviors and boundaries.

“Are there offenders who have offended against children and would never offend against their own kids? Yes, and I’ve had a lot of clients who have offended against other kids and have never had any issues or problems with their own children. Are there offenders who offend against other kids and offend against their own children? The answer’s also yes. What determines that is unique to the individual.”

Children living in a household headed by both parents are at lower risk of sexual abuse victimization or perpetration. Jones said there is no connection between the religiosity of a family and the likelihood of abuse. But the Duggar family’s religious beliefs elevated them into the public eye, she said.

“They were so prominently portrayed in the media … (as) a family with a particular set of values that I think that’s why it drew so much national attention,” Jones said.

The risk of homeschooled children being subject to or perpetrating abuse remains unexplored. But studies have shown homeschooled children have lower rates of annual visits to a health professional than public schoolchildren.

“When a child is homeschooled who they have contact with outside their immediate family is completely in the hands of their parents,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, based in Canton, Massachusetts.

The coalition issued a statement that if Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar had properly reported Josh Duggar’s actions before the statute of limitations ran out, they could have lost the ability to homeschool their children because Arkansas prohibits homeschooling in households that include registered sex offenders.

Coleman said the Josh Duggar case is being added to the coalition’s “Homeschooling’s Invisible Children” database, which tracks child abuse from media reports.

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