Josh Duggar speaks at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. in April. In May, he resigned in the wake of his apology for bad behavior as a young teen. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
By Phyllis Barkhurst
For The Register-Guard
JUNE 5, 2015
Because I’ve worked with victims and offenders for more than 30 years in the field of sexual abuse intervention and prevention, I have been following the highly publicized case of sexual molestation of children by Josh Duggar, now a 27-year-old reality TV star and political strategist. The Duggar story is being politicized to the extent of overshadowing the lessons we can learn from it.
Josh Duggar has admitted molesting children when he was 14 and 15 years old — mostly his younger sisters, including one child as young as five. In all 50 states, these actions would be classified as criminal.
According to his statement, as well as those of his parents, Josh Duggar repeatedly admitted that he had molested younger children soon after committing the crime.
He left the question of what to do with the adults in his life, primarily his parents, but also (much later) with church “elders” and a state trooper. It seems that all the adults failed him by not responding appropriately — but, more importantly, they failed the children he molested, and failed to ensure the safety of children who lived in or visited the Duggar home.
I have chosen five key lessons to focus on from this ongoing story:
1) Safety first. This is the most important lesson. It is imperative that all children be safeguarded. The Duggar parents called what Josh did “bad choices,” but they made their first “bad choice” by keeping Josh in the home where he had continuing access to younger children.
2) Break the secrecy. In this case, that means breaking the silence within the family, within the church and, finally, to law enforcement so that the victims don’t think that they have anything to be ashamed of, now or in the future.
It is vital that survivors never be silenced. It is harmful to “protect” survivors from embarrassment by enforcing silence and secrecy “for their own good.” Without overt permission to speak about their experience, survivors can and do internalize shame and guilt that is often traumatizing on its own. Survivors are empowered when they are supported in speaking about their experience to anyone they choose to and whenever they choose.
3) Hold the offender accountable, and keep the focus on the victims. It is vital that children who are molested see that action is taken to protect them and that the person who molested them was held accountable within the family and wherever the abuse occurred — in church, in school or on a team — as well as within the criminal justice system.
Victims’ needs have to be the priority; child victims’ needs may change as they age. Young children may not articulate or present symptoms of trauma or harm at the time of disclosure, but they may feel and articulate it later, especially as puberty approaches and they start to struggle with their own emerging sexuality.
For survivors, there is no “dealing with it” once and putting it away. It is a lifelong process with many opportunities along with the way to offer support.
4) Don’t minimize what happened. Parents Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar have said that most of the molestations were “over the clothes” and that “it wasn’t rape.” The evidence is clear: Children who are harmed by family members can be severely traumatized. Children can be severely traumatized by a one-time over-the-clothes incident because they were harmed by someone they trusted, or because they felt helpless and afraid and didn’t know what to do, or because they blamed themselves for what happened. Betrayal causes trauma, as does helplessness and terror, as do poor responses to disclosures — which leads us into the last key lesson.
5) Respond well when a person of any age discloses abuse. This is important whether the incident was recent or happened decades ago.
When people disclose, they are seeking reassurance that they did nothing wrong and that they have nothing to be ashamed of. It is always an opportunity to support survivors, because they told you for a reason. So, offer thanks that they chose you to tell, along with a calm and caring response.
If there is any current threat of harm, a calm and caring response needs to be coupled with effective action that maintains safety for the victim and, hopefully, brings about accountability for the offender.
Let us choose not to be passive spectators of the media circus that surrounds the Duggar family.
Other than celebrity, there is nothing unique about this story. Let us decide what lessons can be learned here — and apply them here at home. In this way we do our part to honor the survivors in this case and in every case.
There is a Duggar family in every community — including ours.
Phyllis Barkhurst is director of the 90by30 child abuse prevention initiative and co-director of the University of Oregon Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect.