Aug 18, 2014

In Sects, Children Have Few, If Any, Rights

Lois Kendall
January 9, 2013
New York Times

We all need other people. Belonging to a group is a great way for us to connect with others. Psychology researchers have found that religious groups can be very positive for people’s health. However, not all religious groups are good for peoples' well-being and some can be downright harmful to some of their members, especially children.

Some groups may offer a mixture of both positive and harmful elements. Groups can change, with a minority of them turning into what are commonly known as sects or high-demand groups, characterized, amongst other things, by control. That said, any group can become oppressive and controlling and any belief system can be taken and used as a tool to control others. For example, therapy and political groups can become sect-like in such a way that they begin to resemble religious sects.

The practices and structure of some sects mean that children are growing up in an environment where they may be at risk of medical, physical, emotional or educational neglect, psychological maltreatment, and sometimes abuse in every sense of that word, even death. However, every sect is different and the experiences of children in sects differ.

All children, by reason of their physical size and developmental maturity, are vulnerable. The checks and balances that protect children and which we might expect to be present in most groups are usually absent from sects, as is compassion in general.

Many, if not most children raised in sects eventually leave, either with their parents, on their own or they may be kicked out. Understandably, young people exiting sects may feel overwhelmed. They are moving into a culture that they are usually completely unprepared for. They may have educational gaps, or lack socialization experiences and support. They have often just experienced the loss of all they have known.

Extended family can be pivotal in providing support to those raised in these groups, although this is often lacking, particularly if extended family still belong to the sect. A safe place to stay, a little financial assistance, or a listening accepting ear can make a great deal of difference in the life of a young person exiting a sect. For a child in a sect, even just knowing that he has relatives outside of his group who are willing to provide assistance can act as a psychological life-line. As Truman Oler, who grew up in Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints group, which he left at age 19, stated:

“One of the biggest factors in my leaving was my Grandma Lorna," who had left the group years earlier. "Grandma Lorna told me no matter what I did I was always going to have a place to come back to. That meant so much to me because I just didn't know where I'd go if I left.”

But many young people aren't so lucky.

Perhaps the following words, written by a former sect member some years ago, might provide some inspiration: “Sometimes an ordinary life is an extraordinary achievement."

Lois Kendall lives in England. She was raised in a sect that she left when she was 17. She is now writing a book, based on her Ph.D., which seeks to help others who grew up in sects know that they are not alone. She runs special events for the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).