By Rick Ross
- How should family and friends act when they suspect that someone is involved with a potentially destructive group/leader?
REMAIN CALM. You may be wrong. Don't be confrontational or jump to conclusions. Instead, investigate thoroughly and discretely discover as much information as possible. First, check the Internet, library and public records for specifics about the group/leader. You might also make quiet inquiries with local clergy, police, social services and public safety in the community where the group/leader is located. Organize a file for notes, articles and other information that you may gather.
- How should family and friends react to someone when they know that person is involved with a potentially destructive group/leader?
Be nurturing, loving and attentive, which may contrast with the treatment they receive from the group/leader. Don't rush to judgment. Remember that doing nothing is always an option. It is also crucial to maintain meaningful and positive communication and seek support from family and friends. Don't be negative and critical and remember, when in doubt, don't act. If you are not sure, seek out and gather more information.
Staging an intervention with a professional is another possible option, but be sure to make a carefully considered and informed decision before taking any action. Always focus on the facts and your own specific situation. You can also simply wait and see, or possibly discuss your concerns at a friendly meeting if and when the person involved raises some doubts about the group/leader and/or when their involvement raises increasingly serious issues. However, waiting may allow the group/leader time to increase control, which will make an intervention more difficult.
Cult Intervention is defined as an educational process utilizing a professional consultant. It is not therapy or counseling. Cult intervention should never include hypnosis or other manipulative methods of persuasion and suggestion, which are techniques often associated with destructive cults, groups and/or leaders. Instead, it is a professional presentation and facilitated dialog, regarding the facts and history about a particular group and/or leader. Cult intervention also includes a detailed discussion about the methods of recruitment, indoctrination, persuasion and retention of members, frequently associated with destructive cults, groups and/or leaders. The focus of such an intervention is to inform the subject in an effort to affect their continued involvement with a destructive cult, group and/or leader. This effort not only includes the group-involved subject, but also their family and often others who are concerned. The focus and purpose of cult intervention is to inform the subject, in an effort to help that person reconsider any further involvement with a destructive cult, group and/or leader.
Considering an Intervention
- What factors prompt people to stage interventions?
Family and friends may observe certain serious changes regarding someone they are concerned about such as deterioration in self-esteem, finances and physical health. They may see a radical change in personality, typified by obsessive behavior, extreme dependency upon the group/leader, sharply diminished critical thinking, increasing isolation and/or negativity or intensifying hostility towards those outside the group.
Another cause for concern might be a sharp dramatic change in a person's life-style such as suddenly giving up long-held goals, dropping out of school and/or shunning family and/or old friends. Many things, such as the changes previously cited, when done in a consistent pattern that favors the group/leader, may prompt those concerned to consider taking action such as staging an intervention.
Those concerned may also develop reasonable fears based upon their study of the history of a certain group/leader. A group/leader may have a history of violence, sexual and/or physical abuse, financial exploitation and/or medical neglect that cause serious concern.
- Why are professionals often used in interventions?
There is no substitute for experience. Professionals, who have a work history of facilitating interventions, possibly even with the specific group/leader in question, can make a crucial difference. Concerned family and friends often feel they do not have the knowledge or experience necessary to facilitate as meaningful an intervention as a professional. Many of the same issues frequently arise in interventions and professional experience provides the expertise needed at crucial junctures within the intervention process.
Planning and Preparation
- What factors are important when deciding which professional to use for an intervention?
It is important to find a professional with extensive intervention experience and preferably with a specific background dealing with the group/leader in question. If specific experience with a certain group is not possible, a professional who has worked with groups/leaders that are very similar will be helpful.
Compare experience, fees and the projected costs of any professionals considered and request references. Don't be reluctant to ask a professional about his or her rate of success. Specifically, success would be the person who is the focus of concern leaving the unsafe group/leader as a direct result of the work done by that professional. Be frank about any financial considerations and ask for an average total cost per intervention. It is also meaningful to request that a professional provide contact information regarding families and individuals that have experienced both success and failure, speak with those people about any concerns or questions.
- Do interventions require teams?
No. Interventions do not require a team of professionals or necessarily the assistance of a former follower of a destructive group/leader. A former member and/or another professional may be helpful, but this is not mandatory. Such additional help should be considered carefully since a team approach typically increases the cost of an intervention, which may become prohibitive.
In the overwhelming majority of my intervention cases I have worked alone. And most often, the person who is the focus of the intervention will connect better with one professional. It is also important not to overwhelm someone with too many people. This may create the perception that they are being singled out and/or "ganged up on". One experienced professional working with well-prepared concerned people and/or family is usually sufficient.
- What preparation is required for an intervention?
Those concerned should begin their preparation for an intervention by reading helpful books and reviewing material specifically about the group or leader, which has drawn their concern.
Additional preparation most often includes phone consultation, conference calls and eventually a final face to face meeting between those that will be participating in the intervention and the intervention specialist. This meeting should take place immediately before the intervention begins so that it flows directly into that scheduled effort.
Preparation conversations with the intervention specialist will usually include such topics as the role of family and/or friends, specific expectations, potential problems, unique extenuating circumstances, particular individual sensitivities, parameters and boundaries for the discussion during the intervention. Any additional questions or concerns that remain or may have recently arisen are answered and addressed by the intervention specialist during the final face to face meeting, which should realistically take no more than one day.
A face to face preparation meeting is not scheduled until an exact date for the intervention has been determined. This specific strategic planning avoids any unnecessary travel or expense and will yield better results. That is, having such a meeting to prepare for the intervention on the day before it begins logically provides for better recall.
- Is it necessary for an intervention professional to be a former follower of a destructive group/leader?
No. It is not necessary, but this could be helpful.
In some situations however the person who is the focus of the intervention may feel threatened by a former member of his or her own group. They might also be convinced that such a professional is biased or bitter because of his or her past experiences with a destructive group. In such cases a professional with no such background may appear more objective, less personally involved and/or invested in the outcome.
In an intervention the fact that the intervention professional was once involved in a cult or with a destructive group/leader, can be seen as either potentially a plus or a minus.
- Do professionals in interventions have a personal agenda?
No, they should not. The only agenda in an intervention should be sharing information to help an individual make a more informed decision. This is done by helping someone recognize the possible problems posed by their further involvement with a destructive group/leader through a reasonable dialogue and consideration of the facts.
When a professional has a personal agenda, such as evangelism, it complicates an intervention and may exacerbate the situation. This may lead the subject of the intervention to feel that the real issue is not the behavior and influence of the group/leader, but instead a theological debate, specifically that the group/leader is wrong, because the family and intervention professional know what belief is right. This issue should be discussed frankly before an intervention and may be clarified by the "Ethical Standards" subscribed to by a helping professional.
- How does the process of planning an intervention with a selected professional begin?
The intervention process usually begins with an Intake Questionnaire.
- What goes on in an intervention?
Interventions are really just an opportunity for discussion and dialogue, a review of the history and practices of a group/leader. This often includes looking through documentation such as news articles, media reports, court records and/or literature about a group/leader. The discussion often may center on indoctrination techniques, the influence of a group/leader and how certain other questionable groups/leaders may use those same techniques. Videos may be shown to demonstrate and/or illustrate specific points and at times former followers of a destructive group/leader may join in and contribute to the discussion through their personal experience. Family and friends almost always directly participate, sharing their concerns, insights and experience. Less controversial groups/leaders may also be discussed as examples, to offer some contrast with the potentially unsafe practices and situations that are questioned.
- Is this similar to drug or alcohol intervention?
Yes. There is some correlation between a substance abuse intervention and a cult intervention. But specifically a cult intervention is an educational opportunity not a confrontation. Though like a drug and alcohol intervention it often is motivated by concern about the debilitating effects of involvement, deterioration of an individual, dependency, impaired judgment and the possibility of further harm caused by continued involvement.
- Is such an intervention an attack upon personal religious beliefs and convictions?
No. The real concern is the deterioration of individual autonomy, self-esteem and critical thinking. The intervention is focused upon helping someone gain an understanding of how they may have been deceived, manipulated and ultimately controlled through undue influence. Such an intervention often affords the space, time and dialogue needed for a careful in-depth analysis of crucial issues and situations that may be potentially unsafe, regarding commitment to a certain group/leader.
- Do interventions involve force or restraint?
No. Though historically, some families and individuals once chose to temporarily restrain adults against their will, this practice has now largely been abandoned. Only in a situation involving a minor child under direct custodial parent supervision or a court ordered intercession with an adult, may someone be held against their will in an intervention. This issue is typically covered now in greater detail within most professional ethical standards.
- How long does an intervention take?
Interventions typically take several days; my average case is about four days. There is often additional time included for travel and preparation time.
- What preparation time is required for an intervention?
After completing an Intake Questionnaire there may be some additional research time depending upon the group and issues of concern. Some advance preparation may be required by phone, perhaps a few hours. Also, it is necessary to prepare those that will be involved in the intervention, such as family, spouse and friends. I typically set aside one full day of face-to-face advance meetings and discussion for this preparation process immediately before beginning an intervention.
- Is it necessary to advise the person who is the focus of an intervention in advance, specifically that such an effort has been planned, explain its details and obtain consent before beginning?
No. This would be unwise if the subject is involved with a highly controlling group/leader. The subsequent risk would be their contact with that group/leader who will then often advise against any cooperation. Also, the probability, that much like a substance abuser in denial, the person involved would reject such a proposal quickly without any meaningful time actually afforded to discuss important concerns.
Logically, most interventions begin without advance notice as a surprise due to these practical and legitimate concerns. However, though the intervention may begin as a surprise, the person who is the focus of the intervention always has the implicit right to decline and refuse to cooperate, or may decide later to discontinue and leave. But by those concerned announcing the intervention in advance, an opportunity to at least initiate a serious discussion with the assistance of a helping professional may never materialize.
After being retained by any family or individual I feel it is my inherent obligation to afford my clients at least a basic minimum of meaningful consultation beyond preparation. That is, at least meeting with the person who is the focus of their concerns to begin a dialogue. Likewise, it is also my responsibility to offer compelling reasons and information that will engage that person in the intervention process. Surprise is most often necessary to afford an initial opportunity to begin. And simply not announcing or disclosing that an intervention professional is coming, or that an intervention is planned, is not the same as being deliberately misleading or lying.
- Is it necessary to deceive the subject of an intervention?
No. This would be much like a frequently cited cult rationalization, "the ends justify the means." This is not only an unethical philosophy, but if a family and/or a professional is critical of a group/leader regarding situational ethics, it is incumbent upon them to be consistent and uphold ethical principles regarding their own conduct.
It is unethical and unwise to pretend that an intervention is anything other than it is and/or that the professional is there for any other purpose. Any introduction should reflect the facts and the simple philosophy that "honesty is the best policy". The subject of the intervention will respect an effort for honesty. There will also be more respect for those concerned if everyone is forthright and explains their identity and purpose plainly. This should be done from the beginning of the intervention. Trust and integrity are pivotal factors in any intervention effort and if this is ignored or lost, the intervention is more likely to fail.
- Is it unwise to approach someone through an intervention at an early stage of his or her commitment to a certain group/leader?
No. The euphoria often felt by someone during his or her initial involvement with a certain group/ leader has often been described as the "honeymoon period". Some speculate that the emotional nature of this early phase of involvement precludes an intervention at that time and that those concerned should consider waiting until a later point. However, in my experience the risk of waiting actually outweighs such considerations. During this waiting period indoctrination is ongoing and often deepening, relationships will typically be strengthened with the group/leader and complications may develop. It is my experience that the earlier an intervention takes place the more likely its result will be successful. Those concerned are best advised to move ahead quickly, while allowing for practical considerations, reasonable preparation time and meaningful opportunity.
- Isn't it possible the person involved with a destructive and unsafe group/leader will eventually just walk away without an intervention?
Yes, but at what cost personally to their physical, financial, psychological or emotional wellbeing? And though many people do leave destructive groups/leaders after a few years, others may stay a lifetime.
Perhaps the best research and documentation of how cult intervention work affects its subjects was done by the authors of "Snapping", Conway and Siegelman during the early days of what was then called "deprogramming". They stated, "...Our last block of findings concerned the controversial issue of deprogramming. The numbers confirmed that deprogramming was indeed a vital first step on the road back from cult control. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the people in our survey were deprogrammed, about half voluntarily and half involuntarily. As a group, they reported a third less, and in many cases only half as many, post-cult effects than those who werent deprogrammed. Average rehabilitation time was one-third longer, more than a year and a half, for those who werent deprogrammed compared to just over a year for those who were. Overall, deprogrammees reported a third fewer months of depression, forty percent less disorientation, half as many sleepless nights, clearly, something in the process worked! ..."
- What follow-up is necessary after an intervention?
If an individual decides to stay with the group/leader they will need continued communication, love and understanding. If they leave, usually they will benefit greatly from counseling with a mental health professional. That professional should be knowledgeable and have specific work experience with former followers of destructive cults, groups or leaders. This period of recovery and transition can be made much easier through such experienced professional help.
Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center provides an individualized program of counseling, instruction, restoration and relaxation in a comfortable retreat setting for those recovering from negative groups and relationships. They have a professional staff of qualified counselors working under the supervision of a Ph.D. psychologist. This is a possible option for those facing recovery and transition issues after a successful intervention.
Margaret Singer, the most prominent and noted cult expert historically, as a clinical psychologist helped thousands of former cult members. Dr. Singer also wrote a leading book about cults titled "Cults in Our Midst" and devoted an entire section to recovery issues. Likewise, Madeleine Tobias and Janja Lalich also include recovery guidelines in their book "Captive Hearts, Captive Minds". Reading such material can be helpful and it may also assist family and friends to better understand the most common steps in the recovery process.
- What are the risks in staging an intervention?
There always is a risk of increased isolation and possible hostility if the intervention fails, this may include a subsequent period of strained communication. After a failed intervention the group/leader may exert influence to further isolate a follower from family, spouse and/or friends. In some very extreme situations a group/leader may respond to an intervention effort by suddenly moving the involved follower without notice to a new location. Subsequently communication may cease and both the group/leader and that involved individual may fail to provide meaningful current contact information.
However, more often than not, any strained communication usually will only last for a relatively brief period. Also, the information shared through the intervention may have a positive effect later. That is, issues and facts discussed during the intervention may resurface at a later time, as the person who was the focus of the intervention, moves forward and considers their life with the group/leader. Hopefully, such thinking may ultimately lead to doubts about the group and perhaps culminate in a deeper analysis and reconsideration of their commitment at some future date.
- What percentages of people you work with decide to leave the group/leader after an intervention?
About 75% of the people I have worked with historically decided to leave the group/leader immediately after an intervention. However, any intervention where there is an opportunity to share information and engage in a meaningful dialogue is in my opinion worthwhile.
- Upon what basis do you establish your rate of success?
My success rate includes all my clients, specifically people from whom I have received a retainer that have expressed interest in an intervention. For a case to be counted as a success, the person who was the focus of concern ceased their involvement with the group/leader in question as a direct result of my work. This includes all the families and individuals I have worked with through both preparation and intervention/consultation, regardless of the length of time I spend with them, or with their loved one.
- Do the people who leave a group and/or leader through an intervention often later go back?
No. Other than one isolated case many years ago, none of the people I have worked with that decided to leave a group/leader at the conclusion of an intervention, later went back to that group/leader. However, some individuals that did not decide to leave the group/leader initially, later left that group/leader largely due to information they received during the intervention.
- What does an intervention cost?
My fees are currently $95.00 per hour or $950.00 per day when I work out of town. This does not include expenses such as travel, accommodations or other related expenses. An average intervention costs about $4,750.00 in fees plus expenses, which are usually below $1,000. This means that the total cost of an intervention should run about $6,000.00. The cost of an intervention may be somewhat higher if special research is required, a former member of a destructive group is brought in to assist and/or substantial travel time is required.
Some former members may charge a fee of about $500.00 per day depending upon their experience.
An intervention professional should have a detailed fee agreement that itemizes and explains his or her fee structure, costs associated with an intervention and outlines the terms of the intervention explicitly (see Ethical Standards).
- Do you charge for phone consultation?
No, I don't charge for phone consultation unless already retained on a case.
- Do you ever take cases pro-bono and waive your fees?
Yes, I do take some cases on a pro-bono basis, but do not waive costs such as phone and travel expenses. Financial need and the specific situation determines my pro-bono cases. I can only do a limited amount of pro-bono work each year and try to target the greatest need and make the most effective use of such time.
Margaret Singer definitively stated, "Deprogramming is providing members with information about the cult and showing them how their own decision-making power had been taken away from them" (Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Singer, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1995).
Specifically, deprogramming is a process of unraveling a program of control. This control may often begin with deception and subsequently rely upon emotional and psychological manipulation. Deprogramming is actually a discussion, a dialogue offering illustrations and detailed descriptions of how people can be controlled through a process of personal manipulation. It is an educational process typically sponsored by a concerned family and/or friends, who are worried about the influence of a destructive group/leader upon someone they love and care about.
- Is cult intervention work today much like "deprogramming"?
Yes. Though this process has been refined over the years it is still essentially based upon the same principles. However, the word "deprogramming" as Margaret Singer noted, "is now tinged with memories of the early snatchings and restraint, most people are reluctant to use it" (Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Singer, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1995).
However, ironically most "deprogramming" was done on a voluntary basis historically, but there were many dramatic and sensational cases (often reported by the media and/or featured by Hollywood) that were done involuntarily due to extreme circumstances. Sadly, many destructive cults made a concerted effort to distort the meaning of "deprogramming" through well-financed propaganda efforts. This can be understood through a review of the actual history of cult intervention work. Largely as a result of this propaganda effort many professionals today have a great reluctance to use the word "deprogramming" and instead use terms such as "intervention".
- Why did some feel involuntary deprogramming was necessary?
Many destructive cults, groups and leaders soon recognized the effectiveness of "deprogramming" and in response began training their members to run away or quickly leave when anyone initiated such an effort. As one group of private cult intervention professionals said, "the fact [is] in some groups, members were zealously protected from parents, often having their names changed and moved from location to location". A successful intervention requires time for discussion and an exchange of ideas; concerned families used restraint to guarantee that time. This is not unlike an intervention due to drug addiction or mental illness where restraint is often used today. Cult victims under the influence of brainwashing techniques are often in a similar altered state of mind. At one time temporary conservatorship was an option for some families. However, such provisions were ended largely through the efforts of destructive cults and their lawyers.
- Have you ever done involuntary deprogramming?
Yes. I have personally been involved in about two dozen involuntary cases. However, about half of those cases involved minors under the direct supervision of their custodial parent. And as one former "cult deprogrammer" and author wrote, "Forcible intervention [was only used] as a last resort if all other attempts fail[ed]."
- Are you still doing involuntary deprogramming?
Not with adults, I restrict my involvement in involuntary interventions exclusively to cases with minor children under the direct supervision of their custodial parent(s). But I am deeply sympathetic to families and individuals that find themselves in such extreme situations in which a voluntary intervention may not be possible. Such extreme situations are historically evident through the cult suicides at "Jonestown," "Heaven's Gate" and the Solar Temple and the violent behavior and murders attributed to groups like the Waco Davidians and Aum of Japan.
- If you are sympathetic to the families that do involuntary interventions, why don't you continue to do such work?
It is no longer possible for me, because as one cult intervention professional observed, "the truth is that [involuntary] deprogramming is extremely risky in legal terms". Specifically, destructive cults, groups and leaders today often maintain teams of lawyers to harass professionals involved in such work. I cannot afford the expense and time to fight these efforts.
Chroniclers of the history of deprogramming and impact of cults Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman advise that criminal prosecutions and civil suits charging deprogrammers and sometimes the parents of cult victims with kidnapping and false imprisonment, "brought a global chill. In the new climate, judges were deaf to the pleas of the parents and families of cult members" (Snapping, 2nd Edition, Stillpoint Press 1995).
Hopefully, some day the need for involuntary interventions will be recognized through new legislation and families who feel this is their last hope will receive help.
- Isn't "exit-counseling", or "cult intervention" simply another way of saying, "voluntary deprogramming"?
Yes, essentially it is. And in recent years an array of euphemisms has been used to describe what is actually much the same process as voluntary "deprogramming." Today cult intervention professionals have adopted such new working descriptions as "exit-counseling," "thought reform consultation," "strategic intervention therapy," "strategic interaction approach" and "high demand group consultation."
Recovery after the Intervention
- How is recovery handled after a successful intervention? What type of follow-up is most often done?
My intervention approach is not counseling and I am not a mental health professional. Instead my work is an educational process based upon sharing information about a specific group and/or leader, explaining the thought reform process and coercive persuasion techniques. Subsequent to a successful intervention, (i.e. when someone has decided to sever ties to a group and/or leader) people often want professional counseling to assist in their recovery process. This is often quite crucial when someone has experienced abuse, while under the influence of a group/leader and/or needs help to move on after a long-term commitment.
Follow-up counseling provided by a mental health professional can greatly assist and speed up the recovery process and is very important in regards to specific individual and personal issues. It is essential though, to find helping professionals that understand the specific issues and who have meaningful experience in this area. There are resources for recovery and support such as Wellspring Retreat, a licensed residential treatment facility, which is specifically focused upon helping recovering cult victims.
- How long does this recovery process last?
The recovery process/period varies depending upon each individual and/or their experience. But typically, the longer a person was involved with a destructive group and/or leader, the longer this process may take. It is important to be patient, understanding and supportive. Remember that their involvement may have been deeply painful and/or debilitating. And that experience has most often included excessive criticism and control. Don't push or pressure someone in recovery. Instead, try to be sensitive, nurturing and caring. You should also be positive and avoid unnecessary criticism.
The Ross Institute
Copyright © Rick Ross.