Before we throw stones at the Duggars…and some advice from a CPS pro

It’s been a terrible, no good, very bad week for the Duggars and their 19 Kids and Counting reality TV show. A few days ago a celebrity gossip tabloid reported that twelve years ago Josh, the oldest child, fondled 5 young girls, several of them his sisters. He was 14 at the time. The tabloid took the police report public and the web has exploded with condemnation.



(August 22, 2010 update: With Josh Duggar’s confession of unfaithfulness and holding an account on the Ashley Madison website that facilitates adultery, I’ve written a sequel to this post.)

Parents Jim Bob and Michelle have been publicly shamed for calling it a “very bad mistake” and covering it up. Last night CNN’s Don Lemon and his guests slammed them for dealing with Josh through a religious lens of sin and repentance rather than acknowledging “the reality”: his actions are a crime and he should be reported to the police. (Really? Keep reading…)

The Learning Channel is deciding whether to continue producing the show. Viewers are deciding whether they will continue to watch it. Or permit their children to watch it. Many of us are listening to the uproar wondering how to respond to fellow-believers with wisdom and grace. And no doubt many families with a similar experience are watching this unfold in horror of what this all means for the way they handle their own children.

Full disclosure: Except for a few times while staying my Mom, I haven’t watched 19 Kids and Counting. But as a Christian with a public platform I empathize with the Duggars as they try to love their son and respond to his choices in a way that honors God and protects their family.

I hope we’re all trying to empathize. We should admit that we have very little understanding of this *rarely* talked about subject. When an older brother dishonors innocent little sisters like that we can’t imagine Jim Bob and Michelle’s feelings of betrayal, the heartbreak, the revulsion, the false guilt (How could I not have protected my daughter?) or the desperation (We have got to get our son *out* of the house).

This is the most urgent concern a family faces. Your girls simply *have* to be safe in your home.

When this behavior happens Dad and Mom are faced with hard choices: turn their son over to law enforcement/children’s protective services. Or try to find a redemptive, life-saving situation where they can be personally counseled by a mentor or professional, preferably a Christian, over a significant period of time until trust is rebuilt and the son seems genuinely repentant and restored.

When this first happened in 2002 Josh admitted fondling the girls to his parents. He did it with his clothes on and the girls’ clothes on, mostly when the girls were asleep in the Duggar home. According to the police report the Duggars held a family meeting and made changes to their house rules, including sleeping arrangements and bathroom use. They treated it as a young boy’s sexual exploration with his sisters.  Not a crime.

But then in 2003 Josh again fondled a young girl. And the next day his parents removed him from the house. For four months he did hard labor with a friend who ran a construction business who also mentored him. When he seemed repentant and restored he was allowed to return home. Josh confessed his fondling to a state trooper who was a friend of his Dad’s. The trooper gave him a stern talk, but no police report was filed. When Josh first began to seriously court Anna he disclosed to her and her father the terrible choices he had made years earlier that almost ruined his life.

Crime and punishment? Or sin and restoration? Maybe you have faced the same nightmare. If so my heart goes out to you. I asked a Christian friend who has worked in children’s protective services for years about how parents should respond.

First of all my friend responded that this happens far more often than any of us realize. Secondly, in his professional opinion, he would not consider what Josh did a crime. Neither was his parents’ decision to not turn him over to authorities (at least in my state SC, or, from what I can tell, AK). If a counselor had called it in to him he would not have even called in the police. He would have interviewed the Duggars to see if they were taking steps to protect their daughters and make sure it didn’t happen again. From what he knows he thinks the Duggars made wise choices in how they handled Josh.

But he also admitted that another colleague might have responded differently. And this is the crap shoot that any parent faces when they think about calling in the authorities.

Parents who find themselves in such a nightmare need wise counsel and much prayer as they consider:

…Is the nature of my son’s offense so serious that he needs more help than we can give him? (If he’s older and the violation was much worse than Josh’s, then my friend tells me you can be held liable for not reporting.)

…Should I take my child to a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse? Even if that counselor doesn’t offer the forgiveness and restoration of the gospel in his life?

…Should I take them to a Christian counselor who doesn’t deal with juvenile sexual abuse very often? (Note: If you take your child to a professional, even your pastor, in most states they are required to report your son to Child Protective Services or the police.)

…Is it best for my son (and my daughter(s)) for him to be placed in a protective shelter or a foster family?

…If he is convicted am I prepared to make the 2-3 hour drive to the correctional facility to stay connected to him?

…Do I want to completely give up what ultimately happens to him in the system, letting others determine if or when he might be repentant and trustworthy?

…Am I doing enough to protect my girls?

…Do I really want God’s justice and restoration for my children more than I want to avoid the conflict?

These are excruciating choices for a parent. Who among us feels competent to make this decision for another Mom or Dad?

I think many parents would have done what the Duggars did: confer with trusted friends or the leaders of their church and, if they had the support system, send their son to live with a family friend who would work him hard during the day and love him hard in the evenings as they shepherded him back to repentance and restoration.

This option would also enable parents to focus on the shepherding of their daughters and the healing they need. (The Duggars arranged for counseling for all the victims.) It would also guard their privacy in the progress.

If I could sit down with the tabloid, CNN and other reporters over a cup of coffee I would like to ask them…what is gained by this disclosure? If you are so concerned for the victims, why dredge this up and make it a terrible ordeal for them?

Are you concerned about justice? As a minor touching a minor Josh was punished and restored. In his apology he states that he asked forgiveness of those he offended and of Jesus. His sisters told the police they felt safe in their home. He now seems to be a healthy Dad with 3 and counting children of his own.

Should every brother who touches his sister be condemned and even convicted as a criminal? Does the State always know best how to shepherd our children? Who *is* the State? Is it my friend? Or his colleague who might have turned them over to the police?

CNN was especially harsh in condemning this as a crime and a cover-up. But where is the reporting on the law and how Child Protective Services handles this kind of touching?

What I hear in almost every news story is the charge of hypocrisy. The Duggars make a strong stand for virtuous, Biblical families. They also oppose homosexuality and gay marriage. Further, Josh works for the Family Research Council which lobbies for Biblical family values in Congress and campaigns for pro-life, pro-traditional marriage candidates. To those who reject the Bible as true north on these matters this is terrible hypocrisy.  To millions of Christians not so much.

While I want to give the Duggars the benefit of the doubt, and, from what I know, I sympathize with them on how they handled this, I do wonder why, just a year or two after the 2006 police investigation (triggered by an email from Oprah’s production team, but dropped because the statute of limitations had expired)…why the Duggars would put their family on a national TV platform with this chapter in their recent family history. Did they tell The Learning Channel about their vulnerability on this issue? Why Josh would go to work for the Family Research  Council without telling them of his vulnerability. Can any high-profile Christian keep that kind of secret from investigative reporters?

It’s red meat. It’s the Progressive Holy Grail. You land a big punch to Evangelicals, pro-lifers, traditional marriage proponents, FRC, Republicans, home-schoolers, social conservatives all at once—seven in one blow!

As we have opportunity I hope we surround all parents going through something like this with love and support. With tenderness and protection for the girls. And tenderness and accountability for the boys.

The thing that troubles me the most from this episode is how CNN condemned the Duggars for seeing this episode as a matter of sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment. They condemned them for being so out of touch with reality.

I believe the reality is: touching your sister through her clothes may not be a crime. But it is a sin. And you are guilty, guilty before the greatest judge of all. Sin is more deadly than we can ever suspect. Its consequences ripple out in ways we cannot control. All of us have sinned and are far more guilty than we can ever imagine. But the good news is…we are far more loved than we ever dare hope. And the One who loves us died for our sin to give us a life of blessing and forgiveness. A spirit of power and love and self-control.

I hope that is the message that rolls down like mighty waters from the Duggars continued story. Whether the cameras are rolling or not.

What do you think? How should we respond to the Duggars? To their show?




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12 thoughts on “Before we throw stones at the Duggars…and some advice from a CPS pro

  1. Well said Lael. I have so appreciated you through the years and I appreciate your words today. Living this life of faith is a daily walk of trusting in the Lord rather than our own wisdom. I pray the Duggars can stay the course of faith and be a testimony to God’s grace in this most trying circumstance. If so, it is a powerful witness, even more than they have been to this point.

    • Thank you, Carol. I pray that any secrets might be revealed. Any wounds would be healed. We don’t really know how these children might be marked. A friend of mine commented that she hopes the Duggars will take themselves off the air. The opportunity for a national TV platform is so fraught. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways…James 3:1-2. Something every pastor’s family knows…

  2. In the jurisdiction where I live, he committed a crime because the girls were asleep.

    If there was less than two years between the participants, and both participants were a wake (!) and consenting, it would be a case of mutual sexual exploration and not a crime. Otherwise, a person 12 years of age or older can be charged and would be.

    I suspect that your informant doesn’t know what happened. I would be very surprised if any jurisdiction in the US would not charge a 14 year old who was guilty of sexually touching girls who were asleep.

    • CJL: Thanks so very for your thoughtful and respectful engagement. A conversation like this helps readers understand the depth and complexity behind the headlines.

      I’ve asked my friend to respond to your assertion that this was a crime. He’s checking the statutes. To clarify, my friend is not simply a CPS caseworker. He oversaw the operation of CPS for an entire county of a US state capitol city. He exercised quality control over all case workers and their cases for years.

      As to your understanding that a person 12 older “can be charged and would be,” the question is, “would be charged” by whom? My friend’s philosophy is, whether you find out that your son has touched his sister through her clothing, or you discover he got drunk on a Friday night and drove home while intoxicated, parents are not compelled to turn their children over to the authorities when they violate the law. With an offense like Josh Duggar’s the role of CPS should be first to help the parents, make sure they take immediate steps to protect their daughters, get access to resources they need, etc. If the parents are making good decisions then let them handle it.

      He has seen CPS take a heavy hand, get basically good kids convicted who wind up in a detention facility where they are grossly molested and their lives are forever damaged–all in the care of the State.

      We all know of parents who are negligent or do not have the contacts or the resources to get their children out of the home. And we want the State to be there to protect minor children whose parents cannot/will not deal with their endangerment.

      But I am deeply concerned for all the good parents who hear these accusations of “crime and cover-up” being hurled at the he Duggars and conclude that they *have to* call in the police or CPS to handle the situation whenever their child violates the law. I still don’t believe this is the case. We often hear of situations where the law has been broken and parties involved decide not to press charges.

  3. Excellent and provocative post, Lael. I especially like your list of considerations parents must face when confronted with this monstrosity of a problem… so many factors and potential outcomes. I also love this path in your thinking: Does the State know best how to shepherd our children? Who is the State? Is the State our friend? Wonderful!!! Thanks, as always, for your depth and wisdom.

  4. Very balanced observations, Lael. I’d say you’re right on target both socially, theologically and redemptively. Non-believers are out for blood, but it is sad to see some Christians support that. I have seen the show only a couple times and there many things I did not like about it. However, that does not mean we should let anyone demean these people with falsehoods. And much of the talk out there is just that.

    • Thanks for the high praise, Don. Agreed. It’s much easier to demean with labels than think deeply about the real, excruciating choices that parents face.

  5. Three things: sexual offenders are the contemporary Western version of the “Dalits”–the untouchable caste in India. They are never considered pardoned, never able to change, always to be shunned, ridiculed, and rejected. They are sub-human. This judgment is rendered by a culture which saturates them with constant titillation, then condemns them for succumbing. How hypocritical! Especially in the case of vulnerable adolescents.

    The Duggars have met the fate so common to “Pedestal Christians.” The celebrity culture “showroom” floor is littered with the shards of those who have been promoted and exploited for commercial and political reasons, only to fall, finding our common humanity has chinks. Shame on us all for putting them on pedestals in the first place (making them great targets!). God didn’t mean for us to live there. I hope the Duggars opt for taking their family off the showroom floor, no matter what the public or TLC decides.

    There is no more cruel, hateful judgment than that of the self-righteous (who apparently have no insight into their own hearts). Their sharp teeth are voracious to tear the victims snared by life’s foibles. These are the modern Pharisees. Jesus modeled how to deal with them. They would do well to remember the scriptural warning: “Judgment will be merciless to those who show no mercy.” It is their liberal, values-free relativism which permits abject immorality to bathe us all, young and old, and then brays for blood when a victim is ensnared in the web that our legal permissiveness has woven.

    I’m sorry for the girls. I’m sorry for Josh. I trust that Christ is the answer for them both and my imperfect family prays that their imperfect family will find refuge in the storm. And if that’s too simplistic for the nay-sayers, then they know nothing of Calvary’s healing love and transforming power.

    • Thank you, Dee. I’ve also appreciated the depth of discussion here. I’ve seen news outlets (USA Today) cover last night’s interview of the Duggars by Megyn Kelly by publishing a series of mocking, condemning tweets with no balance of other tweets.

      Twitter is good for linking to a blog or article on a subject like this, but it’s so complex. I hope Christians will think hard, tweet less and pray more.