Children are Harmed by Destructive Cults – Part One

Freedom of religion does not give permission to traumatize and abuse kids!

Last week, I blogged about adults in totalistic, destructive cults who are physically still in but psychologically out and sitting on the fence. This week I wanted to blog about children who are helpless and were born or raised in a group. They do not have the resources to protect themselves. In this blog (part one of a two-part series) I focus on the physical and medical harm to children. Next week, I will discuss psychological harm to children. Both weeks, I will include some resources for addressing these problems.

Destructive cults are an unsafe abusive environment for children.  A parent’s right to religious freedom does not make it ok to harm others, especially and including children. Children are precious and vulnerable. They need to have their basic needs met for love, safety, shelter, food, medical care, and education. Experts in developmental psychology universally believe that children are best equipped for life when they have healthy role models who will protect them from harm from birth through adulthood. Modern neuroscience tells us that a human brain does not reach full maturity until the age of twenty-four or five. If you want to know more about human rights for children, please look at the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2018, there seem to be more destructive cults than ever. There is a well-established phenomenon of people leaving or being kicked out of a cult and a small percentage of these people starting another cult. High control groups come in many shapes and sizes. These may be mini-cults, larger groups, and even governments with millions of people. They can be religious groups or non-religious groups. For many of these high control groups, their growth comes from children being born to members which are then indoctrinated to adopt the beliefs as their own. Children do not choose to be a part of the destructive group; the choice is made for them by a parent or caretaker. Yet, it seriously impacts them.

Children affected by high control groups face many serious issues. For some unfortunate children in cults, they are harmed physically, sexually, as well as psychologically. At Freedom of Mind, we want to shine a light on the inner workings and effects of these destructive groups.  We want to empower people to help loved ones still in cults, along with their children.

Suicide and Murder

This November 18th will be the 40th anniversary of the People’s Temple tragedy. A few weeks ago I interviewed Vernon Gosney who survived the tragedy but his son did not. Over 300 children died during the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown. A significant number were foster children or officially adopted by members of the cult. The cult received money from the State of California to raise these children.

Young children in extremist political/ religious cults like Daesh, Boko Haram, and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army are brainwashed to become soldiers and kill enemies as well as conduct suicide bombings.


The average age of young people being taken in by pimps and traffickers is fourteen in America. They are often runaways and recruited on the streets by being offered a hot meal and shelter. They are groomed and indoctrinated and then become sex or labor trafficking victims. Some of these young people run away from foster homes. Some from destructive cults.

Some find themselves part of a sex-cult, like the Children of God, now renamed the Family of Love. And even some are trafficked for labor. Former members of groups including Scientology, United Nation of Islam, and the Twelve Tribes have reported that these groups use children to make money for themselves.

Corporal Punishment

Some groups of Jews, Christians, and Muslims quote Scriptures calling for corporal punishment. In 2011, three children died at the hands of parents following Preacher Michael Pearl’s admonishment to not “spare the rod”, including an eleven-year-old adopted girl that died due to “hypothermia and malnutrition; her parents had deprived her of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a hose. And they often whipped her, leaving marks on her legs.” Of course, there are other religious and non-religious groups as well as individuals who themselves were physically abused when they were a child and are reproducing the trauma behavior.

When I am interviewed and asked why there is so much violence in the United States, I always point first to a culture that thinks it is justified to hit, beat, or spank children as a method of discipline. Experts have demonstrated overwhelming evidence that it creates compliance behavior at best but does not help raise healthy people who solve problems with strategic thinking and communication and not violence.

Lack of Proper Medical Treatment

Religious doctrine sometimes limits medical treatment. Children are forced to comply with the group’s rules on medical care. Some faith-healing and fundamentalist groups discourage or prohibit vaccinations, medications, and even visits to the doctors including psychiatrists. One such sad example is that of a 2-year old girl that died after her faith-healing parents refused medical treatment.

In Idaho, at least twelve children have died because their caretakers refused to get them proper medical treatment. The state’s religious exemptions permit adults that believe only in “faith healing” to refuse needed medical care, causing the death of countless infants, children, and teenagers. These laws were lobbied into existence by Christian Science Church of Mary Baker Eddy. Christian Scientists have lost major lawsuits in which children have died when they could have been saved if they had been brought to medical doctors. These laws must be changed in States like Idaho where they still exist.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal of blood transfusions has resulted in a loss of life for over seven decades. Parents, such as a mother during childbirth, may die, leaving the child without a mother.  Also, many under the age of 18, are undergoing surgeries and medical treatment without blood resulting in harmful consequences and even death.  Additionally, there is great psychological harm done to pediatric patients given blood by a court order as the unwanted transfusion is likened to assault or rape.

The Amish will only seek medical treatment in a case of emergency, preferring folk medicine and faith in God, first. Their reluctance can cause delays in medical care for sick children.  Also, they believe the heart is the “soul” and do not accept heart transplants.

For some Seventh-day Adventists, they believe in more holistic care.  One couple was jailed following the death of their five-year-old son who died from rickets due to medical neglect. The Twelve Tribes is a group that does corporal punishment, medical neglect, labor trafficking of their children. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently wrote an article on the Tribes.Sexual Predation

Children in cults have a higher risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse. Policy, the belief that religious leaders are infallible, fear of bringing reproach upon the organization, and isolation of members are just a few of the reasons why this happens. Jehovah’s Witnesses cite Scripture to support their two-witness rule when establishing guilt. This results in many abuse cases that go unreported as a sexual predator is usually alone with their victim. Also, when accusations are handled internally, reports are not made to the police. Religious sex abuse has become an epidemic!

What Can We Do?

There are a few organizations trying to make a change and we should learn about and support them.  One such group is CHILDUSA. Law Professor Marci Hamilton founded and directs this legal think tank at the University of Pennsylvania. She authored the important book, God vs. The Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty. She is working to abolish the statute of limitations for sexual abuse. Her work is especially focused on helping children as well as protecting human rights.

As an advisory board member for the Child-Friendly Faith Project, I am greatly interested in supporting this non-profit’s effort to end religious child maltreatment through awareness programs. Its founder is Janet Heimlich who wrote the valuable book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment.

We all can have an active roll in addressing this issue. We can help spread the word in our communities, service provider organizations, and among our local, state, and national legislators about the impact that being raised in a destructive group can have on children. Public outrage can force leaders and legislators to make changes that will better protect children from harm.

People of all ages leave high control groups and need help in their recovery. Understanding the harmful effects of mind control will allow us to be a better support system as they exit, even as adults. Plus, we need to help our loved ones leave these destructive groups, especially if they have children.

We can learn a lot from the first-hand accounts of people raised in harmful cults. And, we can view documentaries such as Truth Be Told or Going Clear. Learning about the issues is the first step in preventing them.

If you are an ex-member, please speak out about the abuse you suffered.  We need to raise awareness so that the average person will get involved and actively help those in need.  Standing by and saying that it is none of our business is not an option. This is child abuse and children need our help!

With an increased awareness and public outcry, changes to better protect children will be made by religious leadership and the legislative government.

This is an issue that needs immediate attention from everyone! Let us all speak out against these harmful practices demanding change and protection for children, inside and outside, any and all religious groups.  This is not religious freedom but child abuse. Enough is enough. We need to come together to better protect children from the damaging effects of cults!

(Part Two is here.)