Abusive Controlling Relationships

January 1999
By Rick Ross



A Brief History of Cult Intervention Work
Introduction to Ethical Standards
Defining Terms
Section I. Professional Responsibility
Section II. Responsibility of Specialists to Clients
A. Selection and Preparation
B. Standards during an Intervention
C. General Standards
D. Complaints about Ethics
E. Client Confidentiality:
F. Financial matters
SECTION III. Public Responsibility
A. Public Education
B. Truth in Advertising and Public Education/Relations
C. Professional Fees

A Brief History of Cult Intervention Work

There are many titles that have been used by professionals engaged in cult intervention work since the 1970s. The first title used was "deprogrammer," which specifically describes the process of unraveling a destructive cult's program of emotional, psychological and informational control. This term seems etched upon popular culture and may always be used by the general public to describe the profession of cult intervention work.

Ph.D. psychologist and author Margaret Singer, perhaps the world's best-known cult expert has observed cult intervention work virtually since its inception and interviewed thousands of former cultists. Ms. Singer defined "Deprogramming [as] 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). This definition is still essentially applicable to cult intervention work today.

However, concern developed amongst cult intervention professionals regarding the use of the word "deprogrammer." As one former cult deprogrammer noted, "By the late 1970s, the question of mind control had become intertwined in the public eye with the issue of forcible deprogramming. This occurrence was partly the result of public relations campaigns financed by certain major cults to discredit critics and divert the debate from the cults themselves."

As the author of Combating Cult Mind Control (1988) points out, "Deprogrammers were falsely portrayed as beating and raping people to force them to recant their religious beliefs. For the record, I know of no instance of deprogramming (and I've met hundreds of deprogrammees) that involved any physical abuse such as beating or rape. No family I have ever met would go to the extreme of rescuing a loved one through deprogramming and allow anyone to harm their child in any way."

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, and the precarious deprogramming profession was largely eclipsed by the efforts of the new generation of cult 'exit counselors'" (Snapping, 2nd Edition, Stillpoint Press 1995). But as Margaret Singer concludes, "In fact, 'deprogramming' is in many ways a more accurate description of the process of getting the cult member to recognize what has happened to him or her, but since that word 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).

The author of Combating Cult Mind Control wrote, "The truth is that [involuntary] deprogramming is extremely risky in legal terms...Forcible intervention can be kept as a last resort if all other attempts fail."

One group of cult intervention professionals points out that families often based decisions to undertake involuntary deprogramming upon "the fact that in some groups, members were zealously protected from parents, often having their names changed and moved from locations to location." This is still sadly true today. Parents may be confronted with painful cult situations regarding possible physical abuse, medical neglect, child abuse/neglect and financial exploitation. Some cult situations may become life threatening. This is historically evident through the cult suicides at "Jonestown," "Heaven's Gate" and the Solar Temple and the violence attributed to the Waco Davidians and Aum of Japan. But as previously pointed out their adult children may be inaccessible on any meaningful voluntary basis to discuss serious concerns.

Today, regardless of how unsafe or life-threatening a situation may be, due to legal threats and prolonged litigation cult intervention professionals have abandoned "forcible intervention." A succession of new titles and accompanying terms have likewise responded politically to the need felt by many professionals to distance themselves from the title "deprogrammer" and the term "deprogramming." Such titles as "Exit-Counselor," "Strategic Intervention Specialist," "High Demand Group Consultant," "Cult Information Specialist," "Thought Reform Consultant" and "Cult Intervention Specialist" and corresponding terminology are examples of this response.

These changes occurred according to Singer to distinguish "early snatchings and restraint" from current voluntary methods. However, as a small group of "thought reform consultants" states, "not all deprogrammings were 'rescue and hold' situations. There were some where the group member was free to leave at any time and there were some where ex-members sought voluntary deprogramming." Despite this fact many professionals still felt it was necessary to respond to well-financed cult propaganda and litigation by altering titles and adapting new terminology.

Essentially, "voluntary deprogramming" is now known by many euphemisms, but remains largely the same process described by Conway and Siegelman in their seminal book Snapping first published in 1978. They said, "It appears to be a genuinely broadening, expanding personal change, it would seem to bear closer resemblance to a true moment of enlightenment, to the natural process of personal growth and newfound awareness and understanding, than to the narrowing changes brought about by cult rituals and artificially induced group ordeals."

As a former member of the Rev. Moon's Unification Church later wrote about his own deprogramming, "I had the indescribable experience of my mind suddenly opening up, as if a light switch had been thrown." He concludes that this was "rediscovering myself."

Conway and Siegelman advise in their second edition of Snapping that, "methods of voluntary deprogramming and exit counseling, while far less controversial and much safer from a legal standpoint, prompted fewer cult members to experience a sudden 'snapping out' of their controlled states of mind. Instead, most experienced a slower process of emergence, or as Rick Ross, an exit counselor from Arizona, called it, a gradual 'unfolding' from the cults' ingrained altered states."

Ted Patrick the pioneer of cult intervention once said, "Deprogramming is like taking a car out of the garage that hasn't been driven for a year. The battery has gone down, and in order to start it up you've got to put jumper cables on it. It will go dead again. So you keep the motor running until it builds up its own power. This is what rehabilitation is. Once we get the mind working, we keep it working long enough so that the person gets in the habit of thinking and making decisions again" (Snapping, 2nd Edition, Stillpoint Press 1995).

Despite his rather blunt explanation Patrick offers a viable and current analogy regarding the essential elements of cult intervention work today. Just as he improved his skills through "trial and error," so has intervention work evolved over the years through direct experience. However, the essential components have remained the same. That is, stimulating critical thinking through an examination of the factual information through an educational process, which includes questioning basic assumptions, dialogue, the review of thought reform techniques and the process of cult formation. This of course includes the professional preparation of concerned families through their own consultation/educational process and the professional interventionist now has an expanded array of helpful resources such as the Internet, video archives, growing research, better support services and increased rehabilitation options.

Introduction to Ethical Standards

Cult Intervention Specialist is the title today I believe best describes many professionals that are typically engaged by families for an intervention. This most often centers on their concern about a loved one involved with a potentially unsafe group and/or leader. But despite this new title it is important to acknowledge the history and background, which led to the different titles used today for cult intervention work. It is likewise important not to distort or denigrate the title "deprogrammer" or the term "deprogramming",; in accordance with cult propaganda. As Singer concluded, "On a whole, most of the deprogramming of that era worked, and the cult members elected to leave the groups" (Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Singer, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1995).

Perhaps the best research and documentation of how "deprogramming of that era worked" was gathered by the authors of Snapping, Conway and Siegelman. 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 weren't deprogrammed. Average rehabilitation time was one-third longer, more than a year and a half, for those who weren't 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! ..."

It is meaningful to recognize the need for continued improvement in the field. Cult Intervention Specialists, like other helping professionals, should conduct themselves in an ethical and responsible manner. Other helping professionals such as social workers or those working within the mental health field have adopted ethical standards. It is important for both professionals and the public that such standards be set. I suggest the following guidelines, which focus upon professional conduct, personal and public responsibilities, client confidentiality, truth in advertising and public education/relations.

In the interest of continued positive progress in the field of cult intervention I have published the ethical standards I personally follow. These standards are the basis for my own professional conduct.

Defining Terms

  • Cult intervention refers specifically to a voluntary and respectful process of sharing information between a cult intervention specialist and an individual (e.g. cult member). This almost always occurs within a family framework and is premised upon offering related information, factual material and is simply education regarding potentially unsafe groups/leaders, thought reform techniques and related issues of concern. This is always done in a manner consistently within the parameters set by the law and following the ethical standards that are outlined below.
  • Consultation is a general term to describe the professional practice of providing information to an individual, family or group.

Section I. Professional Responsibility

  1. Cult Intervention Specialists continue the development of their profession through their efforts to improve professional practices, education, services, and research. Professional growth is ongoing throughout one's career and is exemplified by the development of a set of criteria that defines why and how an intervention specialist functions.
  2. To ensure their own competence and provide a public service, cult intervention specialists recognize the need for networking and the sharing of information with each other, a broad range of professionals working in the field, families, individuals in need and the general public.
  3. Specialists have an intrinsic need and obligation for continued professional growth. This includes networking with a broad range of professionals in the field and participation in research and public education programs.
  4. Specialists should devote a portion of their time to helping individuals and families through related work for which there is little or no financial return.

Section II. Responsibility of Specialists to Clients

This section refers to the process, context, practices and procedures regarding individual intervention and/or group consulting relationships.

The term "CLIENT" is defined as: the person(s) coming to a specialist for assistance or information in order to help an individual involved with a potentially unsafe group or leader (e.g. destructive cult). If the client decides to pursue an intervention in an effort to share meaningful related information with the involved person, which might be helpful in their evaluation of the group or leader in question, that involved person then becomes the primary "client" when the intervention begins.

A. Selection and Preparation

  1. The crisis intervention and professional consulting fields are often complex and highly specialized. Cult intervention and consulting professionals obviously are not able to deal with every cult problem. Many potential clients may have some difficulty determining the professional ability of specialists during their selection process. However, professionals in cult-related work should not take advantage of the stress and emotional state of a client in a crisis situation to influence their decisions. Also, professionals should not make denigrating remarks about others in the field and/or attempt to evaluate others that are being considered. Instead, professionals should truthfully present their own relevant qualifications, experience and background.
  2. A specialist must outline for the client in clear terms the purposes, goals, rules of procedure, and limitations that may affect their relationship before such a time that their professional relationship begins. This should be accomplished through a detailed written fee agreement that includes such specifics and is signed by both parties.
  3. Before an intervention can begin the specialist and client(s) must agree on the definition of the problem, the goals of the intervention, and the range of possible consequences.
  4. A specialist must inform (e.g. should be by written fee agreement) the concerned party(ies) that should a client be prevented from leaving the site of the intervention or be physically restrained in any manner (unless legally sanctioned permission has been obtained), the specialist will terminate the intervention immediately.
  5. After obtaining the client's permission (i.e. regarding issues of client confidentiality), a specialist may choose to consult with other professionals or competent people about a client or aspects of the situation. If the client refuses to allow a specialist to seek outside input when the specialist deems that input necessary, the specialist should consider terminating with that client.
  6. A specialist will not engage in billed preparation meetings with a client until and unless a date for the intervention has already been set and agreed upon.
  7. When a Cult Intervention Specialist is engaged in individual or group work (e.g., group sessions with people who have walked away from cultic involvement with individuals and/or groups), the specialist should be aware of mental health resources available.

B. Standards during an Intervention

  1. The specialists primary obligation is to respect the integrity and promote the welfare of the client(s), whether the client(s) is (are) assisted individually or as a group.
  2. When working with clients, a specialist will avoid discrimination due to race, religion, sex, political affiliation, social or economic status, or choice of lifestyle.
  3. When a specialist cannot offer service for any reason, he or she will make referrals to others in field who may have experience and helpful information, without exception.
  4. A specialist will not use his or her intervention/consulting relationship for personal needs or to further religious, political, or business interests.
  5. A specialist will not employ methods or techniques such as neuro-linguistics programming, hypnosis or Ericksonian hypnosis and/or other techniques similar to those employed by some cult groups.
  6. Specialists recognize their boundaries of competence and provide only those services for which they are qualified by training or experience. Specialists should only accept those cases for which they are qualified.
  7. An intervention/consulting relationship must be one in which client self-direction is encouraged and cultivated. The specialist must maintain this role consistently and not become a decision-maker for the client or create within the client a future dependency upon the specialist.
  8. Honesty and professional integrity will be maintained. Specialists will not use deception or mislead a client by misrepresenting their intended and specific professional role, and/or the actual purpose and context of the work they have been engaged to perform.

C. General Standards

  1. A Cult Intervention Specialist must have a high degree of self-awareness of his or her own values, knowledge, skills, limitations and needs. This is crucial when involved in a professional intervention, which involves decision-making capacity and critical thinking skills. The focus of an intervention or consulting work should be on the issues and not on the person(s) presenting the problem.
  2. Dual relationships with clients that might impair the specialist's objectivity and professional judgement (e.g., with close friends or relatives) should be avoided and/or the professional relationship terminated through referral to another experienced and competent professional.
  3. Cult Intervention Specialists do not condone or engage in sexual harassment, which is defined as deliberate or repeated comments, gestures, or physical contacts of a sexual nature.
  4. Specialists will avoid any type of sexual contact with clients. Sexual relationships with clients are unethical and are forbidden.
  5. When a specialist determines that he or she cannot be of professional assistance to the client, the specialist must terminate the relationship.
  6. A specialist has an obligation to withdraw from a professional relationship if it is believed that employment will result in violation of the Ethical Standards.
  7. If specialists encounter situations in which appropriate ethical behavior is not clear, they should seek the advice from knowledgeable persons.
  8. The specialist will be forthcoming regarding any information that is known about a group or leader to a potential client and/or concerned individual that has made an inquiry. Any negative information that might pose a potential risk or safety issue must be disclosed without exception.

D. Complaints about Ethics

  1. Ethical behavior among professionals, including those engaged in cult related work, must be expected at all times. When information is possessed that raises doubt as to the ethical behavior of professional colleagues/peers, professionals should take action to attempt to rectify such a condition. This should include:
  2. A specialist should first advise (preferably in writing) the professional that has drawn concern, specifically what behavior may have raised doubts about their ethical conduct;
  3. In the event this is not effective and the behavior continues it may become necessary to advise others in the field who are in some way responsible for that individual or associated with that person professionally.

E. Client Confidentiality:

  1. Client confidentiality must be upheld at all times. That is, at no time should a specialist divulge client information to others.
  2. Records regarding an intervention or a consulting relationship, including interview notes, intake information, correspondence, tape recordings, electronic data storage, and other documents are to be considered confidential information. Revelation to others of such material must occur only upon the expressed written consent of the client.
  3. Use of data derived from a professional relationship for the purposes of education or research shall be confined to content that can be disguised to protect the identity of the subject client unless written permission of the client is obtained.

F. Financial matters

  1. A specialist recognizes the importance of clear understandings on financial matters with clients. A written fee agreement is essential for maintaining a professional arrangement for payment. This agreement should be reviewed and signed by both the client and specialist before beginning any professional relationship.
  2. Fees for professional services should take into consideration the financial status of clients and family. That is, every effort should be made to hold costs down for an intervention and/or consultation. In the event that the established fee structure is inappropriate for a client, specialists should assist families in finding available services at an acceptable cost (i.e. referring potential clients to less expensive related services provided by other professionals and/or who have an approach that might be more cost effective).
  3. A specialist will not use the preparation process preceding a proposed intervention to unnecessarily bill a client. That is, billed preparation is not really necessary until and unless a date for an intervention has already been set and agreed upon. Otherwise a specialist should recommend to any potential client that they engage in more cost-effective preparation that requires minimal expense, such as reading relevant books, research material and viewing videos.
  4. A specialist will not offer or accept payment for referrals, and will actively seek all significant information from the source of referral (with the permission of the client).

SECTION III. Public Responsibility

A. Public Education

  1. Products or services provided by the specialist in interventions, public lectures, demonstrations, written articles, radio or television programs, or other types of media must meet the criteria cited in these standards.
  2. When specialists provide information to the public or to subordinates, peers, or colleagues, they have a responsibility to ensure that case-related information is sufficiently disguised to protect confidentiality and that other information is as unbiased and factual as possible. Statements or reports regarding cults, controversial and/or potentially unsafe groups/leaders should be supported by research.
  3. Any public/published reports that are offered about professional methodology in cult related work must be supported by substantial research such as related statistics, studies and cited documentation. Before making public or publishing such reports should be peer reviewed and subjected to an objective analysis by others respected in the field.

B. Truth in Advertising and Public Education/Relations

  1. A specialist shall not, on his or her own behalf or on behalf of a partner or associate, any other professional or organization, use or participate in the use of any form of public advertising/education which:
    1. Misrepresents statistical data or other information;
    2. Contains a testimonial about or endorsement of a specialist that is false or misleading;
    3. Reports about a methodology or an approach regarding cult related work without substantial supporting documentation. That is, citing supporting research through studies, previously published material, gathered and verified data, proven statistics and other factual information. This information should first be subjected to peer-review and objective analysis.
  2. A specialist does not claim or imply professional qualifications exceeding those possessed and is responsible for correcting any misrepresentations of these qualifications by others.
  3. A specialist may not compensate another person for recommending him or her, or to encourage future recommendations.
  4. Advertisements and public communications, whether in directories, announcement cards, newspapers or on radio to television must convey accurate information and not be misleading.
  5. In advertising services as a professional the specialist should advertise his or her services in a manner that accurately informs the public. This would most likely include the type of service provided, cost of those services, the projected total cost of a task such as a cult intervention effort and its related expenses.
  6. Subscribing consultants do not present their affiliation with any organization in such a way that would imply inaccurate sponsorship or certification by that organization.
  7. A subscribing consultant shall not knowingly make a representation about his or her ability, background, or experience, or that of a partner or associate, or about the fee or any other aspect of a proposed professional engagement, that is false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive.
  8. Without limitation, a false, fraudulent, misleading or deceptive statement or claim in this context includes a statement or claim which:
    1. Contains a material misrepresentation of fact;
    2. Omits any material fact that is necessary to make the statement, in light of all circumstances, from being misleading;
    3. Is intended or is likely to create an unqualified expectation;


C. Professional Fees

  1. A specialist must have a set schedule of fees. That schedule would include hourly and/or daily rates, the fee for an initial consultation (if any) and policies regarding charges (if any) for phone consultation. This schedule will describe the fee charged for a specific service provided and may vary according to the service provided such as intervention work, expert testimony and lectures.
  2. A specialist should present an estimate of the range of total fees and expenses projected for a specifically described service such as an intervention effort. This would include all related costs such as professional fees, travel and accommodations for all those concerned professionally in any effort including research, preparation and for the intervention time provided. Any relevant variables and considerations must be disclosed to avoid any misunderstanding.
  3. A specialist should present each client with a written fee agreement that specifies all fees, fee structure, stipulations, refund policy and any retainer required. This agreement makes clear that the total charge may vary according to the number of hours or days devoted to the matter.
  4. A specialist must submit a detailed billing at the conclusion of any professional service provided. This billing should be consistent with his or her fee agreement, fall reasonably within any previous cost projection, itemize expenses and break down fees.



Some years ago I attended meetings with other cult intervention specialists to discuss the establishment of ethical standards. That group later established ethical standards, which were derived and/or adapted from the codes and standards of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, National Association of Social Workers, Standards for the Private Practice of Clinical Social Work, American Psychiatric Association and the National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors. My own ethical standards are largely based upon this adapted material published by a professional group called "Thought Reform Consultants."