Until recently, Director, Action sociale of the city of Pontivy (Morbihan)
Doctor’s thesis in the Education Faculty, University of Sherbrooke (Québec)
and the Institut de Psychologie et Sociologie Appliquées (IPSA), U C O (Angers)
Member of the Cercle Laïque pour la Prévention du Sectarisme
THE CHILD IN A CULTIC ENVIRONMENT:
contribution to a model of intervention by public authorities.
Our societies worry about cultism and call for special watchfulness with regard to children. The State guarantees personal freedom and the protection of its citizens. For this reason, its role is decisive to prevent and remediate child maltreatment (neglect and psychological abuse). But to speak about the "cult", is to pass judgement.
Consequently, it would be an error to suppose a priori that the child receives inappropriate education because his/her parents adhere to such or such movement or because they reveal behaviours, attitudes and educational designs socially atypical or strange. Seen from another point of view, socio-educational conduct, socially integrated, might be seen as free of any cultic practice and any mention of undue influence might be qualified as imaginary. It then appears wise to turn to the social workers, specialists and those close, at first hand, to the child at risk or neglect and psychological abuse.
Gilbert Klein (2005) explained the hesitant approach of French magistrates, because of an ignorance of the cultic reality. This also applies in the socio-educational or socio-medical fields. The situations of negligence or ill-treatment in the cultic context are dramatic and complex. They are however not very frequent and professionals on the ground do not acquire experience. Moreover, available literature rarely treats of the educational practices and the possible dysfunctions related to this context (Perlado, 2002).
A first approach could encourage the training on cultic problems of some expert social workers. However, the quasi-clandestine existence of these groups, well used to discretion and even to camouflage with regard to the authorities, would rather require the creation of an effective networking on the whole of the territory which would favour early intervention. Indeed, one of the difficulties with which social workers are faced is in recognising the characteristics of this context and understanding the attitudes of the victims or their close relations that Maes (2001) described as co-victims with specific characteristics. We already know the difficulties of socio-educational evaluation in families and the effectiveness of camouflage created by undue influence. Here all that is multiplied. In a group with cultic characteristics, where influence is institutionalised (Maes, 2001), it is advisable to avoid, from the very start of intervention, the methodological errors which would not detect situations or which, paradoxically, would complicate them. The social worker who has not detected the problem, will not question the expert appointed for this purpose
The professional answer is theoretically simple and ethically correct: application of common law (Circular DGAS 2000).
Indeed, to adhere to a cultic movement is not an offence. The social worker does not have to explain or justify his intervention with regard to membership of a Community but on the nature of the activities (Michel, 1997): deficiencies, educational negligence and maltreatment. The social worker is not asked to evaluate or gauge philosophical standards, be they of a minority or atypical, but when they endanger the health, safety, morality or education of minors (article 375 of the Civil code).
Therefore it’s up to the professional to prove factually and through an irreproachable methodology based on a socio-educational evaluation, the risk, the negligence and the dangers with which the child is confronted. At what stage does the refusal to let the child take part in social festivities (birthdays, Mother's Day..) become an inhibition to the child’s sociability? Is it prejudicial to send a 6 year old child to India, for a whole year, without contact with his parents?
The Supreme court of appeal, in one case, estimated that the child did not present any mental or physical deficiency according to a socio-educative evaluation, that he had not expressed opposition to this change and that it was the parents freedom to want to transmit the teachings of the school which, after information, did not show any evidence that they had seriously compromised the health, morality safety or education (Appeal N° 01-82591, Vuillot, 17/10/2001).
However, on the ground, the disturbances generated by this destabilising context cause sometimes anguish and a kind of paralyses of thought and action to such a point that the professional have the illusion of a loss of competence, knowledge and normal occupational practices.
Similarly, in order to be relevant and efficient, the social worker must learn how to avoid the double trap of the religious context which will involve him on sterile and illegitimate debate, diverting the object of his action (social intervention) and the stake (child abuse or neglect). He will have to thoroughly study the socio-educational evaluations in unexplored and marginal contexts (Escurat-Grassac, 2000), where he must not only learn how to position himself with regard to standards which vary in the course of time; and according to the different cultures, but also vis-à-vis other educational norms and other ways of looking at the parental role with risks of erroneous appreciations in the face of unknown social and cultural marginalities (Girodet, 1993; Belsky, 1993).
Finally, he will be forced to study his own implication. The cultic context certainly brings violence for the child, but also puts pressure on professionals which can only lead to blockages.
Radigois (2008) isolated four different kinds of attitudes of social workers in difficulty, and risks of failure when undertaking this type of social intervention. The problems are solved by methodological and institutional means (DGAS, 2000; Métivier 1988; Radigois, 2008). The expert social-worker would intervene in support of the social worker, certainly as a resource, but also as a guide in the face of the sense of threat and violence which he feels or supposes. From that moment on, in the prevention and the assumption of responsibility of children in a cultic context, it would be advisable to use the competence and the wide networking of social workers throughout the land, by offering them a thorough training centred on social work and not simply by giving them simple information on the cultic phenomena. In each department, a social worker (social, educational…) would then be apt to fulfil a mission of expert and resource professional alongside his colleagues and within his institution.
Belsky, J. (1993). Etiology of Child Maltreatment: A Developmental-Ecological Analysi. American Psychological Association , 114 (3), pp. 413-434.
Circulaire DGAS/SD1 N° 2000-501 du 3 octobre 2000 relative aux dérives sectaires. Dans Bulletin officiel. Paris: Ministère de l'Emploi et de la Solidarité.
Escurat-Grassac, I. (2000). Interculturalité et travail social dans le cadre de la protection de l'enfance. Clermont-Ferrand: EPSI.
Girodet, D. (1993). Eléments cliniques et démarche diagnostique. Dans P. Strauss, & M. Manciaux, L'enfant maltraité (pp. 165-204). Paris: Fleurus.
Klein, G. (2005). Les sectes et l'ordre public. Thèse en Droit public, Université de Bourgogne. Besançon: Presse Universitaire de Franche-Comté.
Maes, J.-C. (2000a). Dépendance et co-dépendance à une secte. Thérapie familiale , XXI, Médecine et Hygiène (2), pp. 111-127.
Métivier, J. (1988). Guide d'Intervention, Intervenir en application de la loi sur la protection de la jeunesse en contexte sectaire. Centre de services sociaux de l'Estrie.
Michel, J. (1997). Le droit face aux « sectes ». Rapport remis en avril 1997 au Ministère du travail et des affaires sociales, CERIEP, Lyon.
Perlado, M. (2002). Sobre la funcion terapeutica en el asesoriamiento a familas con padres adeptos a un "grupo-secta". Sectes. Prévention des enfants et des adolescents. Barcelona: FECRIS.
Radigois, J.-Y. (2008). Quand le travailleur social intervient dans un contexte à caractère sectaire. Dans Revue de criminologie. Montréal: Université de Montréal (soumis à publication).
 FECRIS correspondent