In Duggar scandal, a troubling message for girls

Story highlights

  • Catherine Pearlman: Josh Duggar apologized after reports he molested several girls when he was a young teen
  • She says his parents, then system, repeatedly failed to effectively protect alleged victims
  • Message to girls, she writes: Boys take priority over your abuse

Catherine Pearlman is a social worker and an assistant professor of social work at Brandman University. She's founder of The Family Coach, a business that specializes in helping families resolve everyday problems. Follow her on Twitter @thefamilycoach.

(CNN)When the mismanagement of a child abuse case is exposed to the public after an instance of gross neglect or even death, an outcry and reform usually follows.

For example, after several children died while under supervision of child welfare in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bill into law to increase funding and provide more comprehensive services.
This kind of official response to unthinkable incidents is encouraging. So why is barely a whisper mustered to hold responsible parties accountable under the law when there are allegations of sexual abuse between young people living under one family's roof?
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    Last week the news was full of allegations about the Duggar family (of the TLC network's "19 Kids and Counting" fame) and their eldest son, Josh, who is 27. It was reported that Josh, one of 19 siblings, allegedly molested five girls, including girls who lived in the same house with him, when he was 14 and 15 years old. In response, Josh Duggar did not address specifics of the allegations, but issued an apology, saying: "I acted inexcusably."
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    Exactly what he did that was inexcusable and with whom, the family and authorities won't say. But in heavily redacted police reports, based on detectives' 2006 interviews with his father, James "Jim Bob" Duggar, the elder Duggar recounts repeated instances of a person fondling individuals in his house -- while the victims slept; while standing in the laundry room; while a victim sat on the perpetrator's lap being read to.
    It would be years before authorities would be told about any of this, and while the family's actions are disturbing, this story highlights what happens when a system meant to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation, including in instances of incest, doesn't work if adults evade or ignore it.
    Terrible things can happen in the private culture of a household, and a parent confronting a child's criminal behavior may not want to bring police into the equation. But protecting a family member who is sexually abusing a child in the household risks significant damage to those abused and is unconscionable. When one's child makes the leap from youthful "mistake" to repeat offense, a parent has an obligation to ensure the behavior is reported and stopped. Failing to do this in sexual abuse cases can be a criminal offense from a misdemeanor to a felony.
    As a social worker, I take being a "mandated reporter" very seriously. Being mandated means that if I suspect any type of abuse, I am legally required to call it in to a hotline. The recipient of the call will then assess if there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation.
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    Depending on where you live, abuse that happens between young people in the same house can be a gray area. In some states, like New York and New Jersey, a sexual act between a minor and a minor is not defined as abuse. The technical definition of abuse only refers to the failure of a parent, guardian, or other adult custodian to protect a child. That is not to say that once reported, abuse would not be investigated. But if it isn't mandated, it might very well go under the radar to begin with.
    In Arkansas, where the Duggars live, things appear to be clearer.
    In that state, sexual abuse is explicitly defined as any forcible sexual act done to a person under the age of 18, regardless of the age of the perpetrator. Therefore, when the alleged abuse was discovered by Jim Bob Duggar, church elders, the police, and the state's protective services, one might have expected several actions to occur. Yet, there were striking failures throughout the case.
    According to Jim Bob Duggar's account, made to police, he learned of the alleged abuse in 2002. He did not report it to police or anyone else. When new allegations surfaced in 2003, he told church elders ("mandated reporters" in Arkansas), who also did not report the abuse. The family and the church decided to send the perpetrator to what they called a Christian work camp for a few months as his punishment and repentance, and he reportedly apologized to his victims.
    After the perpetrator of the sexual abuse returned home, Jim Bob told police he spoke with a state trooper about the issue. The trooper purportedly gave the perpetrator a stern talking to, In Touch magazine reported.
    Before the family was scheduled to appear on her show in 2006, Oprah Winfrey was tipped off to the alleged abuse -- more than three years after the first time Jim Bob Duggar told police he'd learned of it. She did report the allegations. A police investigation followed.
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    Here is where the system really begins to fall apart. Police apparently "investigated" the allegations but never spoke with the alleged perpetrator. That's correct. The subject of the investigation was never investigated. Realizing that the three-year statute of limitations had expired, the police then referred the case to the state's Department of Human Services for further investigation, In Touch reported.
    All of the records from that inquiry are sealed. And there are many details still unknown. Whatever really happened, we know only this -- from Josh Duggars' statement: "I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends. I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation. We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling. I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life."
    But there is no available account of what was done to protect the alleged victims of sex abuse in the Duggar household. Aside from his short time away after the second incident, there is no evidence that the perpetrator of the repeated alleged abuse was kept away from his alleged victims -- perhaps even permanently -- as a counselor might have advised.
    What should have happened is simple. The Duggar parents should have taken immediate and effective steps to ensure everyone was safe -- that victim and perpetrator had counseling from people trained and licensed to provide such services. The state trooper, upon hearing about the issue from Jim Bob Duggar, should have immediately called the case in to the child abuse hotline. The church elders should have done the same.
    Failing to report known abuse, especially when the perpetrator admits to the abuse, has legal consequences. Law in Arkansas states that mandated reporters who knowingly, recklessly, and purposely fail to make a report have committed a Class A or C felony. Additionally, they can and should be held civilly liable.
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    The statute of limitations should have never been so modest for a crime committed against children. Furthermore, the current statute states that prosecution can proceed even if the limitations have expired only if the offense was never reported to a law enforcement officer. So if a police officer does not fulfill his or her duty to respond appropriately within the allotted time, there is no justice for the victims. This has to change.
    The message to the victims, and to girls everywhere, is clear: You are not protected. Telling authorities what happened to you will neither protect you from its happening again nor bring your assailant to justice; men and boys are more valued and you should defer to what is best for them; blame yourself and do it silently.
    Over much of the last seven years, the nation watched and adored the Duggar family for its values. We lauded their unity and praised their parenting techniques. Now we need to use this case to hold those in positions to protect children accountable. There is a viral debate now over whether TLC should cancel "19 Kids and Counting." Who cares? Putting the focus on the show and not the issue is just one more failure in a long list of them.