Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have defended their decision to delay contacting police when they learned their teenage son Josh had molested young girls — but victims' advocates say they made the wrong move.
"We must involve the authorities to protect our children," said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas.
Teresa Huizar, executive director of National Children’s Alliance, noted that in 18 states, parents and any other citizens are legally required to report abuse to authorities, even if the perpetrator is their child. Arkansas, where the "19 Kids and Counting" family lived, is not one of those states.
In a Fox News interview on Wednesday night, the couple gave a timeline of how they handled the admission by Josh, now a 27-year-old father of three, that he inappropriately touched four of his sisters and a girl who was not a family member in a series of incidents that began in 2002.
After the first confession, they said, they tried to handle it "in-house," but when Josh admitted in 2003 that he had done it again, they sent him to a Christian program in Little Rock that emphasized physical work and mentoring.
It wasn't until he returned home from the program that they went to police, and a formal criminal investigation wasn't opened until 2006, after "The Oprah Winfrey Show" forwarded an email with allegations it had received to police.
Josh Duggar has never been arrested or charged, and he has publicly apologized.
Emily Horowitz, a sociology professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, said the Duggars' decision to keep law enforcement out of it at first is understandable — even defensible.
"I don't condone this behavior, but I spoke to so many families that did the 'right thing' and the reaction was so excessive and Draconian that it destroyed the lives of their children," said Horowitz, author of the new book "Protecting Our Kids: How Sex Offender Laws Are Failing."
Horowitz said that juvenile offenders are the most treatable group of sex abusers, but law enforcement is more focused on punishment, including criminal prosecution with possible jail terms and lifetime listing on a sex-offender registry.
She said Justice Department data shows that one-third of sex offenses involving children also involve underage perpetrators. The most common age, she said, is 14 — the age Josh Duggar was.
"I'm pro-punishment," Horowitz said. "I'm just not pro-Draconian, permanent punishment."
But Huizar, from the National Children’s Alliance, said it's the authorities — not parents — who can best decide how an abuser should be treated.
"We need to be clear that there is a wide range of behavior we are talking about," she said.
While Duggar was accused of touching the girls, some of them when they were asleep, Huizar said she dealt with one case in which a boy repeatedly sodomized his younger brother at knifepoint.
"I don't want to minimize what youths can do," she said.
She said another reason to have the police involved is that in some cases the abuser has also been molested, though there is no suggestion that was the case with Josh Duggar.
"The other thing I would say is that making a report serves as a gateway to services," she said. "In many cases, parents are not going to know where to go for those services or have any ability to pay for services."
"There are wonderful evidence-based treatments that can interrupt the cycle of behavior," she added. "But they're often not readily available in the community."
In Horowitz's view, though, the system is designed to push parents to one of two extremes: dealing with an abuse case themselves, with no help from authorities, or opening up their child to a label that may follow them for the rest of their life.
"We don't have a middle ground," she said. "And this case shows you why we have to dial back the emotion and the hysteria."