change the world badge

change the world badge


Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Friday, December 9, 2011

Faith-Based Child Abuse

I want to call attention to two interesting comments on my post from several days ago, One contributor brought up the death of Kairissa Mark of Mt. Juliet, TN, within 90 days after her adoption from China by a pediatrician, Deborah Mark, and her husband, Steven, with the help of Bethany Christian Services. The contributor noted that Steven Mark had called Kairissa a “demon child” and had not made arrangements for family counseling as he might have. The child was beaten to death.

A second anonymous contributor reported that she (I think) knows the Marks and that they are not evil people. She believed that they must have been praying for a “miraculous cure” (she did not state what needed to be cured), but should have called in an exorcist or deliverer. I am assuming, based on this contributor’s remarks, that the Marks believed the child to be possessed by a demon and beat her as part of their efforts to end the possession. There was presumably some behavior or mood unsatisfactory to the adoptive parents which they believed indicated the presence of a demon.

When people come across the idea that religious beliefs can be associated with abusive treatment of children, they often think in terms of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic and other clergy. Disturbing as those events are, I suggest that in fact there are two other religious factors that create greater dangers for children. One of these involves a high degree of authoritarianism and the belief that absolute obedience to parents is a forerunner of absolute obedience to God, and that such absolute obedience is necessary for the salvation of the soul following the death of the body. A second risk factor is present when parents and religious groups believe that child behavior is caused by demons.

I have written about the authoritarian approach in several places, including a paper in the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice (“Destructive trend in alternative infant mental health approaches”, Vol. 5, 2007, pp. 44-58). One relevant issue is the use of the Ezzo and Bucknam book On becoming babywise, discussed at This book, and others in the “Babywise” program, date from the 1990s and emphasize the needs of adults. The program offers methods described as training the child to obedience and facilitating the parents’ relationship by preventing the child from making demands on the mother. The original version of the Babywise program advised moving the infant quickly to a reduced feeding schedule, with 6-month-olds receiving three meals a day and one liquid feeding at bedtime. (Writing for the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998, M.T. Arney pointed out problems of dehydration and malnutrition that had been caused by the Babywise plan.) The goal of this program appeared to be to place the marital relationship (and perhaps above all the gratification of the father) as a priority, and to justify this in terms of the importance of learning obedience and humility.

A similar goal has more recently been set in the book To train up a child, by Michael and Debi Pearl, which has been widely discussed in various blogs including this one. The Pearls’ authoritarian approach involves physical punishment that is potentially severe and has even been fatal.

Question and answer material presented by Michael Pearl’s church includes belief in demonic possession, but I have not found any references to children’s behavior as caused by demons. However, the belief that a child can be demonically-possessed, and sometimes that painful treatment may be required to end the possession, is rather common among Christian fundamentalist groups. Doris Wagner’s book How to cast out demons (2000; Ventura, CA: Renew Books) states that demon possession is increasingly likely for children who are adopted, have had difficult births, or who fail to be “bonded at birth” (not defined by the author). [Incidentally, this book includes an informed consent document to be used by exorcists!] Other sources suggest that a child who has been sexually molested is more easily possessed by demons.

“Conventional exorcists”, if I may use that term, appear to address demonic possession by prayer. Fasting is also mentioned, although it is not clear whether the exorcist or deliverer is to fast, or the possessed person, or both (see; it would be interesting if fasting as a form of purification ritual were related to the limitation of food used in some unconventional child psychotherapies. Nevertheless, there may be rituals that use physically-painful and injurious methods, or there may simply be frequent misunderstandings among adults who seek to change their child’s behavior by exorcism, because deaths as a result of exorcism rituals are frequently reported (;;

Adoption agencies, including Bethany Christian Services, make a point of screening adoptive parents for health, education, financial security, and so on. Isn’t it time that we screened for faith-based risk factors like beliefs in absolute obedience to parents, and in demonic possession as a cause of behavior problems? My anonymous correspondent was quite right when she said there are a lot of whackos out there. Screening for these beliefs would be a way of keeping adopted children out of their hands.

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of a lot of the autism "treatments" that used to be (?) floating around.