The ChildTrauma Academy
The ChildTrauma Academy Newsletter
May 2010
Meet New CTA Fellow Dr. Dawn O'Malley
Learn More about Psychologically Destructive Cults


Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered
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As we finalize this newsletter, thousands of people in Tennessee are assessing the damage of flooding that swept through over the weekend and is likely to affect other parts of the South in the coming week.  Less than week ago, Dr. Perry was finally able to return home from Edinburgh after being stranded for 10 days due to the volcano eruption in Iceland.  And the world is still rushing to aid the nation of Haiti who crumbled under one of the most devastating earth quakes in history.  The impact of natural disasters has been ever present and can be overwhelming; and yet we are reminded of the wonderful humanity within us when strangers rush to the aid of strangers. Their compassion is reminiscent of that same humanity you all display as you commit your lives to helping children and families who face extremely tough challenges.  Thank you for your service and for caring.  We honor you with our work and with this month's newsletter.  May it serve to inspire and support all that you do.
D Omalley
Dawn O'Malley, Psy.D., is the Clinical Director of Alexander Youth Network, a ChildTrauma Academy NMT Parter Site, in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Alexander Youth Network is the largest non-profit provider of mental health services to children in North Carolina. 
     Dr. O'Malley was raised outside of Boston, Massachusetts and received her undergraduate education at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.  She received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Widener University in 1995. She is a Licensed Psychologist in the state of North Carolina.
     Dr. O'Malley has over fifteen years of experience working with traumatized children and their families. She has led the implementation of trauma-informed therapies for three agencies specializing in residential and community based treatment.  She has also developed residential programming for sexually aggressive youth and adolescent girls.
     In addition, Dr. O'Malley is a member of ZFive -  Mecklenburg County, a community support for the social and emotional health of children zero to five.  She is a frequent collaborator with additional public agencies including the Council for Children's Rights in Charlotte, NC and the Departments of Youth and Family Services throughout NC.  CTA is proud to welcome her to our team of Fellows! 


           High profile events involving psychologically-destructive groups have familiarized most Americans with the dangers of cults. Among the most famous are Jim Jones' "The People's Temple" (which resulted in 909 suicides), David Koresh and the Branch Davidians (which resulted in a deadly stand-off with the US government), the Ku Klux Klan, David Berg's "Children of God" (which promoted sex with children), and most recently Warren Jeff's "Fundamental Church of the Latter-Day Saints" (which raised concerns of child physical and sexual abuse). 
            One may easily assume that these groups or cults are scarce, as cult-related events only make the news every year or so. Yet, there are many smaller psychologically-destructive groups that control their members through thought reform and subjugation.  Clinicians should be aware of these influential smaller groups and understand the characteristics of cults, tactics of psychological coercion, the psychological effects of cults, and the warning signs that indicate previous cult membership.
            Many lists of cult characteristics are available, but there are several themes that all of these lists encompass (see below: "What are the Characteristics of Religious Cults?"). First, there is an authoritarian (or all-powerful) leader who is the only person with direct access to God and who is typically revered as God in flesh. Second, the group's main foci are often recruitment and fundraising, and the group believes that the "ends justify the means." Third, psychological coercion (e.g., brainwashing) is used to recruit and retain members. Fourth, members are stripped of autonomy and subjugated (e.g., they live in poverty, have unhealthy diets/sleep patterns to keep them physically weak, and they are required to perform abusive sexual and physical acts). Finally, the group is elitist (e.g., the members feel "special" or "chosen") and does not contribute to society. Instead, cults are usually anti-government and anti-social conventions.
            Psychological coercion is a powerful technique, and people of all levels of education and all types of social classes have succumbed to its persuasion. Tactics include the use of trance-like dissociative states where people are easier to manipulate and coerce (often disguised as relaxation and meditation), extreme offers of love and acceptance countered with harsh punishments for those who rebel, guilt-inducing confessions, promotion of dependency on the group (e.g., requiring child-like, blind faith to achieve favor with God), communal living that precludes familial privacy, and peer group pressure. These tactics, when coupled with dietary and sleep restrictions, slowly indoctrinate the unsuspecting.
            Survivors of these groups are vulnerable to a host of psychological problems - amongst them post-traumatic stress symptoms.  Many of these problems are related to the breakdown of the family unit that occurs in cults (Whitsett & Kent, 2003). For example, parents exhibit emotional regression, which keeps them from being capable parents. Children, then, are left to trust the group leaders - who most often abuse them. Thus, child development is harmed in several ways. First, cognitive development is stunted, as children are not allowed to question the status quo or practice critical thinking. Second, moral development is affected because children are taught right from wrong in a way that differs from the rest of society. Third, emotional development is hindered because children do not learn to become intimate or to trust anyone except selected group leaders - the very ones who abuse them. Further, they are made to feel chronically guilty for their inability to live up to impossible standards.
            Ex-cult members may present as passive, nervous, dependent, untrusting, emotionally regressed, and with symptoms of hyperarousal. Living for even a small amount of time in such a demanding, fear-provoking environment can greatly affect one's interactions with others - sometimes permanently. For more information on the tactics and effects of psychologically destructive cults, see's section on cults and persuasive coercion (link below).

-- Erin P. Hambrick, M.A.
   Clinical Child Psychology Program
   University of Kansas

 Further Reading:

What are the Characteristics of Religious Cults?  This website provides several
different research-based lists of cult characteristics. Facts on cults and persuasive coercion tactics

Whitsett, D. & Kent, S. A. (2003). Cults and families. Families in Society, 84, 491-502.

wolf CTA ANNOUNCES Pilot Project with
Children, Youth, and Families Department of New Mexico:  Valencia County

The CTA is working with Sandhill, one of our NMT Certification Sites, and CYFD to introduce the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) and the Neurosequential Model of Caregiving (NMC) to public systems in New Mexico.  This multi-system training partnership led by the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department will work with existing promising projects and programs in Valencia County to help  with an array of prevention, intervention, rehabilitative and after-care services for children and families in New Mexico.  The long-term goal is to integrate the promising practices of the NMT/NMC approach with other innovative and best practices in mental health, child protection, early childhood, juvenile justice and education.  This initial project will focus on Valencia County and, hopefully, will expand to other communities in New Mexico.  We feel fortunate to have this opportunity and look forward to updating you as this project progresses.
Each month we try to include a little mini-review of a topic of potential interest to our subscribers.  A special thank you to Erin Hambrick for writing the majority of these.  If you have any suggestions for future topics please let us know.  Finally, if you haven't already, check us out on Facebook and Twitter.  We are posting interesting articles and information about upcoming trainings weekly. 

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Emily Perry, M.A.
Jana Rosenfelt, M.Ed., LPC
Christine Dobson, Ph.D.
Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

The ChildTrauma Academy