After a professional meeting at a local family center of the public health system, I was feeling disconsolate. Before I left, I had stopped to talk with one of the group’s senior psychologists. Among many topics, we discussed current manipulative groups, including some in our area. What sadness came over me when the senior psychologist remarked that it was not entirely wrong for users of the family center to go to magical-spiritual groups, or even manipulative sects. This professional woman informed me that she had participated in such practices on several occasions. She listened to my cautious but firm opposition. While this doctor touted the value of her opinions on alternative therapies, another psychologist openly admired and complimented her stance. A social worker was more detached and hesitant, but did not appear alarmed overall, suggesting that one shouldn’t wear blinders because everything and anything could be beneficial.
When I gently suggested the need for a protocol to follow in helping the center’s clients, my professional peer group turned vigorously against me. They felt it was absurd to have a protocol for clients, that they could best be helped with improvised methods developed on an individual basis. They refused to discuss either the value of a practical response or the design of an effective professional model for addressing these issues. Feeling helpless in the face of such madness, my heart rebelled at the thought that clients might find themselves in treatment at such hands! My anguish and despair increased as I reflected upon conflicted families, especially children, seeking therapeutic help.
Having spent many years confronting the power of manipulative groups who apply psychological conditioning to subdue and direct others to their own purposes, I found it particularly frustrating that the officers of a public institution, supposedly dedicated to helping society, could share such dangerously superficial attitudes. I remembered a case only a year prior when a simple, uneducated older woman, followed by the family center, told me the sad story of her granddaughter, who was caught in the middle of her parents’ custody fight. During the parental crisis, the young mother was under the shadow of a group dominated by a charismatic leader. After reviewing notes from that case, I was not surprised to discover that the young woman had been treated by the same psychologist who minimized my concerns. The grandmother was correct about the role of the charismatic leader in this family’s splitting up.
Near the end of 2004 or early 2005, I made a decision. I realized that it was not worthwhile to address these issues through the psychology unit of the local health department or local chartered psychological association. As a lone voice, my word would not be recognized. And if colleagues together denied my claims, there was an additional risk of libel. Perhaps, I thought, I could have an impact by raising political awareness of this problem. A mutual friend provided an introduction to the Regional Counselor (more or less equivalent to a state representative in the United States of America), Roberto Asquini, who my friend believed was a sensible, professional, and decent person. Thus began my activities as president of the Associazione di volontariato SOS Abusi Psicologici, Volunteer Association SOS for Psychological Abuse, with the Giunta Regionale, the Regional Council.
In the legislative conversation, interpellation 410, that followed, Counselor Asquini asked, among other things,
if the Regional Council Board was aware of a positive attitude toward unorthodox health treatments, such as those highlighted by health professionals or regional consultants;
if the Committee alerted consultants and practitioners about the potential negative consequences of a psychological treatment group that uses methods that are not documented or recognized by international medical or scientific organizations;
if it was expressly forbidden for practitioners from public health facilities and clinics to attend, or to suggest or advise that their clients/patients attend, therapy groups whose psychological foundations did not conform to internationally recognized scientific protocols.
Then the Regional Council, represented by its president Riccardo Illy, responded in part with the following:
that the report was too generic, and that agencies had not determined specific episodes in this regard;
that it is not the Board’s duty to alert operators about their professional behavior;
that this is a unique governing body;
that the freedom of a practitioner’s thought is rightly protected, and that the pursuit and passion for unconventional ideas or practices cannot be prevented unless expressly prohibited by law.
The full response of the Board is available for reading at this link: http://www.sosabusipsicologici.it/images/pdf/risposta_giunta.pdf
I interpreted the Council’s response as indicating that practitioners may be passionate about unusual ideas or practices. However, practitioners should not be allowed to freely transmit such imaginative concepts to their patients in the exercise of a public function, nor as a function of their professional agencies. Health-care practitioners are in contact with pain and suffering more than other professionals and, therefore, should practice in a manner consistent with protocols that exclude the use of alternative groups or unofficial therapies. Although this process and response did not address the problem on a global scale, the effort was an important first step.
Since then, I have continued to work with the SOS group, particularly the lawyer Teresa Dennetta and the psychologist and psychotherapist Paolo Ballaben, to educate politicians; to increase people’s awareness so that they can avoid falling victim to subtle manipulation; and, if necessary, to help individuals get out of manipulative groups. Oftentimes our cases fortunately have no contact with local public health centers. Many cases occur in alternative groups that are variously defined: sect groups; magical, spiritual, human potential, and alternative religions; groups who manipulate psychologically; or other unnamed categories. Increasingly, manipulators subdue others with personal charisma or by exploiting a victim’s fragility or vulnerability. From professional experience, we know the inherent difficulties our clients face when trying to free themselves from those who exploit or subjugate them. It is also hard to help families overcome with grief after they lose a loved one who has been ensnared in a destructive ideology. Many of our clients are elderly victims of manipulators familiar with legal loopholes.
Seven years have passed since that sad afternoon, and perseverance has borne its fruit. The Regional Council unanimously approved regional law n. 11 of 31.05.2012 on May 22, 2012. The law is the result of a joint effort and exchange of information and perspectives between politicians and those who share values and goals that, in our case, reflect the needs of those who suffer subtle abuse that they are often ashamed to acknowledge. Because they are reluctant to speak about the abuse or because they don’t know whom to speak to, these victims and their families are often alone and left at the mercy of their abuser(s).
This law makes the Friuli Venezia Giulia region the first Italian region to have adopted a specific law to combat and prevent forms of undue influence; dependency induced by manipulation and control in the relational life of individuals; and behaviors and techniques designed and implemented by other individuals or groups, including some religious organizations, to alter one’s self-determination.
This law places our region in the international avant-garde. Workers from other countries have already requested translations of the law into other languages so that they can explore how this legislative approach could be applied outside of Italy.
Naturally, we are proud of achieving this goal on behalf of victims of manipulation. Years of effort have brought validation. A special acknowledgement of gratitude must go to Consigliere Roberto Asquini, who immediately understood the dramatic situations that inspired our efforts. We also acknowledge the other signatories, directors Consiglieri Piccin, Sasco, and Ferone for their support through the entire initiative. A special note of appreciation goes to all the members of the Regional Council of Friuli Venezia Giulia, and particularly Consigliere Anna Maria Menosso, who voted unanimously in favor of this legislation.
We are proud to be part of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, which often distinguishes itself by its progressive practices. On behalf of all families affected by this problem, I can confidently express their heartfelt gratitude for this legislation.
Appendix: Regione Autonoma Friuli Venezia Giulia – Italia – Law 11 – 31.05.2012
Regulations to support people’s rights and their complete intellectual, psychological, and moral freedom.
1. Region Friuli Venezia Giulia pursues, upholds, and protects the rights and full intellectual, psychological, and moral freedom of each individual.
2. The Central Directorate for Healthcare, Social and Medical Integration and Social Policies promotes the creation of projects to assist citizens against every kind of manipulation and control in their social life, thus preventing and countering inducement to dependence through techniques and behaviors that affect individual self-determination.
3. The Central Directorate for Healthcare, Social and Medical Integration and Social Policies promotes the creation of policies to educationally, psychologically, and legally support and help victims of psychological dependence who fall within the parameters envisaged by the present law.
(Projects supporting the individual)
1. Projects to enforce the purposes of the present law may be submitted by voluntary and socially useful nonprofit associations that have been operating in the region for at least three years and have gained know-how and expertise in preventing and countering forms of dependent behavior induced by manipulation and control in personal social life, as well as by techniques and behaviors aimed at modifying individual self-determination enacted by individuals, independent organizations, and apparently religious-like groups.
2. Projects as described in paragraph 1 may portend the opening of specifically dedicated support and help desks, located at dedicated sites.
(Support and help desks for victims)
1. Help desks as per article 2 guarantee the presence of adequately skilled and expert professionals, who shall perform the following activities:
a) hold talks with the victims and/or their relatives to identify manipulation techniques and behaviors;
b) advise the victims and their relatives on help and support procedures, as well as exit solutions from any kind of manipulation and control as described in article 1, paragraph 2;
c) promote the organization of informational activities in the region to prevent the phenomenon as described in article 1 paragraph 2.
(Psychological assistance and legal safeguarding for victims)
1. In case of need, in which a victim of abuse does not have the means or is particularly incapable of reacting, such victim, or his/her family members if provided for by law, may request and apply for the Region’s support as far as the cost of psychological therapy and legal aid is concerned.
2. The application submitted pursuant to paragraph 1 shall be accepted if
a) there is favorable and binding opinion issued by a help desk as per article 3;
b) annual family income is lower than 30,000 euro gross multiplied by each of the family members, or the victim is underage.
1. Regional regulations, to be issued within 90 days from the enactment of the present law, and following the opinion by the competent Council Committee, shall define
a) criteria for the enforcement of provisions as per articles 2 and 3, specifically concerning qualification and basic experience requirements of operators and association;
b) criteria and procedures according to which the contributions are granted for the interventions provided for in article 2, 3, and 4.
[This article contains the technical financial rules and the total amount reserved in the budget. The budget is implemented at the end of every year for the following one. For this year, the provisions are only for the starting period.]
Cristina Caparesi is a doctor in pedagogy and a family mediator. Her academic concentration was in applied pedagogy, criminology, and criminological administration. In the field of psychological abuse, her interest was first directed to cultic studies with her thesis, entitled Education and Socialization in the Family: A Modern Cult (University of Trieste, 2000). Since 2004, she has been a consultant to a voluntary association in Northern Italy, SOS Abusi Psicologici (http://www.sosabusipsicologici.it/), giving assistance and information for conflicts and abuses in cultic environments. Since 2007, she has been directing two public centers accredited by Region Friuli Venezia Giulia (Italy), which offer professional help to workers who are victims of work harassment. She is the president of EXITs.c.s. onlus, a social cooperative specialized in giving social services, in particular to victims of psychological abuse (stalking, gender violence, work harassment, bullying, etc.) through the development of educational services, assistance, and information. She is ICSA Today’s news co-correspondent for Italy.
Roberto Asquini was born on September 7th, 1964, in Udine, where he lives at Feletto Umberto. He is married and has two children. He has run a small business in the field of informatics and administration and has had experience in teaching professional courses.
In addition to his professional activity, he has significant experience in administration and politics. In the current legislature, he is a Regional Counselor and the president of a Mixed Group active in the right-center coalition. Previous to this, he had been vice-president of the Regional Council (previous legislature, 2003 to 2008); and in the legislature of 1998 to 2003, he had been the president of the Committee for Budget. He has also been elected twice (the first time at the age of 27) as a member of the Parliament’s Deputy Chamber; he also served in the first Berlusconi government as Under-Secretary of the Finance Ministry. He presided over cultural-political and athletic associations as a voluntary service. From 1995 to 1998, he served as Counselor in Udine Town Hall.
His interest in the sectarian phenomenon began in 2005, when he served as a consultant to the Regional Council, run by Riccardo Illy, on crazy therapies and began a relationship with SOS Abusi Psicologici (at that time, the association was known as CESAP-FRIULI).
Since then, he has participated in gatherings and meetings on the subject, becoming more aware of the problems connected to sectarianism. In addition to supporting political goals, such as increasing security for citizens and families, reducing taxes, and simplifying bureaucratic administration, he is committed to supporting the renewal of the political class and educating a new generation of young people in order to include them in the public institutions.
 According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition), “To question (a person) formally: a form of political challenge to members of the administration in legislative bodies of certain countries.”
 The translation of the law was provided by the Regional Council.