In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a consumer fraud case against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) for “fraudulently claim[ing] to provide services that ‘convert’ people from gay to straight” in New Jersey. The plaintiffs were three young men who were 18 or older and two parents who had paid for the harmful and fake “therapeutic services.” In 2015, a jury decided against JONAH, and as part of the settlement the organization was forced to dissolve and not practice conversion therapy of any kind in the state. In December of 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court entered a decision of permanent injunction against JONAH for practicing therapy in the state.

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However, the case against JONAH has continued. In March 2019, SPLC filed against another lawsuit JONAH, now operating under the name Jewish Institute for Global Awareness (JIFGA) for violating the court order in 2015. In June 2019, a judge ruled to the organization violated the order and that JIFGA was to be dissolved.

What is conversion therapy and why is it harmful?

Conversion therapy is a practice that attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or sexual identity through harmful means; basically converting someone from being gay to being straight. Therapists have used shaming techniques, electroshock therapy and other harmful practices in conversion therapy. The National Center of Lesbian Rights notes that techniques include hypnosis, making patients behave “stereotypically feminine or masculine,” and more.

Carl S. Charles, staff attorney at Lambda Legal, explains that conversion therapy, also known as forced conversion and conversion counseling, is “unscientific and harmful.” Major medical institutions, such as the American Psychological Association, have stated that being LGBTQ is not a mental illness and that forced conversion is a harmful, ineffective practice. Mark Momjian, attorney at Momjian Anderer, LLC, explains, “The actual therapy is dangerous. It leads to depression, anxiety. It can lead to suicide, drug use” and more.

Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel at SPLC who worked on the JONAH case, explains that some parents send their children to conversion therapy because they are worried about the life they will lead. “They take to the internet and they see this stuff sounds psychological and reasonable to them. They are motivated to help their child. They don’t realize what they unwittingly sending their child down in a path that does result in harm.”

Is conversion therapy outlawed in some states?

Yes, some states have “prohibited state-licensed mental health professionals from engaging in efforts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a young person under 18 years of age.” California was the first state to prohibit the practice in 2012, and additional states have followed including Illinois and Oregon. New York and Massachusetts recently banned the practice. However, fewer than half the states in the US ban the practice.

Charles points out that while these bans outlaw licensed professionals, there are unlicensed professionals running forced conversion programs. These take place in church or synagogue basements, special camps, and other unregulated situations. “A lot of these places are allowed to fly under the radar. Many people feel shame and are worried about talking about what they experienced. I think too that extends to parents who may have had good intentions or at least neutral intentions, and didn’t get educated about children’s gender identity or sexual orientation and looks up this place online and seems okay but the child is saying ‘this is not okay,’” says Charles.

What can a minor do if they are forced into one of these conversion therapy programs?

Unfortunately, if both parents want the child to go into the program, the options are limited. Momjian explains that in this situation, there is not a lot of recourse for minors because “minors are prevented from entering into contracts to retain professional services” like an attorney. Generally, “the state imputes to the parents the authority to make decisions in their children’s best interest.” Third parties, such as concerned family members or friends, lack standing or lack the ability to intervene in that decision-making.

Momjian notes one possible defense is that minors seek to be emancipated from their parents. Children are usually emancipated when they reach the age of 18 or finish high school, whichever is later. However, a minor could become emancipated from their parents, which often means leaving the parental home and supporting oneself, then they couldn’t be forced. However, emancipation may not be an option for many minors in these situations. Minors in these situations may want to look at resources at advocacy groups like GLAAD, Trevor Project, or National Center for Transgender Equality.

If one parent disagrees with the decision to force the child into therapy, however, there is recourse for the minor. The parent can agree to allow representation to prevent the child from being forced into therapy.

When should someone hire an attorney to protect against these services?

There are several instances where people may want to consider hiring an attorney. In situations where one parent objects to forced conversion program for their minor, an attorney can be consulted.

Charles suggests people should consider an attorney “if you or someone in your family has been to counseling, and you were not sure it was licensed and they tried to change your sexual orientation or sexual identity... It was a harmful experience, and even if that person was unlicensed, there are all sorts of protections in the law for torts, intentional infliction of emotional distress.” McCoy points out that all states have consumer fraud laws and that attorneys can file cases against these fraudulent practices, just as SPLC did with JONAH.

Charles also notes that in states with conversion therapy bans, if a mental health professional does engage in conversion therapy, one should consider reporting them to the licensing board in the state. However, in states without the ban, one may wish to consider an advocacy program or a qualified private attorney in your area.