The Children of God (COG) was started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, USA. Many early converts were drawn from the hippie era and Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The group later changed its name to the Family of Love, The Family and recently The Family International. It has also used a significant number pseudonyms and front organizations for its acitvities. After a number of image makeovers, The Family International now refers to itself as a church, and prefers to be known as a wholesome, family-values New Religious Movement (NRM), albeit with alternative views and counter culture. It is however, still widely referred to as a cult in the media, often as the free-love sex cult or The Family Cult.
The Children of God created controversy with its ideas of apocalypticism and revolution against the outside world that they call "the System," along with its central tenet that true disciples must drop out and "forsake all." Forsaking all literally entails abandoning all responsibilities and cutting ties with any and all—job, school, family, friends, and selling all that they have, handing over the entire proceeds to the group. Disciples assume a new biblical name and identity—true legal names are often kept a secret even from each other. Like deep cover role play without any possibility of debriefing, some members who joined as teenagers in the late 60s are still incognito today.
In 1974 the group launched a new form of so-called evangelism called Flirty Fishing—using sex to win converts and support. The practice was supposedly discontinued in 1987 due to fears of the AIDS epidemic.
The group’s liberal sexuality—its publication and distribution of writings, photographs and videos advocating and documenting adult-child sexual contact and the sexualization of children—led to numerous reports of child sexual abuse. A major judicial investigation in 1995 found The Family to have had a highly sexualized environment for children, with abuse at significantly higher levels than the rest of society at large; their home schooling policies inadequately supporting the pursuit of tertiary education, i.e. education past a basic secondary or grade-school level. Major reforms were forced upon the group, and a charter of responsibilities and rights was published as a result.
Family leadership, admitting only that some children were abused from 1978 until 1986, created policies prohibiting excessive discipline and sexual contact between adults and minors. Those found to have abused children after December 1988 are supposedly excommunicated, but their crimes are also allegedly often left unreported to the police. In a now-exposed secret directive, current leader Karen Zerby declared in 1993 that child-adult sex is not inherently wrong. She explained that although they were forced to show outsiders they were complying with the law, members should not lose sight of what they truly believe on the inside. To deny culpability and uphold its image makeover, The Family requires members to leave the group if they wish to report child abuse to a law enforcement agency, or pursue legal action against an alleged abuser within the group—as a result they can technically say that no members have reported any sexual crimes as of late.
Founder David Berg, who initially lived with the first colonies (their early name for Communities or Homes), moved away to live in secret locations known only to top ranking leaders of the group. He communicated with his followers via Mo Letters—directives on a myriad of spiritual and practical subjects—until his death in late 1994, when his mistress Karen Zerby took over leadership of the Family.
The January 2005 murder-suicide of heir apparent Ricky Rodriguez led to considerable renewed media attention on the group and its treatment of children growing up in their environments.