Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Child abuse - David Mandel of Ohel / Jewish Observer

Child Molestation in the Jewish Community: Overblown or Understated

By: David Mandel (Published in the September 2007 issue of The Jewish Observer)

Abstract: A more open dialogue on the issue of child molestation is a key to prevention. It is not stranger danger; child molestation most commonly occurs by a person known to the child. By having a dialogue with your children on personal safety we can help prevent the victimization of children. By removing the shame and stigma associated with victimization, children, adolescents and adults will not be as fearful to report and to seek support. Perpetrators may be less likely to offend children knowing their community will not tolerate their behavior.

Child molestation in the Orthodox Jewish community is not a new phenomenon. This problem, as other social ills, has existed for generations and centuries. The problem of men (and some women) inappropriately touching children, young boys and girls was sufficiently recognized by our great sages. They addressed it in several responsa (Minchas Chinuch, Mitzvah 209). The issue of drug usage has also been commented on, Rav speaking to his son Chiya (Arvei Pesachim 113a). Is our community responding to this problem? The answer, in these past years, has been a resounding yes. Is it enough? NO! There is still so much to do.

Our Roshei Hayeshiva have publicly addressed the issue. In September 2000 at a forum titled “Let’s Talk About What Never Happened, But It Did”, Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita, stated “such an evening brings this issue out from under the rug, and people who need help should seek it from a Rav, a psychologist or a psychiatrist”. Harav Pam z”tl, at the same forum on the issue of depression, spoke of bochurim who believed they sinned based on what they may have learned in divrei mussar, “Don’t let the past linger and paralyze you, don’t feel worthless”. The Rosh Hayeshiva was speaking to victims of molestation who have suffered, who have been burdened, who feel it was their fault. Thousands of tapes of this forum and of a subsequent forum in November 2001 have been disseminated by OHEL.

HaRav Avrohom Chaim Levin, Shlita, Rosh Hayeshiva of Telz Chicago, addressing several hundred principals at a Torah U’Mesorah convention in May 2002 on the issue of child molestation stated, “there is no more room under the carpet”. And most recently at Torah U’Mesorah’s convention in May 2007, HaRav Levin encouraged every yeshiva, day school and high school to address and respond to this issue.

In September 2003, Torah U’ Mesorah, the National Council of Hebrew Day Schools, under the signature of leading Roshei Hayeshivas issued standards and guidelines on prevention and response to child molestation. On the issue of mesirah, reporting, it states “such action may include, under appropriate circumstances, reporting to the civil authorities when the principal determines that there is reason to believe that inappropriate activity has in fact occurred, insofar as halacha and secular law require such reporting”. Professor Aaron Twerksi, Dean of Hofstra Law School, and OHEL were instrumental in working with the Roshei Hayeshivas of Torah U’Mesorah in preparing these guidelines.

Prevention of unwanted touch means parents speaking to their children. Children are unprepared and don’t know how to respond to these terrible acts which go way beyond the boundaries of yichud. Prevention involves yeshivas and day schools providing information and education, parents and teachers becoming more alert to red flags, and Rabonim addressing the issue in shuls. An educated, informed communal response by parents, educators, and Rabonim – three primary sources of information and learning for children at an early age – would lead to fewer children being hurt. Equally important, it could lessen the shame and stigma associated with being a victim of child molestation, which remains the primary reason for underreporting.

This is all not limited to a one-time conversation. A parent knows their child best, what and how many words to use –
V’higadita l’vincha bayom hahu. Rabbi Yehoshua Fishman, Executive Vice President of Torah U’Mesorah, notes the primary responsibility for teaching children these personal issues lies with the parents. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe z”tl, in Planting and Building: Raising a Jewish Child, describes how the Chofetz Chayim z”tl spoke with his sons at age fifteen (Feldheim Publishers 1999, pg 67). As Rav Pam z”tl said, there was only one Chofetz Chayim. It is up to every parent to determine at what age to speak with their child and how often to reinforce this message. Dr. Susan Schulman, a pediatrician in Brooklyn, describes prevention as speaking to your child about good and bad touch at a very early age, then again when they begin school, then again when they go on a bus, then again when they go to camp, then again when they go to a sleep-away Yeshiva. Hillel Sternstein, Coordinator of OHEL’s RESPECT Program on abuse, describes it as teachable moments.

Ninety percent of children who are molested know their abuser. Parents cannot speak about “stranger danger” with their young children and expect them to understand this also means not becoming a victim at the hands of a relative, neighbor or rebbe. This lies at the heart of the complexity of child molestation, being hurt by a person a young child or teenager knows, trusts, loves or admires.

Several yeshivas that wanted to hold seminars on safety and prevention from unwanted touch were reluctant to do so lest they be perceived as engaging in sex education or worse, stigmatizing themselves as a school with a problem.

Professional staff in OHEL’s school-based mental health program and in other well regarded organizations, such as Debbie Fox of Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles who developed a prevention model, provide this information to students, faculty and parents in dignified, professional, age appropriate ways and in lashon nekia (clean language). Yes, it is true that some children may be hearing concepts and words they don’t yet fully comprehend, that by engaging them at an early age we may be opening a door to more information than we would like. On the other hand, one can posit it is better for the child to learn in a structured, safe environment where they can ask questions and know they can turn to parents, a rebbe, morot or teachers to ask questions. This is a much better option than “learning on the street”. [...]

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