Sunday, November 2, 2008

Child Abuse -Safety Kid program

Jewish Journal:
Thirteen first-graders sit on the rug in their classroom at Shalhevet School, several with their hands raised. A guest speaker has just asked, "What would happen if you got lost at Toys 'R' Us? Who would be someone you could ask for help?"

"Someone who works there," one of the children calls out.

"Good. And how would you know who works there?" the speaker responds, holding up a picture of a cashier wearing a blue vest.

The speaker, Marlene Kahan, is a volunteer who has come to present Safety Kid. The program -- its full name is the Aleinu Julis Child Safety Program -- was developed by the Aleinu Family Resource Center, the arm of Jewish Family Service that reaches out to the Orthodox community. Safety Kid's goal is to teach day school children about safety issues -- including sexual abuse -- in a culturally sensitive manner. Visual aides show boys and men wearing yarmulkes, as well as women in skirts and children walking to synagogue. Discussions about strangers who might come to the front door mention not only the UPS man, but "the man who comes to collect funds for Eretz Yisrael." The instructional cards are currently being adapted for use in non-Orthodox Jewish day schools as well, and will likely be introduced this school year.

The Safety Kid program is the latest in a series of proactive programs Aleinu has developed over the past few years to protect children from abusive situations and to help parents and institutions know how to handle such crises when they come up.

While in the past abuse was not openly discussed in the Orthodox community, Aleinu has made it a priority to bring the problem to the forefront so that children, parents, teachers and rabbis can deal with it in an informed and intelligent manner. The Los Angeles agency has become a national leader in the Orthodox world in creating these programs and policies.

The urgency for such programs became apparent over the last several years, when incidents of sexual or emotional abuse in Orthodox schools, shuls and youth groups were described in articles in the Jewish press.

The number of incidents in the Orthodox community doesn't exceed the national average, but within the past two years, there have been high-profile incidents in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Aleinu Director Debbie Fox, who developed Safety Kid with colleague Wendy Finn, says that the program was produced in response to such episodes.

"We wanted to do something to help by providing tools which could help prevent future occurrences," Fox said.

More than five years ago, Fox began working with Aleinu's Halachic Advisory Board to develop a conduct policy for school administrators and teachers. The policy stipulates appropriate and inappropriate behavior, both verbal and physical. School personnel also receive training on how to spot and report signs of abuse. Since its introduction in 2002, the policy has been adopted by 28 Los Angeles-area schools. Torah U'mesorah, a national umbrella organization for Orthodox schools, adapted and adopted the policy for its 700 constituent schools.

But Fox wanted something specifically geared for the children -- a way to give them tools to help prevent incidents. She first tried adapting material produced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but found it didn't resonate with Orthodox audiences.

When she shared her concerns, Aleinu board member Mitch Julis and his wife Joleen came forward with a grant to adapt the materials, and Safety Kid was born. The couple has since pledged funding for the next four years. [...]

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