Abuse, especially of children, continues to be the elephant in the Orthodox room. The news stories won’t go away. The cynicism won’t go away. The problem won’t go away.
While victims cry out for recognition, many average citizens agonize over the glacial speed at which the problem is addressed, the secretiveness of some major players, and the continued besmirching of the Torah community.
All of this goes on while one city has put together a program that not only works, but has become a model of what could be in other communities.
Aleinu is the Orthodox unit of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. It provides a gamut of intervention and counseling services to the frum community. Its hottest asset, however, is a multi-tiered program that addresses abuse. Through Aleinu, the LA Orthodox community shed its previous reputation with some governmental agencies for being secretive, reclusive and uncooperative, and replaced it with one of successful partnership.
A huge amount of credit goes to Debbie Fox, a licensed clinical social worker who just happens to be married to one of my closest friends, Rabbi Dr. David Fox. Debbie has nurtured the project since its infancy, presides over it, administers it, does the detail work, raises the funds, and answers the cell phone at midnight when a call comes in from the LAPD sex crimes unit.
I tried to get Mrs. Fox to talk about the activities of Aleinu’s Halachic Advisory Board (HAB), which is the panel of eight rabbinic volunteers that swings into action when abuse is reported. (When I received a call from a woman complaining of inappropriate behavior by a member of the community, I called Aleinu, and was amazed at how quickly the HAB moved on the report.) Mrs. Fox had other ideas. She would not talk about how the HAB deals with perpetrators before giving me a long description of Aleinu’s educational activities. While dealing with the perpetrator is the more high-profile item today, Aleinu’s goal is to prevent the abuse in the first place.
The program is impressive, and has three discrete components, pertaining to children, teachers, and parents.
Aleinu has materials and programs for children as young as 3-5, and as old as eighth grade. They are based on the latest research and techniques, remastered to fit the needs of the Orthodox community. The artwork portrays people with whom frum kids can identify. (They hope to develop separate materials for chassidishe kids, who need to see different children and authority figures portrayed.) Uncle Moishie did a song incorporating all the rules of safety, personal privacy, and resisting the unwanted advances of others. A team of dedicated and well trained volunteer moms go into the classrooms to speak to the children. They deal directly with where to go when the advances come from the very people whom children are taught to trust, like teachers and parents. The language used is sensitive to the requirements of tzniyus, yet direct. Every individual item and photo used is vetted by the HAB and Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a.
Programs for teachers and schools include such issues as clarifying mandated reporting requirements, and having schools sign on to an articulated list of behaviors that will not be tolerated. Workshops for parents instruct them in their role in equipping their children with safety techniques, and in looking for signs of abuse when children will not verbalize. Some schools have made attending these workshops compulsory.
Complications lurk at every juncture. In some groups within the Orthodox community, certain body parts just don’t have names – at least not that parents communicate to their children. But studies have shown that the risk of abuse increases in children who do not have names for particular body parts. While using those names might not be desirable in the material offered in the classroom to groups of young children (and Aleinu gingerly navigates the issue by not using those names, and speaking instead of areas of the body that are “covered by a bathing suit”), parents should be the ones making sure that their children are informed at appropriate ages. So the video to the parents includes a talk by a prominent Orthodox pediatrician, who speaks of the need, and uses the anatomically correct words. (When some parent who saw the video objected to these terms being used in a public forum, Aleinu asked Rav Shmuel whether they should remove the references. “But that’s the whole point!” the Rosh Yeshiva responded. “If they have any problem, let them come to me!”)
We can protect our kids against abuse, but we are not going to eliminate it entirely. Reports of abuse must be investigated and dealt with. This is where the HAB is called into action.
The members all have significant training, both in dealing with actual incidents, and by a variety of governmental and volunteer agencies. This means that they have benefited from training by the LA Dept of Children’s Services, by Stuart House (an outpatient treatment facility that works with Children’s Services), by the clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute which treats the perps, and by the LAPD Chief of Juvenile Sex Crimes Unit. The group includes talmidei chachamim of sufficient stature to know that secular authorities must often be called in without hesitation.
The HAB evaluates the seriousness of an accusation. Many laypeople are fearful – for good reasons as well as bad ones – to become whistleblowers. They know that some accusations are groundless, and can ruin the reputation of innocent people, together with their families. They also know that silence, on the other hand, can be devastating, also ruining the lives of real victims and their families. The HAB adds objectivity, professional training, and quick connection to the proper agencies to the process of addressing a suspicion. It does not ascertain guilt or innocence. It does determine whether a report or accusation is credible, by gathering information and examining context. If a reasonable suspicion remains, the case is referred to the proper agency or institution, with the understanding that it will provide recommendations to the HAB. The HAB will then turn to the accused perpetrator and explain what he/she is expected to do in cooperating with the given agency. Some of these agencies do not have the legal muscle to force anyone to cooperate. The perpetrator who has met with the HAB, however, understands that the community is “looking in,” and that failure to cooperate will result in even less attractive, and more public, consequences.
To do its job properly, people must feel comfortable in coming forth and speaking to the HAB. The HAB cannot act effectively on anonymous tips. It needs to interview people who are willing to respond to questions. To make it easier for them, the HAB does not insist on victims and witnesses identifying themselves. Aleinu arranges for people to come in at a set time, and testify from behind a visual barrier, so that the rabbis do not know with whom they are speaking. This has proved to be very effective.
Some reports do not concern actual abuse, but of warning signs that a rabbi or teacher may have a problem. The HAB will call that person in. While it does not have any legal authority, the threat of “outing” him is often sufficient to get the person to enroll in a program of therapy and monitoring. In cases of clear and imminent danger, of course, much swifter and more draconian measures are used.
The HAB reacts extremely quickly to reports. Its greatest problem is, tragically, that the caseload is greater than anyone would want to think, and it does take time to get from the first stages of an investigation of a given case to the implementation of a well-structured action plan.
Aleinu has dispelled the greatest concerns of parts of the community that still advocate silence. These people equate all governmental interference as hostile and dangerous. Ironicaly, the trust that Aleinu has been able to generate after a few years of proving itself has translated into a win-win relationship with law enforcement. Going to Aleinu has become their first recourse in any situation that potentially involves an Orthodox person. They prefer to have the problem addressed professionally from within the community! They have learned not to go to an Orthodox home in a black-and-white to investigate rumors of potential abuse (which they are required by law to do), but to come in an unmarked car that will not fire up the rumor mills on the block, and irreparably damage a family’s reputation. Similarly, in non-critical investigations, they have learned not to make an initial inquiry to a home on an Erev Shabbos or Yom Tov, when people lack the time and the calm necessary to provide information that can help them. They have roused Mrs. Fox past midnight to make sure that children taken into protective custody could be place in frum homes rather than non-Jewish homes registered to receive such children. They have even shown flexibility in prosecuting guilty parties when they believed that the pressure of the HAB could get the perp to stick to a successful program of therapy.
Aleinu’s systematized and structured approach met with skepticism years ago in some cities that listened to its presentation. In some places, it is still resisted. Others, however, have come to realize that it is a remarkably successful program. Aleinu now acts as a consultant to a number of other cities here and as far away as Australia. For further information on Aleinu’s activities, go to www.aleinu.net or contact Mrs. Fox at [email protected]
If you city has a program to combat abuse that seems reasonable, give it your support. But if not, perhaps you ought to be asking why.