Monday, July 25, 2011

Problems in the Agudath position on abuse reporting

Here is the latest statement by Agudath Israel on reporting suspicions of child abuse.

In a nutshell, it says "yes, child abuse is bad and you may really need to report it - but you can't do so unless you speak to a rabbi first".

Here's my list of what's wrong with that position, written from my perspective as a family and child protection lawyer who has worked for a child protection agency and also worked with victims of abuse and parents accused of abuse.

1. HUGE potential for conflict-of-interest, at best, and cover-up of abuse at worst. Unfortunately, there have been cases of abuse by rabbis or teachers, where nobody did anything to stop the abuser.

I have to wonder whether these people are completely unaware of everything that has been happening in the rest of the world for the past 20 years when it comes to abuse awareness, particularly sexual abuse. Do they not know about the crisis in the Catholic Church, or about the multi-million dollar claims against religious organizations that ran orphanages and residential schools?

2. Nobody has identified who these expert rabbis may be, or what qualifications they have.

3. Assumes that followers are incapable of using their own brains to be able to know when there are clear-cut indications of abuse. The Agudath Israel could have just as easily said, "We have been in contact with child protection officials, and here are some guidelines as to when there would be an obligation to report".

4. There's no indication that they recognize just what child protection workers do, or just how important it is to make reports without delay. I really can't stress this enough. Child protection workers don't simply swoop in and take children just on the basis of a phone call from someone saying, "I think that child X is being abused". The phone call merely alerts them to potential problems and gets them to investigate whether or not there is in fact a reason to get involved. Now, in order to properly investigate, the concern needs to be reported ASAP to child protection officials - before physical evidence disappears, before a young child forgets what they have said, before too many people have spoken to the child. Any evidence really needs to be as fresh as possible.

5. Asking a rabbi first can easily lead to tainting or tampering with the evidence, especially if they speak to the child before police or child protection officials do. Again, it is vitally important for child protection officials to know EXACTLY what a child has said, to whom they have said it, and when they said it. Anything said to or asked of the child can make a difference.

6. Creates a suspicion that any religious Jewish professional or organization may not comply with mandated reporting requirements. This could in turn mean that child protection organizations won't be able to work with these people or organizations.

For example, where I live, Jewish Family and Child Services is licensed to act as a child protection agency. This means that a Jewish child is more likely to have a Jewish social worker, to receive services in Hebrew if needed, to be placed in a Jewish foster home, and to generally get religiously and culturally-appropriate services. I can't stress how important this is for Jewish families. I've handled cases where Portuguese clients were able to get Portuguese social workers, Portuguese counselling, and Portuguese foster homes, and it was wonderful because language, religious and cultural issues never became a problem. On the other hand, I've had cases where I had to explain why the Jehovah's Witness child couldn't celebrate Halloween, and why the Hindu child shouldn't be fed beef in the foster home, and dealt with suspicions of racism by Native parents, and even dealt with a social worker who told me with a straight face that my illiterate Somali client who spoke no English had just signed away her legal rights without needing to speak to a lawyer. In short, Jewish families and child benefit from Jewish services - but not if there are concerns that abuse won't be reported as required by law.

7. Eliminates potential safeguards for Jewish children, and puts the decision into the hands of just a few: With the mandatory reporting system, there are many people who may potentially report a concern - teachers, daycare workers, doctors, nurses, counselors, etc. Agudath's position would take these diverse potential sources of reporting, and force them to go through just a few gatekeepers. This is an enormous concentration of power, with tremendous potential for harm if mistakes are made.

8. It doesn't acknowledge problems that have occurred with a "culture of silence", aside from a simple statement that in obvious cases, abuse should be reported. Far more self-reflection is needed, far more education on the effects and dynamics of abuse (particularly sexual abuse) is required.

It doesn't talk about conversations that parents need to have with children about abuse prevention.

It doesn't talk about awareness programs for students and staff in schools.

It doesn't talk about making sure that students know which adults they can tell if there are problems.

It doesn't talk about methods to ensure that a potential abuser is not allowed around children pending an investigation.

It doesn't talk about ways of overcoming reluctance to report in a small, insular community.

It doesn't talk about removing old administrators who may have swept problems under the rug.

It doesn't talk about what needs to be done to ensure that victims are not re-victimized and that their families are not terrorized.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

World perspective of my 8-year-old

I often get this feeling during a debate where I want to yell "don't you know..." or "don't you remember", and then stop myself as I realize that no, they don't know what I know, and/or they are too young to remember what I do.

My 8-year-old said a couple of things that drove home to me just how much her view of the world can be different than mine. She's a very bright girl - but she's only 8.

Those 2 things were:

"Mommy, what's are Jesus?", and "What's 9/11?".

Now, when I was her age, I was going to a public school where most of the kids were Christian, and as an adult I live in an extremely multicultural world. Our Jewish neighbourhood is just one part of my life. I like the fact that my kids have a strong identity and are able to feel "normal" instead of constantly feeling like a minority - but I forget sometimes just how different their upbringing is from what mine was, and just how much they are living in a Jewish bubble. Until she attended a camp on the Italian side of town last summer, she had never heard of Jesus. She wasn't actually aware that Jesus was a person - she just assumed that it was the plural form of jeez, and has no idea what that was.

The second question floored me even more. We were in New York last winter, and went to Ground Zero. My older daughter knew all about 9/11. She had been a toddler when it happened, and it's part of her earliest memories. Kids at daycare and school talked about it, and she saw us watching footage on TV. My 8-year-old, though, is 3 years younger, and was born 13 months after the attacks. Even though it was still all around us, from our books to conversations, she was in her little-kid world and never clued in, preferring endless Disney programs to CNN. It never occurred to me, however, that she DIDN'T know about it until she asked me that question.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A simple comment and a great lady

4 years ago, we were going through a stressful time. We had a big move and renovation. In the middle of all of that chaos, several people close to us tragically died. With all of that, plus some negative experiences on a religious internet forum, I was experiencing a bit of a spiritual crisis.

In the middle of it all, one simple comment from a new neighbour made a difference.

We had been invited for lunch since we had just moved in, and we got to know each other. They mentioned that their child had gone to a school for kids with special needs when she was younger. I mentioned that my sister's mother-in-law had been the principal, and then informed them that she had just passed away that week.

They were shocked and saddened, and told us she must have gone straight to G-d in heaven because of all the great work she did.

THAT was the comment that moved me, simple as it was. You see, by some standards, my sister's mother-in-law would not have been considered "frum" (religiously observant), and I was worn out by online discussions blasting those who weren't maintaining the latest rules, and other fanatic remarks. I was also worn out by the casual disrespect that I often saw, where people would say that a non-frum person kept "nothing".

This family saw beyond that. They saw a lady who obviously recognized the holiness of every child's soul, regardless of that child's abilities, and who had dedicated her life to these children.

A great lady passed away 4 years ago, and we know that she went straight to heaven.