Tuesday, June 5, 2012

More problems with Agudath position on reporting abuse

See my previous post here for the basic background.

Well, it looks like the Agudath position is even worse than I previously thought.

The Forward recently published an article, reporting on their interview with Agudath head Rabbi David Zwiebel and director of communications Avi Shafran. In that article, they make several points explicitly clear:

1. Anyone who didn't personally witness the abuse is required to get rabbinic permission before making a report to authorities.

2. There is no registry of rabbis specially trained in this field, precisely because they don't want any such rabbis to be arrested. [According to this logic, a rabbi counselling a parent not to report a child's allegations of abuse to authorities could be fine - the concern is just that having a panel of trained rabbis would attract the attention of secular authorities.]

3. He quotes head Haredi rabbi Elyashiv as commenting on the potential harm of a false allegation - but fails to mention that the same rabbi had explicitly ruled that a Jew with a reasonable suspicion of abuse was permitted to go to secular authorities. It was the Agudath Israel organization - not Rabbi Elyashiv - who imposed the condition that one had to get a rabbi to agree that reasonable suspicion existed.

4. They make it clear that a rabbi wouldn't just tell a parent to report if their child disclosed abuse, but that the rabbi might conduct some sort of investigation himself. In Shafran's words:

Asked how a rabbi could ascertain whether a child is lying, Shafran said, “There are certain subtle [signs] in a child that show whether the child is fantasizing.” He said these indicators included a child’s tone of voice or specific things he or she says.

Offering the hypothetical example of a parent who came to a rabbi after his child told him she had been abused by a teacher, Zwiebel said the rabbi’s decision on whether the parent can go to law enforcement “depends on whether your child has the habit of fantasizing. It depends on whether your child and the teacher have had run-ins in the past. It may require some level of nuance and investigation [by a rabbi] that go beyond the mere allegation.”

Zwiebel said that concerned ultra-Orthodox parents could consult their own rabbi, who, if not experienced in dealing with abuse cases, could find another rabbi equipped to help. The consulting rabbi could, if necessary, also turn to a mental health professional or a social worker to assess the claims, Zwiebel said.

Read my previous post for a full explanation of just how bad an idea this is. Even in the best case scenario, with everyone having the best intentions, this is a recipe for disaster. You have a rabbi with no training in child protection assessing credibility and possibly conducting their own investigation - in other words, doing exactly what the child protection workers are trained to do. Unlike child protection workers, however, there is no duty to keep accurate, timely records of the investigation, no training, no supervision and no duty to uphold the law. Furthermore, ANY interviewing by rabbis can taint the evidence. Child protection workers need disclosure to be made as quickly as possible, with as little interfere as possible, in order to get the most accurate information. Once again, there is no acknowledgement or understanding that child protective services INVESTIGATES reports of suspected abuse, and doesn't automatically cart anyone off on the basis of a mere report.

In the worst case scenarios, any child who has problems - and it's not unreasonable to expect that a child being abused would have problems - becomes a target as the teacher is immune from being reported.

5. They are instructing mandated reporters to go against the law.

Under New York State Law, social workers and mental health therapists are classified as so-called “mandated reporters,” with an absolute legal obligation to report to law enforcement authorities when they suspect child abuse may have occurred. But Zwiebel has stated that mandated reporters who are members of the Orthodox community are also not exempt from obtaining rabbinic permission first.

Does he realize that he has just ensured that agencies will be forced to interrogate religious Jewish social workers and mental health professionals, to make sure that they aren't following the Agudath Israel dictates?

Does he also realize that he is undermine the legal protections for children? The mandated reporting systems ensures that there are multiple ways that abuse can be detected and reported. Agudath Israel's policy is to remove that, and force reporting to go through gatekeepers from the community.

6. Despite all of the uproar, they are still either completely ignorant of mandatory reporting requirements, or deliberately misrepresenting them.

Zwiebel said the rabbinic imperative to assess claims before reporting them to police was similar to what he characterized as a requirement for teachers and therapists to establish “reasonable suspicion” before reporting a case to law enforcement under New York’s mandatory reporting laws.

But state guidelines issued pursuant to those laws set the bar much lower. A mandated reporter does not even need a child’s claim of abuse to go to the police. “Your suspicion can be as simple as distrusting an explanation for an injury,” one of the guidelines states.

7. They are turning this into a political battle, with some severely misplaced priorities.

Tapping the manila folder containing the rabbinic pronouncements on sex abuse, Zwiebel said the Aguda’s first loyalty is to “the weight of rabbinic authority in the world today.”

Really? You're first loyalty isn't to justice, or to protecting children? Or even to the will of G-d?

No, they've set this up as a political battle between themselves and secular authories. Rabbinic authority shall prevail - even if their alleged rabbinic authority ruled that reporting abuse was permissible and if they themselves were the ones to invent the requirement for rabbinic approval to make a report. There is plenty of concern that a panel of rabbis could be "vulnerable" to arrest, and plenty of concern about false allegations, but precious little concern for vulnerable children.

Slifkin also comments on the absurdity of Zwiebel's positions here

My one ray of hope comes from the Jewish mothers on imamother.com:


Agudath Israel may not feel that they have to answer to secular authorities - but they will need to answer to Jewish mothers, especially as increasing numbers of those mothers are becoming aware of just how twisted this policy is and how vulnerable their children are in any institution under the Agudath Israel umbrella. Perhaps we will see changes when they refuse to support this organization or allow their children to be entrusted to anyone following their policies.