Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Other Victims

Guest Post by Rabbi Dovid Landesman

The following guest post is by a man on the front lines of Chinuch. He presents 'the other side of the coin' on the issue of child abuse. The way abuse has been handled in the past has rightly generated much anger in the Orthodox world. Too much attention was paid to a Rebbe’s rights and very little to the rights of an abuse victim. That is changing. But the problems are far from solved.

That said we cannot afford to lose sight of the damage that can be caused by false accusations of abuse. In our zealousness to protect our children - innocent people can and will be accused. The rush to judgment can ruin lives. Once an accusation is made public, it remains a stigma no matter how innocent an individual is.

This is not to say there should be any less vigilance. Certainly if we err - it should be on the side of the child. But great care should be taken before we act in a way that can destroy innocent people.

Bearing this in mind it is my view that when there is accusation by a child against a Rebbe the first line of defense should be to protect the child. To that end the accused Rebbe should be quietly told to call in ‘sick’ and not show up in school until the matter is fairly investigated.

Private investigators should be hired with a mandate to use discretion and protect the reputation of those being investigated. Child psychiatrists with expertise in these matters should be brought in to evaluate the child and his or her accusation. If as a result there is credible basis to an accusation then it should immediately be reported to the police. That, in my view is the prudent course of action.

I now present Rabbi Landesman’s guest post. It is a bit long but it is an important ‘other side’ of the issue that should be read by all concerned. Here now Rabbi Landesman’s words.

For the past ten years I served as principal of one of the largest and most famous Modern Orthodox yeshiva high schools in the country. Let me tell you of two instances that occurred in our yeshiva that demonstrate the need for moderation and, more importantly, caution in reacting to cases of reported abuse.

It should be noted that as a school principal, I am a mandated reporter and under our state's law, I can be jailed for failure to immediately report cases of "suspected" abuse to the city's child services agency and to the police.

Case # 1

I was in my office making final preparations for my weekly parshat ha-shavua shiur. I received a call from a parent, a prominent local attorney, demanding to see me immediately, and if I did not he would go straight to the police.

I understood from his threat that the matter was serious enough to cancel the shiur. He came into my office and placed a tape recorder on my desk. "Rabbi, I want you to hear this!' he said as he turned it on. It was a recording an answering machine in his son's room made that morning

The recording "sounded" like the voice of one of our rabbeim graphically describing what he planned to do to the young man and urging him not to inform his parents. The father/attorney was, needless to say, extremely angry and demanded that I immediately call the police as required by law. He told me that he had not done so himself as a courtesy to me.

I was shocked but had to admit that the voice did sound like the rebbi. I got the father to agree to take me to his home and allow me to hear the original recording. I shuddered when I heard the voice that sounded like the rebbi's.

At this point, I was legally required to call child's services and police. But I was reluctant. There was a question gnawing at the back of my head. "How could the rebbi have been so stupid and leave a graphic message on the kid's answering machine?"
I convinced the irate father that we should hear his son's version of the story. To his great credit, he agreed.

We went back to the yeshiva and I called the young man into my office. I allowed the father to describe the purpose of our meeting and when he did, his son burst out laughing and explained that the call was a prank that he and his friends had been playing on each other, using the services of one talmid who is an outstanding mimic.

Case # 2

A young man who, informed a female teacher that he was being abused by his father. As required, she immediately informed me and I immediately brought the young man into my office.

He reluctantly told me that his father beat him often and showed me welts across his stomach and back. Honestly, I was aghast and did not doubt the veracity of his testimony, despite the fact that the father in question is a prominent rav.

However, having read and attended numerous workshops on the subject of child abuse, I knew that there is no standard profile. So, I decided to call child services and the police based on the evidence I had.

A social worker from child services arrived at the school within the hour accompanied by a detective. They interviewed the young man - in my presence and then proceeded to his home. The boy was left in my custody. I took him out to dinner. He was extremely agitated and nervous which I understood to be a normal reaction to the situation. I reassured him that he had done the right thing.

He asked me what would happen to his father and I explained that the social worker and detective were professionals and would do whatever was necessary to insure the family's safety. He asked me if his father would go to jail.

By this time the boy was sobbing which I attributed to the fact that he was blaming himself for the trouble that his father was in. My attempts in calming him were interrupted by a cell phone call from the detective asking me to meet them at the young man's home.

We drove over and the detective took the young man aside while the social worker informed me that it was their determination that the boy had falsely accused the father. The welts on his back and stomach - they discovered - were hives which had formed as a result of a reaction to medication as corroborated by the family physician.

I would also like to point out that both the social worker and the detective deserve credit for having acted with discretion and unusual sensitivity. The social worker had insisted that they go to the home in her car rather than in the policeman's vehicle so that rumors not begin in the neighborhood. She also had a deep understanding of the dynamics of an observant family - which she told me had made her suspicious of the truthfulness of the boy's initial testimony. Sadly, in many of my dealings with child services and with the local police, the two people who responded were an exception to the rule.

I offer these two stories so that you readers might understand how important it is to be absolutely certain that you have all of the facts before you talk or act. In the first case, had I called the police immediately - as required - the reputation, career and family of the rebbi would have been harmed beyond repair - for he would have been taken in for questioning and the discovery of his innocence would have been buried somewhere deep in the newspaper.

In the second case, had the detective and social worker acted according to the rule book, the father would not have been questioned in the presence of his wife and the young man as well as his five siblings might have been sent for foster care - during a discovery process that can drag on for months.

Yes, Houston, we do have a problem and it must be dealt with as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. At the same time we must beware of witch hunts.

Yeshiva administrators [in all sectors] have not led the battle against abuse in the schools until this point. However, it is their responsibility to do so. Legitimate pressure should be placed upon them to make sure that they are doing their job.

It is important that during this period of bein hametzorim and the nine days before Tishah b'Av we be extremely careful in not reaching erroneous conclusions about each other. Remember that while kol hamatzil nefesh achat b'Yisrael k'ilu hitzil olam maleh, the corrolary of that dictum is that kol ha'm'abed nefesh m'yisrael k'ilu hichriv olam kulo.

May Hashem grant us the wisdom to understand our responsibilities and fulfill them in a spirit of achdus and ahavah bein adam l'chaveiro.