Friday, July 03, 2020

Before Judging, Wait for the Verdict

I am loathe to criticize an organization like Ohel. Ohel (established in 1969) is social service agency that deals mostly with the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. It provides a wide array of services ranging from providing foster care for children, to providing shelters for women that have been in abusive relationships, to treating children that have been sexually abused.... and much more. They have a dedicated staff of professional experts and workers trained in various aspects of mental health.

I believe that they have done a lot more good than bad. By far. 50 years is a long time. And even those cases that did not quite work out as hoped for, it was not for a lack of trying. They have a fine reputation among Orthodox Jews which is well deserved.

But even the best of social service agencies can make mistakes. As much as I believe they have done a lot of good, I also believe that – sometimes they missed the mark.  There is no dishonor in admitting a mistake when it happens. And to commit to correcting it.  

Ohel has in the past been harshly criticized by survivors of child sexual abuse and their advocates - accusing them of mishandling certain cases of it. If they did mishandle those cases, they deserved to be criticized. But I am not going to dwell on the past. I don’t recall the details of any of those accusations or whether there was any kind of just resolution of them.

But now there is a new accusation alleging sexual abuse by one of Ohel’s long term employees. From a report by Forward life editor, Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt: 
A Ukrainian-born Jewish woman who said her foster father raped her sued him, New York City and the Orthodox agency that placed her in his home.
The plaintiff… is suing Milton Jacobs for sexual assault and battery and both Ohel and the city for negligence on the grounds that Ohel didn’t check on her as legally mandated…
“I still have flashbacks during the day and nightmares at night,” the plaintiff said in an interview. “But it’s the sense of deep shame that I continue to carry that has damaged my life the most.” 
Whenever I hear the gut-wrenching cries of a sex abuse survivor, I get angry at a system that keeps allowing things like this to happen. It is rather well established that accusations of sexual abuse are rarely false. There is no reason to believe this accusation is any different.

That being said, I still believe in the American principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Which is what the courts are for.  Here is the rest of her story..  

Her mother was hospitalized for mental illness. Which resulted in a welfare agency removing her from her home and placed with Ohel. They placed her in five different foster homes and around the age of six, she ended up in the home of Milton and Ceil Jacobs. Where she claims to have experienced sexual abuse and rape by Milton, her foster father

She said that she reported the abuse to her Ohel caseworker but the accusations were not believed. Adding that because she lied she could not longer live in the Jacob’s home. She nevertheless stayed in contact with that family, and she was even sent there by Ohel to spend a Shabbos with them.

Eventually by age 11 she was adopted by the foster family she was placed in at the time. Apparently without informing the adoptive parents about her reports of abuse. Instead saying that she was their “toughest case” and a “compulsive liar.”

There are a lot of things to sort out here. Hopefully justice will be served one way or the other when this case is resolved in the courts. The truth will hopefully come out there. And a just verdict of will be issued. 

What bothers me though is the automatic assumption that Ohel is guilty. This is one of my pet peeves with some advocates of survivors. They are overly zealous in their mission to find justice for survivors. Which is understandable. But unfair in the sense that they almost always assume guilt when accusations are made. Badmouthing the organization before the facts are actually established.

It is probably true that most of the time they are right. But no one is 100% right all the time. And smearing an organization that has done so much fine work for so many people for over 50 years while the ‘jury is still out’ is unfair.

Even if she was sexually abused and raped by Jacobs – which may very well be the case,  we have yet to hear Ohel’s side of the story.  They deserve a fair hearing. They will get one in court. That they have not responded to media requests should not be held against them. If the court finds for the plaintiff, Ohel will pay the price. Which will likely be a pretty hefty financial one. Until then, I think we ought to wait until all the facts come out before we judge anybody unfairly and prematurely ruin their reputation.