Dear Rabbi Horowitz,
I am the proud mother of some very lovely young children who are growing up much too quickly. In general, I’d like to think of myself as a confident parent that tries to approach important issues with a healthy balance. But, there are some issues out there for which the proper balance remains a mystery to me. And that is why I am seeking your advice sooner, rather than later.
Recently I have heard a number of stories about abuse in the frum community and would like to know just how prevalent abuse is in the frum community? In general, I’d like to preserve my children’s innocence while dealing with realities that need to be dealt with.
What responsibility do schools have when it comes to addressing children about this issue? And, what responsibility do parents have? At what age should parents begin to address the issue with their children, and in how much detail? And, what is the proper way to even begin the conversation?
Also, while my children are not teenagers yet, what should parents of teenage children say to their children, who are bound to either see headlines in the newspaper or hear about such terrible news through friends?
A mother looking for balance and perspective
Note to readers: Over the years that I have been dealing with at-risk youth, I’ve had extensive and ongoing consultations with the leading gedolim of our generation on a wide-ranging array of issues where I was fortunate to receive their Torah perspective and their wisdom. This column and the one that will appear in this space next week reflect many of the collective lessons that I learned from our gedolim as to the propriety of dealing with these sensitive matters.
While preparing to respond to these questions, I discussed this matter with three (frum) mental health professionals who are outstanding clinicians and widely respected as experts in the field of sexual abuse and prevention – Doctors David Pelcovitz, Barry Horowitz, and Benzion Twerski. My response reflects their input and they graciously reviewed these lines before publication. I would like to express my gratitude to them for their time and their devotion to the children of our community. Y.H.
Over the past decade or so, we have come to the painful realization that we are not immune from challenges that face the broader community – depression, compulsive gambling, drug and alcohol abuse. Now, we are being squarely faced with the painful reality that sexual abuse is also rearing its ugly head in our Torah community.
This does not represent a failure of our chinuch system or a breakdown of our mesorah (tradition). Not by any means. By virtue of the moral compass of our Torah and the nature of our sheltered society, we have a lower percentage of these issues than the general population. Less, but not none. Unfortunately, the nature of this challenge is that less turns to more – exponentially – the longer that we ignore these issues. This is true all the more so in the case of abuse since untreated victims are far more likely to abuse others.
To address your first question of, “How prevalent is abuse in our community?” my response is that it is far more prevalent than we care to accept or believe. I assure you that things will not improve until we gather the energy and courage to change the culture of denial and stop the destructive habit of hoping that problems will self-correct and go away. I am equally certain that if we do not act to eradicate abuse from our community, others will continue to do it for us in very public and embarrassing ways.
It is extremely important to note that school faculty members commit only a tiny fraction of the abuse perpetrated on victims. Abusers are far more likely to be older kids in the neighborhood, family friends, neighbors, peers, extended or even close family members.
How many children are we talking about? How many abuse victims are there? I posed this question to the three experts mentioned above. Each of them responded by saying that there is no research that they know of in the frum community and they have no hard numbers. But when I asked if they would say that there are a) tens, b) hundreds or c) thousands [of abused children], each responded that there are surely hundreds. In fact, Dr. Pelcovitz mentioned that he gets about 5 calls per week from parents seeking help for their abused children – or from adults seeking counseling from scars left from childhood abuse. These numbers concur with my understanding of the magnitude of the problem.
I have worked with the at-risk teen population for more than a decade now, and I think that I have a pretty good feel for the facts on the ground. I also fully understand the power of the written word and the ramifications of columns that are published. So, I am choosing my words very carefully. Here goes:
In my opinion, the number one risk factor – by far – for children abandoning Yiddishkeit is abuse and neglect. This is not to say that the majority of kids who are off the derech were abused. But of all the complex and varied educational, social and familial factors that present risk to our children, the most damaging by far, in my opinion, is abuse. The very real threat posed by external influences, such as TV, Internet, ‘bad friends’ are all firecrackers compared to the “atom bomb” of sexual abuse. Left untreated, abuse undermines a child’s security and comfort, erodes his or her faith in adult society – and in our Torah community, their belief in the Torah and in Hashem Himself. It leaves the victims confused and filled with rage. It shatters their self-esteem and destroys their ability to pursue their hopes and dreams. Sadly, the effects of abuse, especially when left untreated, usually follows children into adulthood – complicating their marriages and their relationships with their children.
There are some very practical steps that we can take to improve things and protect our children. But we need to develop the fortitude and righteous indignation to do what it takes to get it done. In my opinion, we are nowhere near that stage yet. I hope and pray that we get there very soon.
As for the question of who should take responsibility for the safety of children, I suggest that it is the parents who need to take the lead on this. Why? Because, sad to say, until there is a groundswell of support for the protection of our children, schools will find it difficult to create and implement the type of programs to teach children how to establish personal boundaries and to ensure their own safety. And, because ultimately they are our children and we are responsible for them.
Next week, in the second and final column on this subject (in this forum), I plan on offering practical steps to parents on speaking to your children and more importantly, engaging in the types of behaviors over the years that will help your children protect themselves from abuse.
On a very personal note; several years ago, I prepared a few columns on the subject of sexual abuse. After much reflection, I decided not to run them, as I felt that the public was not yet ready to confront this painful reality. A few months ago, during the holy days of Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, as I prepared to face Hashem and give an accounting of my deeds, I was repeatedly haunted by the images of the many dozens of abuse victims that I have encountered over the years. For, I have visited substance abuse facilities where they attempted to recover from drug overdoses. I have tried my best to comfort their parents who were going through their own personal gehenom, while their children confront theirs. I paid shiva calls to bereaved parents and siblings of abused children who later committed suicide (and to those whose children’s suicides were presented to the public as death-by-other-cause).
As I davened in shul this past Yom Kippur, I kept feeling that I betrayed the victims by not publishing the columns I had written – to prevent others from being victimized and to provide a tiny measure of validation and comfort that a community leader is acknowledging their pain and the reality of their lives. I promised myself that another Yom Kippur would not go by with my silence on this matter. The response to this letter I received is a small first step in this process, and I plan on publishing the columns in the not-too-distant future.
© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved