Dear Rabbi Horowitz,
(excerpt from last week’s letter) … Recently I have heard a number of stories about abuse in the frum community and would like to know … 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? …
Please see “Note to readers” in last week’s column (click here) for references that I used to prepare for this column.
In the broadest sense, I think that the time for fathers and mothers to begin protecting their beloved children from sexual abuse is the moment that they walk down from the chuppah and begin their married life together.
Think of it this way. Children who are raised in homes that are havens of safety, love, mutual respect and tolerance are far more likely to immediately notice when they are treated in an abusive manner. Emotionally healthy, self-confident children who appreciate their sacred right to privacy (click here) and personal space are far more likely to hear the warning bells blaring whenever that space is invaded. Children who grow up with the notion that they can be comfortable discussing anything – ANYTHING – with their (click here) parents will, in all likelihood, inform their parents the very moment that something is amiss.
Conversely, children who are bullied into submission by their own parents or those who regularly view one parent being cowed into silence by the other may think that abusive behavior is quite normal. Children who are denied their personal space or whose individuality is crushed or suppressed by their parents may not think much is amiss when outsiders do the same to them. In fact, most predators have a ‘sixth sense’ of which children have grown up in these trying conditions – and zoom in on them like a moth drawn to light.
Let’s face it. Foolproof protection is impossible. You cannot follow your children wherever they go, nor should you raise them to be frightened or suspicious of every adult that they will meet. Moreover, as I noted last week, even though the high-profile abuse cases are school based, they are only a tiny percentage of the instances of molestation. Abusers are far more likely to be extended and close family members, older kids in the neighborhood, family friends, neighbors and peers.
Therefore, the most effective things that parents can do is to keep their children safe are to model healthy interactions between adults (that’s you) and children, and to empower them to speak up if they feel threatened or uncomfortable.
Here are some practical tips:
- Encourage your children to share the events of their day with you when they arrive home each day. Spend time with them, make eye contact, and listen – really listen – to what they have to say.
- Tell your children – early and often – that they can discuss anything with you, no matter how disturbing or uncomfortable those things are. Be aware that this means that you must develop true tolerance for their misdeeds if you want this to continue.
- One of the most effective methods of protection is to teach your children that no adult is ever permitted to tell them a secret that they cannot tell their parents. This is a huge ‘red flag’ for predatory behavior, since part and parcel of the depraved strategy of molesters is to keep things secret from parents. There is no acceptable set of circumstances where any adult should ever be telling a child to keep secrets from his/her parents. Teaching your children that this is wrong is a powerful tool in their protective arsenal. Likewise, parents who keep secrets from each other are also modeling poor values (the kids figure it out quite soon).
- Encourage the notion of personal space in your child’s life. Tell your children to knock before entering a room if they think that someone there may be undressed (do the same yourself). Give your children a drawer to keep their private possessions, and ask their siblings to respect that privacy.
- “Your body belongs to you,” is a theme that should be stressed with children. While bathing young children, for example, is often a good time to discuss privacy matters in a calm, matter-of-fact manner. Tell them about ‘good touching’ and ‘bad touching’. One way of expressing this concept is to explain to them that no one except for parents can touch them in a spot covered by a bathing suit. Please do not alarm them. Frame the discussion as one of safety, and use the same tone that you would use when informing them not to take candy from strangers and not to cross the street without an adult.
- Another supremely important thing to convey to children is that they should not ever be forced to do things that make them feel uncomfortable. Tell them that if they are asked to do something that “doesn’t feel right,” they have the right to say no – even to an adult. (Many, many victims report that they felt they had no choice but to go along with the demands of the abuser.)
If you suspect that your child was molested, please seek the counsel of a trained mental health professional, preferably before you speak to your children.
On a Communal Level
These columns are primarily devoted to helping parents raise their children – not to address communal issues. However, it is clear that in the arena of the prevention of sexual abuse, there is much overlap between what parents ought to be doing and what communities (schools, shuls, etc.) need to do to protect our children.
Communal change can only happen when there is an honest assessment of the facts on the ground and the steely determination to do whatever it takes to improve matters. In other words, when reality-based thinking rules, not faith-based wishing. Sadly, in the area of molestation, we are nowhere near that stage yet.
I find that in many ways, my experiences with the abuse-prevention matter mirrors what transpired about ten years ago when I – and several others – publicly lectured and wrote about the fact that frum people were (and still are) pushing drugs to our children. At the time, there was a stunning level of denial that this was happening. Even after there were several well publicized deaths of frum children from drug overdoses. Even after a 50-year old charedi man was arrested for selling drugs in a Boro Park shul. And even after that arrest was widely reported on the front pages of NYC newspapers.
We kept writing and speaking about it – but people didn’t seem to get it. Please read these 3 articles that I published three years ago in The Jewish Press. (Click here, here, and here).
I cannot understand why members of our community are not willing to report the criminals who are selling drugs to our kids directly to the police. This is, in my opinion, a misplaced application of the concept of mesirah. Ten years ago, I asked our leading gedolim if I should pass along information to the police regarding drug pushers. I got a unanimous psak that drug dealers have the full status of a rodef (one who poses life-threatening danger to others), and that I have not only the right, but also the obligation to do everything in my power to have them arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In my opinion, there is no substantive difference between a drug pusher and a child molester. Let the system work and let’s finally start protecting our children before there are any more shattered lives and suicides.
I think it is a terribly sad statement that an individual who sold non-kosher food in my hometown of Monsey ran for his life the moment the story broke and was not seen since, while a fiend who molested both Jewish and non-Jewish children in Boro Park is living comfortably in Jerusalem while evading extradition. I am most certainly not promoting or condoning vigilante violence. But it would be a positive step forward when accused child molesters in our community need to ask for police protection for fear of being harmed by righteously indignant people.
Incredibly, in that case, only the non-Jewish parents pressed charges. Here is text from a Nightline article on the subject: “The only victims that cooperated with the investigation were Italian. They were neighborhood boys who trusted the rabbi because he bought them gifts like bicycles. Not a single Orthodox Jewish boy or their parents would talk to the police. The statements of four Italian boys, aged 11 through 16, were the basis for the indictment against Avrohom Mondrowitz. He was facing eight counts of sexual abuse in the first degree, endangering the welfare of a child, and five counts of sodomy in the first degree.”
I ask, “Are Jewish children less sacred and worthy of protection than are non-Jewish children?”
© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved