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Saturday, January 28, 2023
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Consider this rude awakening: Statistics indicate that approximately one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted before age 18. It may be tempting to believe that such abuse is far less prevalent in the Jewish community, but this is not the case. Data suggests that child sexual abuse occurs within the Jewish community at around the same rate as in secular society.

Many, if not all, community members know that recent headlines have indicated that a member of our community was arrested in connection with allegations of child sexual abuse. The Jewish Link has joined with Jewish Family Service of Clifton-Passaic, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, OHEL and other institutions in supporting the victim and other potential victims, as well as the family members of the accused.

After consulting with a number of therapists, social workers and parents, we chose not to sensationalize or splash the details of the news on our front page where our children can easily access it. We want parents to have the power to share the information with their children on their children’s age level. The “Google generation” has every ability to learn the details of the case from other media sources. We have been told that if there is any chance that a child could find out about this, the parent should initiate dialogue with the child about what happened, on that child’s level. However, to protect innocent bystanders who live in our community, we’ve also decided not to join other news organizations in covering this terrible story, which could also cast unwanted attention upon the brave, underage victim who has come forward with his family and which would presumably include difficult details of a nuclear family in the process of shattering.

We believe the Jewish Link can be most helpful to the community by reviewing guidelines and warning signs with our readers about child sexual abuse. As editor of the Jewish Link, I worked with JLNJ contributor and clinical psychologist Dr. Shoval Gur-Aryeh to come up with clear directives and advice that may be helpful for our readers in speaking with children about sexual abuse. Dr. Gur-Aryeh has received specialized training regarding sex offenders and works with victims of sexual abuse. An article he wrote at the beginning of the summer about protecting children from sexual abuse was used as part of my preparation. I was also assisted by several other professionals in this field who have contributed significantly to this article, who, for a variety of reasons, have declined to be named.

Abuse in the Jewish community may appear less prevalent, but in general, child sexual abuse is severely under-reported. “Abused children may not come forward because they think they are to blame and often feel ashamed and guilty. Also, Orthodox parents may not generally be comfortable initiating discussions with their children about sex and inappropriate sexual contact. This can result in children feeling embarrassed about disclosing to anyone when they’ve been abused,” Gur-Aryeh said.

The recent reports underscore a disturbing reality. Dr. Gur-Aryeh reports that child victims of sexual abuse know their abuser in as many as 93 percent of cases. “Plain and simple, perpetrators are able to do what they do because they have access to children and because children (and their caretakers) are uninformed and unprepared to respond to these threats to their safety,” he said.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh points out the need to take reasonable steps to protect children while at the same time not becoming too reactionary. For example, in light of the news reports, children may be apprehensive to see a psychotherapist and parents may be reluctant to trust a therapist with their child. While understandable, such a reaction is potentially harmful if it leads families away from seeking the help that children need.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh adds, “What compounds the trust issue further is the fact that children are typically alone with their therapist during sessions. There are very good reasons for this, including that children may feel inhibited from being open and forthcoming about what is really troubling them if their parents are present.”

When parents do not attend the therapy sessions, Dr. Gur-Aryeh suggests they process the sessions with their children afterward. “It’s important not to make children feel pressured to reveal what is discussed in therapy or it can undermine the therapy and possibly make their children feel more distressed. Encourage disclosure, rather than insist upon it,” advises Gur-Aryeh. And, of course, parents should communicate with their child’s therapist so they are informed. This will create a comfortable space for children to divulge to their parents should anything inappropriate occur.

Parents can reduce the risk of their children being victimized by reviewing some basic safety measures with them. Dr. Gur-Aryeh and others have prepared the following suggestions:

General Conversation Tips for Parents to Discuss With Their Children About Sexual Abuse

1. Children should understand that it’s never okay to “keep a secret” from their parents. Children need to understand that parents would want them to tell, even if the perpetrator discourages or threatens. Children need to know that they will never get in trouble if they tell someone about being sexually abused.

2. In plain language, children should be educated about their bodies, e.g. proper names of organs.

3. Children should understand that any touch or language that makes them feel uncomfortable should be disclosed, whether someone is trying to touch or view their private parts (this can simply be defined as parts covered by a bathing suit) or any other parts of their bodies if it makes them uncomfortable. The reverse is true as well. They should never be asked to touch or view other people’s private parts.

4. Being touched in an inappropriate manner is an obvious example of sexual abuse. Less obvious to children is being spoken to in a way that reflects sexual intent. Educate your children about this and empower them to trust their instincts.

Predators who might ‘groom’ children for abuse might begin by using inappropriate talk, but the various professionals we spoke to indicated that grooming appears in a many different ways and anyone with questions on this should reach out to a therapist, pyschologist or other licensed professional.

5. If children are away from home, help them identify one or more trusted adults they can speak to until they are able to talk to you. For example, a psychologist or teacher if they are in school.

6. Have this conversation with your child starting at a young age (approximately four years old) and repeat it at least annually. Good times to have the conversation are before school or camp begin.

How to Respond If a Child Is Abused

According to some estimates, as many as 40 percent of children do not show signs of having been sexually abused. Gur-Aryeh says that Hollywood portrayals would have us believe that children who have been sexually abused provide clear, detailed accounts of their abuse. “In reality, children often tell their story gradually, after a period of time has elapsed, and through indirect hints or subtle references to the abuse. Often, this is done because the child is unsure if the person they’re telling will believe them or criticize them,” said Gur-Aryeh.

No single sign will reveal if a child has been abused, but observing a collection of signs may suggest that further attention is warranted, according to Gur-Aryeh. Some signs include:

Sudden nightmares and other unexplained sleep problems

Being uncharacteristically distracted and distant

Severe mood swings

Sudden fear of certain people or places

Sudden preoccupation with drawing or talking about sexual topics, or engaging in sexualized behavior

The final pieces of advice, gleaned from several clinicians: Stay calm. If/when your child discloses and you become hysterical, it will frighten the child. Thank them for telling you, reinforce that if they were touched, made to feel uncomfortable, etc., it is not okay—and not their fault—and reassure them that you will do everything possible to prevent it from happening again.

When child sexual abuse is discovered, it’s important to report it to the authorities immediately. This is absolutely critical for two reasons: It provides the child with the proper treatment and support that he or she will desperately need, and it serves to protect other children who may be, or have been, victimized by the abuser.

Northern New Jersey has several Jewish agencies that provide valuable treatment for children who’ve been victimized, as well as preventative educational programs for children and their caregivers. Project S.A.R.A.H. includes the Aleinu Safety Kid program that is designed to educate and train children and their parents, schools and camps about child sexual abuse.

Please note also that OHEL is available for crisis intervention and counseling, and can be reached at 201-692-3972. Rabbi Jeremy Donath is OHEL’s Bergen County community coordinator and can be reached at any time by emailing [email protected]

By Elizabeth Kratz

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