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Preventing and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community

In my work as a psychotherapist over the years, I’ve treated and counseled many Jewish and non-Jewish victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. Moreover, I’ve received specialized training in evaluating sex offenders to determine the likelihood that they will commit another sex offense.

With the summer months upon us, I’d like to share some important information about child sexual abuse that can help parents ensure the safety of their children.

Child Sexual Abuse Is Far More Common Than People Think

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. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Data suggests that child sexual abuse occurs within the Jewish community at around the same rate as found in secular society.

Abuse in the Jewish community may seem less prevalent for several reasons. 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.

It may be tempting to discount sexual abuse in the Jewish community because of a desire to believe that answering to a higher authority keeps people from engaging in such acts. Unfortunately, it isn’t so. People who sexually abuse children are not all the same and so there is no one description that accurately describes all sexual abusers. However, for some offenders, their abusive behavior is a compulsion and such compulsions are not easily controlled regardless of how religious they are.

Child victims of sexual abuse know their abuser in as many as 93 percent of cases.

How to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse

I treat and evaluate sex offenders and I’m aware of the harsh realities. Still, my wife and I let our children roam around in shul on Shabbat. We shuttle our children to and from birthday parties and play dates, send them off to school each day, and enroll them in activities and programs during the summer. We cannot raise our children in a vacuum. Rather, safety and security come through empowering ourselves and our children by learning what to do and not to do.

In this sense, knowledge is power and when we’re talking about child sexual abuse, this couldn’t be truer. Sexual abuse thrives on lack of awareness and denial. 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.

Many families will spend the next couple months in a bungalow colony and it’s important to know how to protect one’s children in this environment. Families that stay there each summer tend to be very familiar with one another and this breeds the kind of trust that enables someone to abuse a child. Add the fact that children are frequently allowed to run around the grounds on their own and it is all too easy for someone to lure a child into his bungalow under a false pretense.

Parents can reduce the risk of their children being victimized by reviewing some basic safety measures with them. For example, children should know how to return to their bungalow from several approaches to minimize getting lost. Also, it’s good to have several “safe houses” children can go to if they feel threatened when their parents are not around. Children should always be with at least one other child if at all possible. Finally, children should be instructed not to enter into a bungalow or other private area alone with someone else.

Summer camps also can be danger zones for children if caution isn’t taken. Not all sexual abusers are adults. Statistics indicate that approximately 40 percent of perpetrators are older or larger children and such children are in no short supply at camp.

I encourage parents to talk to camps about the policies and guidelines they have to minimize the risk of abuse and to report it if it occurs. Ask if staff have received training about how to identify and respond to child abuse. Ask if there is a policy that counselors should never be alone with campers. You also want to know how many counselors sleep with the campers in their cabin.

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

Children should understand that it’s never ok to “keep a secret” from their parents.

In plain language, children should be educated about their bodies.

Children need to know that no one is allowed to touch their private parts or to inappropriately touch other parts of their bodies.

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. Children need to be educated about the various things a person might say to them to lure them into being abused.

Children need to be encouraged to inform an adult immediately if they are approached or touched in an inappropriate manner.

Children need to know that they will never get into trouble if they tell someone about being sexually abused.

How to Respond If a Child Is Abused

Having any harm come to one’s child is a parent’s worst nightmare. However, it’s important to know what to do should it happen.

According to some estimates, as many as 40 percent of children do not show signs of having been sexually abused. Yet, many children who’ve been abused experience very serious, long-term consequences that manifest in many areas of their lives, including their mental health (e.g., depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress), romantic and familial relationships and professional lives.

Hollywood portrayals would have us believe that children who’ve 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.

No single sign will reveal if a child has been abused, but observing a collection of signs may suggest that further attention is warranted. 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

When child sexual abuse is discovered, it’s important to report it to the authorities immediately. This is absolutely critical, first and foremost to provide the child with the proper treatment and support that he or she will desperately need. Furthermore, immediate action serves to protect other children who may be, or have been, victimized by the abuser.

Fortunately, northern New Jersey has several Jewish agencies that provide valuable treatment for children who’ve been victimized, as well as educational programs for children and their caregivers. For example, Jewish Family Service & Children’s Center of Clifton-Passaic offers child therapy and family therapy. The agency’s highly regarded 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. (Look up the feature article about their program in last week’s issue of the Jewish Link.)

In Teaneck, there is Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson and in Elizabeth, there is Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey, both of which provide valuable services to their communities.

Great care must be taken in how we help a victimized child through the process of reporting abuse and receiving treatment for it. As I explained earlier, children may fear rejection by adults when they disclose the abuse, so it is essential that adults monitor the way they speak so that children feel supported. Parents should help the child to understand it wasn’t their fault and that it took great courage to report the abuse.

Although it will be difficult, it’s important to remain calm and to hide whatever fear, anger, or rage one may feel upon learning from a child that he or she has been abused. Children will need to see their parents as a steady, calm presence in their life, especially because their emotional world will likely be in turmoil.

The encouraging news is that child sexual abuse is on the decline. For example, from 1992 to 2010, there was a 62 percent decline in reported abuse. The reduction is likely due to a variety of factors, including increased awareness, better and more prevention measures in the community, and a better focus on developing training programs for professionals and authorities.

If it’s true that it takes a community to raise our children, it is also true that it takes a community to ensure our children are kept safe. It starts with us, the parents, and extends to our schools, shuls, camps and everything in between. May this summer (and the years that follow) find all our children in good health.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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