Child Abuse

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What Can We Do to Prevent it?

Afflicted one, storm-ravaged and disconsolate; behold, I will set your stones in fair colors, and lay the foundations with sapphires. I will make your windows of rubies, your gates of carbuncles, and all your boundaries of precious gems. And all your children will be taught about G-d; great will be the peace of your children. – This week’s Haftorah reading (Isaiah 54:11-55:5)

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

I am one of the victims of sustained sexual abuse you so sensitively wrote about in your powerful and profound article The Destruction and Restoration of Dignity. My life has been rendered into one battle after another in my desperate search for love, and above all – self-love. The single most damaging effect of abuse is, as you accurately describe, the assault on dignity and violation of self-worth. Feeling like “damaged goods.”

Your article deeply moved me and made me feel free. I will read it many times over. To have someone of your stature speaking about these issues is extremely encouraging. It may be an opening – as it was for me – to help wounded spirits breath again.

Now, my greatest concern is my own children. How, as you ask, can I protect them? Having experienced first-hand the damage of abuse, I work very hard, to cultivate and nurture my children’s self-esteem, through sustained efforts to reinforce and validate their beings and their malchus (as you put it), with unconditional love.

But how can we protect our children from the predators outside our homes? I shudder whenever I think – which is quite often – about of the potential dangers that lurk out there.

No words can describe my appreciation to you for bringing to the surface these issues, which is in itself part of the process of healing, like fresh air on deeply ingrained infections. Now let us continue the dialogue by addressing what can and must be done to protect our children.

Blessings to you,

(signed)

One of the most resonating and powerful statements you made in your last article is that “only a radical jolt to the psyche will cause someone to explicitly break away from their peer group.” You cited a psychologist who stated: “In my experience I am slowly coming to the conclusion that in many of these cases the radical jolt began with some form of sexual molestation, in which the child’s inner dignity was violated. When someone is hurt on that level it defiles the innermost, intimate dimensions of the psyche; it drives the child into silence (out of shame and fear he will not speak about the abuse with parents or teachers), a silence and loneliness that eats away, like a cancer, at the child’s inner dignity.”

So what can be done to prevent such jarring experiences that can so alter our children’s lives? Can we do anything to create safer environments for our sons and daughters? Or are we resigned, as some of my friends contend, that nothing can be done, and basically minimize or ignore the issues (the thing called “denial”) to make the horror a bit more tolerable.

One of my colleagues put it this way: Sending our kids to school and camp is like sending them into a minefield. All we can do is close our eyes and pray that they will come out intact.

Do you agree with that, Rabbi?

(signed)

No, I unequivocally disagree with that last statement. We are not victims and we are never helpless. Is life a challenge? Absolutely. Are there predators in our midst? Undeniably. But we are not powerless. A fundamental principle in Torah is that there is no challenge that we cannot overcome. We never face adversity that we can’t handle.  We are never asked to do something that is beyond our capacity.

We need not retreat in fear. We should not convince ourselves that this is “someone else’s problem” and could “never happen to me and my family.” We must put our heads and hearts together and take on this man-made plague. As those who work in the field of healing say: Anything that can be broken can be fixed (does anyone know the source?).

The axiom that we can do something about abuse (and about all life’s predicaments) is based on the fundamental principle that a good G-d created this universe and imbued in existence is inherent beauty. That no matter what wounds we sustain, our souls always remain intact. The Divine spirit in each in of us can go under cover – concealed by many, many layers – due to abuse; but it nevertheless always remains alive within. As we read in this week’s Haftorah (the third of the seven weeks of comfort):

Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, that your soul will live.

If, for example, you believe that “survival of the fittest” is the driving engine of life, then the logical conclusion is that life is not fair and often predators will prevail and their victims will forever remain damaged. The inevitable consequence of this depressing attitude is, as the Haftorah begins, that the afflicted one, storm-ravaged does not feel comforted.

But, when you know that beneath all the narcissism of material existence there is profound beauty and sublime energ. A gentle child is hidden under the hard crust of your adult armor.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, but your own self-doubt, can vanquish your spirit.

If it weren’t for this fact, we all may as well give up. Our challenge is to hold on to this knoweldge, this trust, even in the darkest moments.

While working with others to address the challenge of eliminating abuse in our communities, I have asked the following question:  What should we do to protect our children from abuse?  The grass-roots consensus of the people with whom I have spoken is that educating the children is the key. They said that we must teach them, from a young age, how to recognize and protect themselves from inappropriate touch. They said that children must know (a) No one has a right to violate their privacy, and (b) They should immediately report anyone who touches them inappropriately – even if that person has told them not to say anything.  they must learn that such threats are empty and that they will be protected from anyone who has threatened them.

“At what age,” I asked, “should we begin to speak to our children?” Some said as early as they can understand.

I would like to examine this premise further.  Is speaking to children actually effective? Does it help to warn children? I can tell you from personal experience that when I was warned to watch out for predators, I was terrified.  I began to see threats everywhere.   Children are naturally trustful. But, when they are warned to watch for a threat, they may take it to an extreme.

Another complicating factor is that abuse most often does not happen does not happen at the hands of strangers sitting in cars, offering candies or toys to unsuspecting children. Such pedophiles exist and children can be taught to avoid such situations.  Often abuse is committed by an older friend or relative — someone close to the child.  This person is usually someone the child would never suspect and whom the child would find difficult to repel.  Once violated, most children would not tell anyone, out of fear and shame.

The strategy of teaching the children, though imporrant,  addresses only symptoms, not root cause.  It addresses only one side of the equation: the victim.  What about the perpetrator?

This approach suggests, most subtly, that the victim is at fault.  Had the child protected himself, had she protested, had he reported the abuse, things would have been fine. This feeds the victimization mentality.

The approach also assumes that predators and sexual abuse are a given.  All we can do is create strong defenses. This promotes a “defensive” and  fearful approach to life. Is that a way to live?

I would like to propose another approach:  Focus on the predators, not on the victims. Beyond the more “documented” cases of abusers, most (undocumented) abuse is perpetrated by friends who are “having fun” and are not necessarily clinical pedophiles. They are experimenting. They don’t understand the damage they are doing.

We need to initiate a wide-spread campaign to inform kids that touching and in any way violating the private space of another is not a “game.” It has devastating consequences.

Sexuality is the most intimate and most vulnerable place in the human psyche. When violated it is not like a brawl with a bully, which leaves temporary bruises.  Improper touching leaves scars etched in the psyche and memory. Thse wounds can hurt a person for a lifetime.

Though we must do everything possible to deal with the symptoms of abuse, our greatesy challenge is to address the root of the issue.  Abuse is only possible because there is a climate, an environment, a breeding ground that allows abuse to fester and thrive. That breeding ground is the utter ignorance and lack of appreciation of the fundamental sanctity of sexuality. Society as a whole has allowed (or even encouraged) sexuality to be divorced of its intimate mystique; it has been turned into commodity instead of mystery; casual instead of permanent; mechanics instead of relationship; a verb instead of a noun.

The Torah calls sexuality “knowledge” – “Adam knew Eve.” Knowledge is an intimate bond, not a “quick fix.” Knowledge takes years to develop, to nurture, to cultivate. The dignity of the princess is within, more than the golden clothing which she wears (Psalms, 45:14). It is an internal experience, one that works from the inside out, not from the outside in.

Accordingly, we must come out with a massive educational campaign, treated with great sensitivity, to re-indoctrinate all of us – including our children – in the meaning of intimacy. And how violating someone’s intimate space has far-reaching implications.

To address and prevent a state of abuse – Afflicted one, storm-ravaged and disconsolate ­– the verse continues: And all your children will be taught about G-d; great will be the peace of your children. By teaching our children about the sanctity of life and intimacy, great will be their peace and comfort they will find amidst the storms surrounding us.

Sexuality, by its very nature, is provoked and fueled by discussion. Therefore, great care must be taken that the subject be addressed with the appropriate modesty and subtlety. There are some who address the issue of intimacy in non-intimate ways, like speaking about modesty in an immodest fashion; they say the right things in the wrong way. The sanctity and privacy of our most vulnerable place must taught by sensitive professionals who will avoid any provocative expressions or associations. It should be discussed privately with a student, or at most with two or three students, and it should be discussed separately with boys and girls, to keep the boundaries clear. (For more on this, please see the chapter on Intimacy in Toward A Meaningful Life).

I have no doubt that if kids knew what they were tampering with, and sexual sensitivity would become a social standard (yeh, I know that it’s not happening overnight), even if it would not solve all our problems, it would have visible impact.

In addition: Awareness of the power of sexuality and the damage of abuse should lead to instituting a policy of zero tolerance of predators. As a deterrent they must know that they will be ostracized. Every school and institution where children congregate can appoint a professional to look for signs of abuse. Any detection, any suspicion, should be pursued (obviously, with great care not to accuse innocent people, and with the knowledge that accusation can sometimes be made out of acrimony). Anyone violated would be encouraged to speak up and, when enough reports come in, approach the predator and threaten him. Fear of this nature can have powerful impact.

We are now approaching the period known as of “the seven weeks of comfort.”   This coincides with the beginning of the new school year.  It is the perfect time to set new standards and declare that we will do whatever it takes to protect everyone (especially our children) from abuse … no weapon that is formed against you shall prosper.

[This article is focused on sexual abuse. Of course, there are other destructive forms of abuse that violate human dignity which deserve to be addressed].
Please send me your thoughts and suggestions on how to help protect our children. It would be a great service to create a public forum and dialogue to bring this matter to the fore.  Let’s learn from one another and benefit from our collective wisdom.

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gitty
13 years ago

you dont have to post this comment, but if you have an answer, i would like to hear it.

i accept that if something is broken, it can be fixed, (if you have the right tools and knowledge). but if something is cv amputated, then i dont see how it can be fixed.

M W
13 years ago

The Truth is while your idea of a totally new sanctity is universally understood, in our day and age of almost complete open pornography the new sexuality is completely in the opposite direction.

On a practical level parents who want to protect their children need a. as you say to instill the highest ethical role-modeling possible (one in which the child realizes that G-ds norms, not social norms a e this family’s ethos) b. parents who want to protect their daughters from being sex objects should enroll them in religious Jewish day schools where they develop a feminine esteem independent of males.

In the end of the day, to not do the above two recommendations in today’s day and age is to actively encourage your daughter’s sexual promiscuity for younger and younger ages (as the social pressure is too much for girls to withstand) and furthermore to have their hearts repeatedly broken time after time from boys who being educated in the objectifying world of the female body will only sleep with their bodies and have nothing to do with their souls.

Liebe Schulman, MD, MA
13 years ago

Anything that can be broken can be fixed (does anyone know the source?).

Rebbi Nachman, Likutei Mohoran (Dont have one with me so cant quote location): אמ אתה תאמין שיכולין לקלקל, תאמין שיכולין לתקן If you will believe that it is possible to destroy, believe also that it is possible to repair.

batya
13 years ago

fabulous- thanks so much for addressing. its nice to see that there are some responsible rabbanim speaking out with reasonable suggestions. heres another topic for discussion: My Judaism is better than yours and the elusive Jewish Unity (or stop the insanity, bring in humanity

Rachel
13 years ago

As a childhood sexual abuse survivor, I dont believe a single approach can work effectively. It simply must become a community priority, and entail all levels of society, including:
-Absolute zero tolerance, with a full, honest investigation with even one case reported, and full disclosure to the community including police involvement if abuse is found (no more – oh, what about their parnassah?)
-Training teachers and people who interact with children to know the signs of abuse. Children cry out for help in obvious, albeit not verbal ways, begging for someone to notice and help them. Once someone actually notices and cares, usually the child WILL open up to the person and tell them the truth.
-Parents gently telling children not only that no one should touch them ever, but that it is safe to tell them if something ever happens. And then the parent has to believe them!
The worst offense to a child, that sometimes can never be recovered is the first responder syndrome. Meaning if the first person they tell believes them, and tells them it wasnt their fault, etc. they are halfway to recovery. And if the response is G-d forbid blaming them, not believing them, and the like, then the risk of long-term psychological damage is sky high.
Hence, all adults must be taught how to respond, and to care more about the child than the predator.
One last comment: there is a huge misunderstanding in the community that reporting abuse is lashon hara. The Chofetz Chaim unilaterally states that one who does not report, or hides, abuse: he cannot bear his sin. This misconception must be combated or no progress will ever be made, under the guise of shmirat halashon.

Frank John Ninivaggi, MD
13 years ago

As a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist working in the Yale University School of Medicine environment for many years, I have seen and treated many cases of abuse to children. Your sensitive and pointed examination of this complex set of issues is exemplary. Focusing on helping the child together with addressing causes by skillful and tactful exploration and education of adults is appropriate. The current culture is inundated with manifestations of envy, greed, and jealousy, often hidden, yet provocative and instigating unhealthy behaviors. Taking a realistically positive attitude, and one of kindly empowerment through recognition, promotes a win-win situation and maximizes (very) good outcomes.In managing issues of abuse, helpers help best when they remain level-headed, poised, and reasonable. I am glad that we have leaders such as you to set a tone of mindful compassion for all.
You have my admiration and gratitude.
–from a Yale child psychiatrist

Caryn Aviv
13 years ago

This is a powerful piece. Often sexual abusers are parents, uncles, and extended family members. What is also important to recognize is that child sexual abuse is considered a CRIMINAL OFFENSE and we can enlist the secular, civil justice system to address the impact of these crimes through victim advocacy and prosecution.

Max Witriol
13 years ago

I think the source could be Rav Nachman who said If you believe you can damage then believe you can repair

marty schulman
13 years ago

I think there is a conflation of symptom and dynamic. Sexual abuse is the abuse and imposition of one on the other through the use of POWER; authority, age, status etc. To see it as a violation of intimacy and spiritual connectedness is not the point. It is a betrayal of the victim and leads to the absence of trust. The reason abused children withdraw is not due to precipitous sexuality but rather to the feeling that the world is unsafe,and thus they retreat for safetys sake. That is why we find abused children all so often turn against family, community, religion, school etc since these are seen as the arenas of failure to protect. To control the pain, often drugs, alcohol, promiscuity are turned towards-not for pleasure, but to lessen the unpleasure.To focus on sexuality and intimacy misses the full picture and to threaten social ostracism for abusers is as effective as capital punishment is for decreasing the murder rate-totally ineffective. Remember most sexual abusers and pedophiles see themselves as loving caring people and see society as misunderstanding them. We need to approach it on a two front zone, prevention and post-facto intervention.in both cases we must respect the integrity of the child, listen to him or her and not discount what they say as fantasy or loshen hara, and a slight on the yicchus of the family, as so often has been the case.We need to create a climate where the child is free to talk about their apprehensions and discomforts before rather than after.We must learn to use therapy not as a punishment but as a tool for growth and mastery. I hope this adds to the discussion and opens it up to a broader forum. In summary (since I do not know space limitations) unless we focus on power relations we miss the underlying motivational roots of sexual abuse

Sarah
13 years ago

You ask how to help your friend Michael. Hoping this is an old article and he has gotten clean.

If not surely you are aware the answer to combatting the disease of addiction is Narcotics Anonymous. Hoping by now someone has handed the man a meeting list or at least gotten him in contact with other frum recovering addicts.

Susan
13 years ago

Your article only touches on sexual abuse. Both verbal and physical abuse from bullies and parents (non-sexual) can equally harm a child in different ways—this needs to be addressed too. It may stop a child from speaking out, taking Jewish actions, doing what is morally right etc. It may destroy their self-esteem as much as sexual abuse. We need to have broader dialogues with children and adults about stopping ALL forms of abuse.

Spousal abuse is also often hidden and treated shamefully. This too needs to be discussed by adults of both genders.

Kathi Kreider
13 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

I appreciate your willingness to discuss the topic of sexual abuse is such a frank and open way. I wish to address two areas of your article. First, is your statement that “Beyond the more “documented” cases of abusers, most (undocumented) abuse is perpetrated by friends who are “having fun” and are not necessarily clinical pedophiles. They are experimenting and have no clue how much damage they are doing in their pursuit.” I would like to know what facts or studies you base this statement on. As an abuse survivor, with a degree in Social Work, who has researched and spoken on this topic many times, I have never seen statistics that show that most sexual abuse is actually sexual experimentation. While I do not doubt this does happen and should be addressed by a campaign like you suggest, I am concerned that your statement minimizes the facts of how many true pedophiles exist in our community.

Second, and more importantly, I would like to focus on the discussion of a zero tolerance policy. I cannot tell you how excited I was to read your encouragement to institute such a policy. However, my excitement faded as I read “when enough reports come in- approach the predator and threaten him.” Apparently you and I have a very different opinion of a zero tolerance policy. When I think of a zero tolerance policy I think of Achan and the battle for Ai. If you will recall Achan stole a robe, some silver and gold and then hid them in his tent. When the Israelites went up to battle for Ai they were routed and thirty-six of them died. When Joshua asked Hashem why, G-d answered that Israel had sinned by stealing, and that He (G-d) would not be with the children of Israel until they destroyed the transgressor. Only after Achan is pointed out and stoned for his actions does Hashem tell Joshua He will be with the people. And, this was over the theft of material goods! How much more important is an individuals soul and psyche to G-d than a robe, and some silver and gold?

Now, lest someone accuse me of being barbaric, I am not suggesting we stone a pedophile. However, one incident should be enough to have such a person prosecuted, fired, etc. I know that many people will argue that we cannot do this because we may damage a persons reputation. Unfortunately when it comes to sexual abuse we have possible victims and possible predators. The (possible) victims are usually vulnerable in some way and the (possible) predators are usually in a position of power or authority over the victim. We have to choose (after considering the accusations and facts available) who to believe and sometimes we may be wrong. For myself, I will come down on the side of the victim rather than the predator. I would rather mistakenly accuse an innocent person, than acquit a predator who can go on to assault more children. As you will see from the story of Achan, G-d himself sacrificed thirty-six innocent men in order to publicly reveal Achan the thief.

Blair Jonas
13 years ago

To engage with the abuser in this case, you can say how you know how challenging parenting can be. Then he might be open to hearing ideas that will make him re-think resorting to abusive tactics.

G. Friedman
13 years ago

R Jacobson shyi:
I really appreciate your excellent suggestions for dealing with predators in a way that puts them on the defensive! Yashar Koach! Finally, we can be empowered and let the criminals be the ones hiding in fear and shame!
I really hope that these ideas that are so refreshingly innovative and out of the box will be widely propogated.
I also wanted to ask why with this plan a predator would need a few complaints lodged against him to be punished- isnt one childs innocence lost enough?
And just one added point if I may.
In your last article you pointed out the link that was found between at-risk how youth and adults and child abuse.
I want to add that also childhood trauma
can easily surface in adolescence as risky and troubled behavior. A prominent psychologist, T. Stone, specializing in grief therapy explains it like this. When something bad happens to a child he starts to think that it mustve happened to him because he deserves it, he was/is bad-and this is his punishment(the death, divorce, physical abuse and probably most horrific of all sexual abuse,etc.) As the child grows he keeps this dark secret (of how bad he is) inside of him. But as he grows older and more rational he starts to question that. Am I really so bad? And what about X whos went through a tragedy and he/shes not bad. The only way to test their hypothesis and uncover the truth about the role they played in bringing about their own calamity is by acting out and getting progressively worse and worse and seeing how the significant adults in their lives will respond. Will their parents,teachers, principals,neighbors shun them and once and for all unmask the truth about them (that only G-d and themselves knew all along). Or, will the love and patience and understanding of the adults in their lives reveal to them the truth and the reality that they are beautiful and perfect and precious and they endured hell on earth (which is agonizingly something which can not always be avoided in this long exile until the Mashiach finally reveals himself) and deserve all of our love, respect and admiration, as G-d surely feels for them.
Do you agree with this theory?

David h. Lifschutz, MD
13 years ago

Dear Simon,
I have been watching the current case slowly unfold, with a professional eye. It seems that if he indeed has been hallucinating, he is psychotic. Most predators like this have been sexually abused; andoften they have no idea/concept what it means to be loved. In fact some professionals feel that they only wish to die, living in a world where all they experience is envy of all around them who seem to feel loved, and yet they are left out in the cold, with no concept of why everyone else seems to feel like they belong, or fit in, or have a sense of satisfaction (feeling or experiencing love) that they lack. This person also seems to have been involved to some extent in the community in Williamsburgh, yet people thought he was weird …yet no one thought to approach him and there is no forum where one can force someone to be evaluated until they violate some law. One needs a community attending to needs but how? Without violating ones rights to privacy?
DL

The Meaningful Life Center