Agency Faces Questions over Reporting of Child Sexual Abuse in Orthodox Jewish Community

Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, a social service agency based in Brooklyn, New York that services the Orthodox Jewish community, is facing questions about its adherence to laws that require the reporting of child sexual abuse. According to The Jewish Week, it appears that Ohel did not report the case of the mother who confessed to the sexual abuse of her own son while receiving counseling there.

Ohel has garnered high praise for the services it provides foster children. But according to The Jewish Week, when it comes to child sexual abuse, critics accuse the agency of functioning in a way that does more to protect the reputation of the Orthodox Jewish community than the safety of its children.

Some of those interviewed by The Jewish Week were not at all surprised by the approach Ohel took to the mother and her son.

“They have been the point men for the community [on this issue] and they have accepted the approach of the community, which is never to go to the police. They endlessly [hide] behind technicalities,” Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a longtime advocate for abuse survivors, told The Jewish Week.

The mother in question, who was in her 30s at the time, began counseling in 2008 at the Ohel branch Tikvah due to an abusive marriage and other problems. In therapy, the woman revealed she had been sexually abused by her grandfather. Then, during a support group meeting for survivors of child sexual abuse, the woman disclosed that she thought she “may be” sexually abusing her own 5-year-old son, according to The Jewish Week.

Many in the support group believed the woman’s disclosure should be reported to the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). And The Jewish Week points out, people designated as mandated reporters — a list that includes social workers, psychologists, mental health counselors and mental health professionals — are required to make a report when, in their professional capacity, they have “reasonable cause to suspect a child is being abused or maltreated.” But when the group leaders reported the woman’s revelation to their Ohel supervisor, it was brushed off as a delusion, and no report was made.

At the same time, the woman’s son was undergoing treatment at Tikvah based on his mother’s assertion that he had been abused by some young male relatives. According to The Jewish Week, some at Ohel thought this should be reported to ACS, but an Ohel supervisor deemed it unnecessary.

Over time however, counselors and their supervisors at Tikvah came to realize that sexual abuse was in fact taking place. But according to The Jewish Week, rather than reporting it to ACS, those at Ohel involved in the case developed a “family safety plan,” which involved making the father responsible for monitoring the mother’s behavior around their son. What seemed to motivate this decision was the fear that the boy would be removed from his home, something his mother threatened would lead to her suicide.

According to The Jewish Week, many at Ohel soon came to the conclusion that the safety plan was inadequate to protect this child. However, they were reluctant to make the report to ACS themselves, over fears they would be seen by their supervisors as subversive. The leader of the team finally decided to consult Ohel’s attorney and quality control officer about making a report, which several people at the agency said was standard practice. According to The Jewish Week, the team was directed – without explanation – not to make the report.

A week after that decision was made, the woman suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a hospital. There, she again disclosed the abuse of her son, as well as the fact that she had been treated at Tikvah. According to The Jewish Week, the team at Ohel was told not to talk to ACS about the woman’s case, should they be contacted. They were told instead to refer any inquiries to a supervisor or Ohel’s attorney.

Shortly after that, the boy stopped going to Tikvah for treatment. According to The Jewish Week, it is not known what happened to him.

If the facts of this one case are true, it does seem clear that Ohel did violate mandatory reporting rules. However, The Jewish Week goes on to say that “the agency has long played a role in the handling of sex abuse that, while technically legal, many advocates and observers believe has put the community’s children at serious risk: treating known sexual abusers who have not been reported to law enforcement and whose proclivities are protected from being made public by confidentiality laws, should they drop out of treatment.”

For example, the Jewish Week ran an article in 2009 that reported that a treatment program Ohel had begun in 1997 in conjunction with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office “treated Orthodox sex offenders who had been sent to them by the court as well as those whom the community pressured to seek help without notifying authorities.”

That program ended in 2003, but according The Jewish Week, Ohel continued to offer treatment at Tikvah to self-confessed molesters who were not court mandated as recently as late 2009. It is unclear whether the agency still does so, with an Ohel spokesperson telling The Jewish Week: “[W]hen Ohel receives an inquiry on services for offenders not in the criminal justice system, Ohel provides information on private practitioners who may provide such services.”

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