A response to Vivian Resofsky

I came across a post where Ms Resofsky presented her views on how to deal better with the phenomenon of child abuse and invoke methods of protecting such children through education. I’m not at all critical of her contribution in the sense that she makes valid points and would appear to be academically and clinically qualified to make those points. However, I’m not at all in favour with the rather vicious pen that she points at the Jewish Taskforce against Family Violence. That aspect, in my view is uncalled for.

Ms Resofsky had written:

I have been attempting to engage The Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault (The Taskforce) since 2006, both directly and in the pages of The Australian Jewish News because I am deeply worried by their approach – particularly by their assertion that children can and should be taught to protect themselves against adult predators. The truth is, they can’t.

I am so concerned that I have also submitted complaints to the JCCV, Jewish Care and the Rabbinical Council of Victoria about what I believe is The Taskforce’s dangerously misguided approach to a very complex issue; however, nothing has changed.

The best evidence indicates that we cannot leave children to protect themselves; however, The Taskforce refuses to acknowledge this. The Protecting our Vulnerable Children Inquiry Report (Feb 2012), weighed up all the worldwide research and evidence about the effectiveness of teaching children personal safety to prevent abuse. It accepted Finkelhor (2009 ),Smallbone et al. (2008) “There is little convincing evidence for the effectiveness of these programs for preventing sexual abuse.”

Ms Weiner, who has no degree or equivalent in any field related to child protection does not agree with the research. She states that, “Giving a child the tools to say NO denies the perpetrator the opportunity to abuse.”

Why would Ms Weiner advocate a position that goes against the best evidence? Unfortunately, Ms Weiner’s position is echoed by Mrs Balfour, head of The Early Learning Centre at Beth Rivkah, who believes The Taskforce – that schools do not need to educate parents, because children under the age of five can protect themselves!

Alongside Debbie Weiner, Taskforce board member, Sheiny New, also speaks publicly on behalf of the group and about child abuse. Ms New has spoken and written extensively about this issue, however, like Ms Weiner, she has no degree or equivalent in the area.

This information, however, is not available on The Taskforce website. In fact, much information about who comprises the Taskforce and their work with children is absent from their website. There is a serious lack of transparency that characterises the group. It is usual practice for a group that purports to protect children to articulate this and to clearly state it as part of their vision; however, the word, “child,” is hardly mentioned on The Taskforce site.

While The Taskforce has existed for 17 years, it only first acknowledged the issue of child abuse in 2006. It then moved to gain a monopoly on the protection of our children despite its lack of experience and the lack of qualifications of Taskforce volunteers.

In 2006, The Taskforce emailed Di Hirsh of the NCJW, strongly requesting that Ms Hirsh and her organisation withdraw their support from a community child protection awareness and education campaign. The Taskforce’s reasoning for this demand was that they wanted to present an efficient and unified communal response to such a sensitive subject in The Taskforce’s forthcoming forum.

In doing this, The Taskforce successfully removed support for a campaign that included child welfare professionals so that a group of volunteers could be the sole providers of communal education on child abuse.

It is important to remember that The Taskforce is a voluntary organisation whose members are not professionals in the area of child protection; however, The Taskforce have positioned themselves as the community’s authority on the matter.

Because they have worked for 17 years to raise awareness of family violence, they believe that qualifies them to advise on child abuse. Not only is this a logical problem, it also requires a real leap of faith because The Taskforce has only spoken out against child abuse in the last 6 years.

The Taskforce personnel also base their credibility on the training they receive from experts. Many of these experts are highly respected in their fields; however, educational seminars that last for a couple of hours, or at most, a couple of days, can not qualify people to do the work of trained professionals. The Taskforce should not therefore position itself as able to give advice on a par with professional advice.

The Taskforce’s lack of professional personnel leads it to offer poor advice (such as the idea that children can protect themselves). Ms New’s public statement that with the right treatment, victims of child sexual abuse will be, “just fine,” goes against research that demonstrates that only 1 in 10 cases of abuse is even reported. Many abused children cannot get help at all, because their abuse is unknown. Educating parents to spot signs of abuse can address this issue. This is not, however, what The Taskforce is doing.

This makes Ms Weiner’s claim that The Taskforce is, “tackling abuse head on,” difficult to believe. Ms Weiner’s and The Taskforce’s refusal to support parent-directed education is evidence that best practice is not in place. Parents need guidance to help them learn how to assess whether or not good child protection procedures are in place in schools and other institutions. They need to know what to look for. For example, does the organization train staff about child sexual abuse? Does the organization have a code of conduct for adults working with children? Does it outline clear expectations about boundaries between staff and children? How is staff misconduct handled?

It is difficult to understand why The Taskforce relies on extremely out of date ideas of child self protection. We used to think programs that teach children to identify and refuse inappropriate touch would prevent child sexual abuse. Personal safety programs for children have been in existence for over 25 years but experts now advise that children can’t fend off would-be abusers by themselves.

The Protecting our Vulnerable Inquiry 2012, weighed up all the worldwide research and evidence about the effectiveness of teaching children personal safety to prevent abuse. It agreed with Finkelhor 2009 and Smallbone et al. 2008: “There is little convincing evidence for the effectiveness of these programs for preventing sexual abuse.” (The Protecting our Vulnerable Children’s Inquiry Report 2012)

Telling parents that something will prevent abuse when it clearly will not puts children at unacceptable risk. Sexual abuse is most commonly a gradual process of desensitization, further complicated by the power imbalance between the victim and perpetrator. Would-be abusers use a grooming process to gain trust and acceptance.

Grooming can be described as a psychological process that breaks down a child’s resistance by using techniques such as gift giving, engaging the child in peer like activities, desensitizing the child to touch, isolating the child and then making the child feel responsible for the abuse. Grooming can take place over months or longer. Those who would offend try to get themselves into a situation where they are alone with a child who trusts them. The abused child is then caught in a web of confusion, guilt, deceit and mistrust and a child commonly feels overwhelmed and powerless to stop the abuse.

Ms New, however, advises that parents should educate themselves and then educate their children. The Child Protection Inquiry, however, does not expect parents to educate themselves. It recommends that efforts should focus on raising public awareness of child sexual abuse and providing parents of all school-aged children with education.

Parents need to become aware and even trained in the defence of their children. They can create a barrier between those who would abuse and their children. They need to discuss matters with their children in language that is not threatening and gives the child age-appropriate references. Parents can vet situations when they leave their children in the care of others and ensure that stringent screening, monitoring, training and reporting policies are in place. They need to know the steps they can take when they suspect something is not right. Schools should continue to teach children about personal safety, but the responsibility for protecting children should be placed on adults.

Finally, we must ask ourselves if it is appropriate for a single group to address matters of abuse in both the Ultra Orthodox and less religious communities. The differences in attitudes, values, and culture are enormous between the extremely religious and the less religious sub-groups in our community. Can and should a single group be charged with such a broad agenda?

According to Ms New there are “Jewish” specific factors that impact on why victims of child sexual abuse don’t report. When she refers to “Jewish” factors, are these applicable across the board or only to the Ultra-Orthodox community?

When The Taskforce makes statements like, “We consider ourselves to be a light unto other nations, and if we start talking about violence and abuse in what we consider a perfect Jewish family that light will be dimmed just a little bit and she (the victim) did not want to be the cause of more anti-Semitism…”
or
“Living in a host country we would prefer not to create anti Semitism.”
or
(referring to the Shidduch system)“…The first question asked is: “Is it a nice family?” sexual assault does not a nice family make. Don’t be judgemental. If your brother had to choose between two equally lovely girls but one had been raped 6 months ago which would you choose?”

Do any of these statements apply to non-religious Jews who are the vast majority in the community?

Why then have the JCCV and Jewish Care welcomed The Taskforce’s attempt to be the sole organisation dealing with abuse in the community? Many non-religious Jews are horrified by such attitudes and might wonder why The Taskforce is not doing more to combat them. Meanwhile Ms New asks us not to be judgmental of that belief system. Surely such a group cannot represent our entire community.

My response to Ms Resofsky is:

Dear Ms Resofsky,

Have you read Dr Pelcovitz’s book? Have you listened to his on-line lectures?
I have. No doubt Ms Polin has some concerns that you mention, however, the educated reader may want to make up their own mind by doing what I did (well before this came on the horizon).

Have you personally engaged Dr Pelcovitz with your concerns? I would suggest that a modicum of academic respect behooves you to do so. I would further suggest that you do this on the record so that Dr Pelcovitz can respond in kind on the record and isn’t interpreted or misunderstood.

In respect of your comments regarding Ms New (I know her as Sheiny, and she is a personal friend), let me say that you need to have a coffee with her. Your assessment based on a talk(s) that you attended simply doesn’t capture the approach that she has, which most definitely does include those aspects you believe she elides (out of supposed ignorance).

Having said that, the taskforce isn’t Sheiny, and Sheiny isn’t the task force. It is much bigger than that. I interact with them when I seek an opinion (in an informal way) and they have never pretended to be something they are not. They are a very determined group of people who seek to do much good, and have done much good, and will continue to do so. That being said, I have no doubt that they would welcome (and I don’t speak for them in anyway) volunteers—both professional like you and Talya, and others who are well meaning (and may have suffered directly or indirectly) to help them refine and progress what they are all about.

Perhaps you can let us know whether you have ever sought to meet with the group without the public/blogosphere headlights and passed on your thoughts? Have they rejected your ideas? Were they aware of what you were professing?

As to those who continue to denigrate the Task Force/and or Sheiny through simply because Sheiny is married to a member of the YC Board of Management, I find that beneath contempt. These women work hard and tirelessly for the community. By all means try and improve and enrich their approach and support their work, but this public castigation leaves me with a very sour taste.

I noticed that Ms Resofsky gives five points to prevent child sexual abuse:

1) Learn about it – you need knowledge about abuse before you can protect your children

2) Minimise risk – Know the adults and teens in your children’s lives.

3) Talk about it – Talk to your kids about personal safety rules.

4) Teach your children that these safety rules apply to everyone.

5) Start early with your children, in an age appropriate way.

Nobody can argue with these five points, however, it is important to note that (especially in certain groups which are secularly insular and/or ignorant) that the School and the Synagogue (via Rabbis) can be great contributors in fostering points 1 through 5.

I am reminded of an interesting question raised by Professor Marc Shapiro (who is certainly not an ultra-orthodox apologist, for those who are aware of his scholarly output). Marc asked why there seemed to be more abuse in ultra-orthodox circles. Why was it that a child who ate Treyf or broke the Shabbos was given more “attention” than a child who came home and accused their teacher of fondling? He answered, and I believe he is right, that these communities understand Treyf and they understand Shabbos. They simply have no understanding, let alone a sophisticated understanding, of what the effect of such abuse can be and why it ought to be considered with at least the same level of abhorrence as transgressions between Man and God. They (wrongly) think that this is something that will “go away” with time. They have not understood that this is a pattern, and that the perpetrator rarely if ever has just “one” victim.

The answer to that needs to start (especially in such communities) with those who are charged with imbuing education: the Rabbis and the Teachers. They must be educated. In such communities, you simply can’t call a meeting of parents as a first step, and “educate” them with seminars. They won’t come! They will think it has nothing to do with them, or their kids. Of course, they are wrong. But the one key, doesn’t fit every lock. Ms Resofsky certainly is correct to hone in on parental education, but I’d suggest (from a lay perspective) that the science of this approach needs to be implemented in a different manner for each group. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the awareness and understanding of a group of say Yavneh or Mt Scopus parents is at a similar level to that of Adass parents (who we know are, by choice cut off from the external world)?

Let’s be positive. I don’t like it when we “attack” those who are actually on the same side.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

6 thoughts on “A response to Vivian Resofsky”

  1. I wonder if she is ( or was) being fed bitter pills against Yeshivah and anyone associated with it, by some anti-Yeshivah individual, for her to go on this tirade agains TJTF.
    I attended a number of Pelcovic’s lectures, in NY and here. I found him to be very informative and instructive.
    I agree with you. Resovsky should engage with Dr Pelcovic and for that matter with Shainy.
    The task force is doing remarkable work in organising training courses and lectures that deal with all kinds of abuse.
    It should also be noted that the Yeshivah-Beth Rivkah Colleges have put into place programmes to deal with potential child abuse. It hasn’t been ignored and they have taken heed of the past to secure the future. I think that is commendable.

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  2. there are many measures in place at yeshivah beth rivkah.
    eg.
    -staff had inservices about mandatory reporting and do make reports when they are obligated to.
    -installation of windows in all classroom doors for added transparency of what goes on in classrooms.
    -teachers are told they cannot be in a room alone with a student, must discuss private issues with door open or in a hallway etc.
    -no-touch policy
    -child resilience programs educating students about good touch bad touch and tactics for certain situations.
    -they have very good school counsellors and psychologists who have good relationships with students allowing any problems a chance to be shared in many cases. they are available all the time and students avail themselves as necessary.
    -robust welfare programs teaching students about cyber-safety, bullying, appropriate behaviours etc.

    I think many of these points cover Ms. Resovsky’s recommendations about child abuse.
    Before anyone comes to criticse YBR, they ought to do some homework about what actually goes on these schools. But, alas, most of the critics do not have children in school at all to know what is best practice these days.

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