There was a time when preparing for summer camp meant making certain your children had enough socks and a toothbrush and enough toothpaste to last at least three summers.
While this is the time of year to be aware of basic camp necessities such as sneakers and T-shirts, the advent of summer camping has come to mean a great deal more in terms of protecting our children from sexual predators.
According to Zvi Gluck, founder of Amudim, the most fundamental way to prevent sexual abuse — both at home and away —is to be aware of what your child is doing.
I asked Mr. Gluck what has changed in our communities over the past 10 to 20 years that we aren’t able to send a child to camp without worrying about him or her being molested or exploited in some way.
“I don’t think anything really changed,” Gluck said, “other than the fact that as a community we became aware of the reality of what is going on out there.”
Debbie Fox, a busy social worker in Los Angeles, founded Magen Yeladim – the Child Safety Institute about 15 years ago when incidents of sexual abuse came to the forefront of the concerns of the Orthodox Jewish community. Ms. Fox and other social workers receive calls seeking direction on how to handle situations like these.
Both Fox and Gluck assert that the key to prevention is awareness. This message was reiterated last week in statements released by prominent rabbinical figures, including Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, as well as mental-health professionals. Rabbi Kamenetsky joined together with a senior posek in Lakewood, Rav Yaakov Forchheimer, and a leading pediatrician in Lakewood, Dr. Reuven Shanik.
Last week’s messages warned parents about the obligation to speak with their children before camp about abuse. They reiterated that predators specifically prey on young people and vulnerable children during summer months, and many times in our community’s camps.
Fox says parents must call the camps their children will be attending to ask about how staff are trained to recognize the signs of sexual abuse or a child in distress. The more calls the camp management receives, the more pressure they will feel to institute smart and effective protocols to increase awareness of physical and sexual abuse. This, she insists, will help prevent these types of occurrences.
However, the greatest risk to children is not summer camp. In 90% of abuse cases, the child already knows the perpetrator and he is very often a relative, close neighbor or family friend.
The Magen Yeladim team of trained therapists travels around the country speaking yeshivas and school staff with the goal to make people aware of the lurking dangers.
These types of incidents occur much more often than we hear about and are specially shocking when they happen inside a community that is Torah and halacha observant. That it happens at all considering this reality makes the matter especially heinous.
Years ago the isolation our community has from secular society may have encouraged molesters to act on their destructive impulses. Perpetrators may have thought that a victim would not be believed and communal leadership would discourage discussing the matter because of the “shanda” it generates.
Fox says that the inquiries she receives from around the country mostly deal with three matters she discusses extensively in her presentations. The first is grooming. Sexual assaults rarely happen out of the blue. The predator slowly prepares his subject and puts them in a position where they feel comfortable with and indebted to the offender for his attention.
According to Fox, this type of behavior can happen in school, shul, or summer camp, and that is why it is especially important to review these signs and signals at this time of year. This is where camp safety protocols come into the picture, she adds.
These situations are not limited to camps. We also must be mindful of our babysitters and childcare provders, said Fox, recounting some stories that are too disturbing to print here. Not having a plan on how to deal with these matters is a disaster in and of itself.
Statistically, the highest and fastest-growing number of offenders nationally is adolescents, and this is something to be concerned about within our community. In the same way, incest is something all Orthodox families need to be aware of as well. There needs to be supervision at home to assure that all children know they are supervised, even at home. When parents speak to their children about personal safety, they need to clearly state that even brothers and sisters can’t touch them inappropriately. Incest does occur in Orthodox homes.
On the list of properly preparing for camp is the need to have this frank conversation with your child, Fox says. The more aware our children, the less likely it is that they will become victims.
Fox points out that when it comes to training yeshiva staff to recognize these situations, all doors are now open to her and her trained personnel. After some apprehension and initial resistance, even the most right-wing schools in places like Lakewood and Williamsburg have welcomed Ms. Fox’s program to train staff and speak to students.
Too often we hear about the crisis that is the aftermath. Obviously, the incidents that are prevented from being perpetrated because of knowledge and awareness will not make the news or be widely disseminated. That is the objective here: for these incidents not to occur, for predators to be scared away or to have their compulsions professionally addressed, and for our kids — no matter where they are — to be protected and safe.