Sep 2, 2008
How to prevent child abuse
Sending kids to school and camp is like sending them into a minefield. All we can do is pray that they will come out intact, writes Simon Jacobson
By Simon Jacobson
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,
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?
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 adversary, are never asked to do something that is beyond our capacity.
Our true challenge is not to retreat in fear or convince ourselves that this is “somebody else’s” problem and could “never happen to me and my family.” We must put our heads and hearts together and once and for all take on this man-made plague. As those involved in 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 and within all the narcissism of material existence lay profound beauty and sublime energy – that a gentle child remains hidden under the hard crust of your adult armor – then nothing, absolutely nothing (except your won self-doubt), can vanquish your spirit.
Take away this principle and you may as well give up. Our challenge is to hold on to this faith and trust even in the darkest moments.
How to protect
So, in the process of joining together to address the challenge of abuse in our communities, I have been asking this very question to many people: What would you suggest we do to protect our children from abuse?
Though hardly scientific, the grass-roots consensus of the people I spoke to (so far) focused primarily on the effort we must exert on educating our children, from a young age, to protect themselves from anyone who may touch them inappropriately. Explain to them no one has a right to violate their privacy, and that they should report any such violation.
“At what age,” I asked, “should we begin to speak to our children?” Some said as early as they can understand.
Without taking away from the merits of this strategy, we have to examine whether speaking to children is actually effective. Does it help to warn children? I can tell you from personal experience that when I was warned to watch out from predators it actually terrified me. Whenever I saw adults hanging around in certain corners, I would suspiciously look at them like criminals. Monsters lurking everywhere. Remember, children hear things differently than adults. They inherently trust, and when they are warned about threatening elements, they can take it to extremes, like the goblins in a fairy tale.
But even more important is the fact that most abuse does not happen at the hands of strangers sitting in cars at street corners near schools, offering candies or toys to unsuspecting children. Though such pedophiles exist, and children can be taught to avoid such situations, most abuse happens in far more “innocent” ways, usually at the hands of a older friend or relative, someone close to the child, someone the child would never suspect, and someone the child would find difficult to resist. Then, once violated, the child would in most cases not tell anyone, even when pre-warned.
Above all, this approach to speak to our children (which, again, I am not opposed to) is still addressing only symptoms, instead of roots. It speaks to the potential victims, instead of to the perpetrators and the causes for abuse.
What struck me about this attitude – reflected in most of the suggestions people were offering – was that they were all focusing on the receiving end of abuse. As if to suggest, however subtly, that it is the victim’s fault. Had the child protected himself, had she protested, had he reported the abuse, things would have been fine. This approach further feeds into the victimization mentality.
It also suggests, however subtly, that predators are a given, and we can do nothing about them. All we can do is create strong defenses. This too essentially further reinforces a defensive mode to life. Is that a way to live? In constant fear and suspicion of predators, focusing on protective measures to shield ourselves and our children?
I would like to propose another, perhaps radical, not so subtle, suggestion:
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 and have no clue how much damage they are doing in their pursuit.
We need to initiate a massive campaign of informing 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, but one that remains etched in the psyche and memory, leaving permanent wounds, many which haunt us for the rest of our lives.
Though we must do everything possible to deal with the symptoms of abuse (no different than band-aids and aspirins) with short-term solutions or whatever may possibly work, the biggest challenge is to address the root of the issue: Abuse is only possible because there is a climate, an environment, a breeding ground as it were, 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 subtly and sensitively, 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 it should 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, and also here)
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 should 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.
As we move through the seven weeks of comfort, which coincides with the beginning of the new school year, this is a perfect time to set new standards and declare for all, and especially our children, to hear and see that we will do whatever it takes to protect them, so that no weapon that is formed against you shall prosper.
[This article focused on sexual abuse, though there are other destructive forms of abuse that violate human dignity, which deserve to be addressed]