Jewish community, day schools unite to prevent sexual abuse
|Courtney Evenchik, school psychologist at Yeshiva Derech HaTorah ( NO RELATIONSHIP AT ALL, IN ANY WAY, TO TO DR. CHAIM NEUHOFF - FORMER YTT EMPLOYEE - PAID BIG BUCKS TO COVER-UP CHILD ABUSE)|
- JONAH L. ROSENBLUM | STAFF REPORTER
What You Need to Know
- "Stranger danger” is no longer an adequate approach to child safety, given that 90 percent of sexual abuse is by someone the child knows, and in many cases someone the child – and parents – love and trust.
- Molesters don’t usually order a child to take his or her shirt off on day one but instead earn their trust before abusing them.
- Parents need to be watchful – and trust their gut.
- Make clear to children that they will be listened to – and believed.
- "It’s harder to abuse or trick a child who knows what you’re up to."
Courtney Evenchik, school psychologist at Yeshiva Derech HaTorah for the last 11 years, praised Cleveland for something a little more under-the-radar but no less important – the way its Jewish day schools have fought back against sexual abuse.
The Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood and Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike are the latest to take on Magen Yeladim Child Safety Institute programming, a Jewish model based on the work of The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The national initiative arose, according to Evenchik, after a number of sex abuse cases in California that caused local rabbis to say, “This has to stop.” They looked at The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s model and asked, “How do we take it and make it Jewish?”
Magen Yeladim Child Safety Institute programming is distinctly Jewish, featuring rabbis and talk about how to avoid sexual abuse everywhere, including at shul. The programming is geared in several directions, teaching schools safe hiring practices, teaching children how to be in control of their own bodies and teaching parents how to spot signs of abuse and how to react to reports of abuse if worst comes to worst.
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights and Fuchs Mizrachi School in Beachwood are in their third year of the program, while Yeshiva Derech HaTorah in Cleveland Heights is in its second year, and Gross Schechter and Mandel JDS are entering their first.
“It takes a community to stop abuse,” Evenchik said. “I’m so proud of Cleveland right now.”
Mandel JDS Head of School Jerry Isaak-Shapiro was one of about 25 people who attended Evenchik’s March 7 talk at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Mandel Building in Beachwood. As for why Mandel JDS is adding Magen Yeladim Child Safety Institute programming, Isaak-Shapiro pointed out that before math, history and science, “safety and security are the most important” items a school can offer.
“For us, it’s a win-win,” Isaak-Shapiro said. “When it’s framed within the Jewish context and within the Jewish community, I think it’s even stronger.”
Evenchik started her talk with a video fighting back against the perception that sexual abuse couldn’t happen in “my community” through statistics (about one child molester exists per square mile) and the voices of the abused. One man spoke of being molested by his overnight camp’s nature director after davening. That was one example of how abuse was framed in a Jewish context.
Evenchik said “stranger danger” is no longer an adequate approach to child safety, given that 90 percent of sexual abuse is by someone the child knows, and in many cases someone the child – and parents – love and trust.
“There’s really no profile,” Evenchik said. “It can be anybody.”
But if there isn’t someone to look out for, there are some things to look out for.
Evenchik told the audience about grooming – how molesters don’t usually order a child to take his or her shirt off on day one but instead earn their trust before abusing them. She talked about what molesters look for, often a kid who wants attention; how they seek a child and family’s trust, showering a child with gifts and eventually gaining emotional dependence; and how they slowly start to sexualize the relationship, perhaps with a mere lingering shoulder touch or back rub to start.
She also talked about signs a child might have been abused – the sudden behavioral changes, an inability to fall asleep or the pleas not to be taken to a certain place.
This is where parents need to be watchful – and trust their gut.
“If something doesn’t feel right, know that and trust that,” Evenchik said.
And make clear to children that they will be listened to – and believed.
Many children don’t tell because “they don’t think anyone will believe them,” Evenchik said. Or they were threatened. Or they don’t want to upset their parents.
That’s why parents need to let their children know that there are no secrets – that children can and should tell them anything.
“The most powerful tool is your communication with your kids,” Evenchik said.
And if abuse happens, children may carefully hint at it, afraid of full disclosure. Evenchik told attendees to listen and “remain calm,” so as not to scare the child.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world,” Evenchik said. “They need to see you calm.”
Children in Greater Cleveland’s five Jewish day schools are now getting some of that education in the schoolhouse, but as Evenchik emphasized, some of the most important prevention takes place in the actual home.
And prevention starts with communication, education and preparation, as evidenced by a quote from an actual perpetrator that Evenchik shared:
“Parents shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about things like this – it’s harder to abuse or trick a child who knows what you’re up to.”