Kibud Av Vaem and Child Abuse

The Modern Orthodox community has an obligation to protect its children from child abuse. All communities do, but I would like to focus on the Modern Orthodox community, because it’s the community I know best. The Modern Orthodox community faces two main obstacles: 1. Kibud Av Vaem 2. Lack of awareness

1. Kibud Av Vaem, the obligation to honor one’s parents, is part of the Ten Commandments. The obligation itself does not pose a challenge to fighting child abuse, but the way it is currently taught in Modern Orthodox communities does.  You see, the commandment comes with an important caveat, introduced by an important rabbi, the Maharshal: That self-protection trumps kibud, when the two conflict. This caveat is not generally taught in elementary school. This means that an abused child can avoid telling someone or taking necessary steps to deal with the abuse, because they think doing so would be a sacrilege.This feeling of sacrilege may be heightened by a fear that telling someone would violate laws of lashon hara, forbidden gossip. Furthermore, abusive parents can remind a child of the kibud obligation in order to guilt a child into certain things – including the continuance of an unhealthy parent-child relationship.

Kibud av vaem can also be harmful, because it can induce guilt in the child, that they are doing something wrong/not being respectful enough – i.e., not doing kibud av vaem properly – and thus, deserving of the abuse. Most abusive parents don’t frame their actions as “You’re a good kid, but I’ve got issues, so I need to hit you”, but rather, “You did X wrong and thus deserve to get hit” – and a kibud av vaem culture in which respect of parents is mandated and the default is that parents are always right, can serve to strengthen the parents’ framing and make the child more likely to internalize the abusers’ message in a deeper way.

Kibud Av Vaem need not work this way, but can actually be used for a positive effect: When harnessed correctly, teaching kibud av vaem is a good opportunity to teach children about child abuse: Children should be taught that it is extremely important to honor one’s parents, etc., but that even loving parents can sometimes make mistakes, and that if parents behave in X ways (enter list of abusive parental behaviors), they not only can, but, as a matter of fact, should, tell someone. Teaching kibud av vaem is a great time for the school guidance councelor to come in and give a short talk on abuse (appropriate to age level), and assure children they should come to her/him personally if their parents are engaged in abusive behavior patterns. Children are more likely to turn to the guidance councelor if that person is someone they’ve already interacted with, not just a random person walking the hallways. This is also a great segway into getting help in general – that sometimes its good to have a trusted adult to talk to, that if you’re upset about something whether it has to do with your parents or something else, even if your parents aren’t engaged in one of X (enter list of abusive behaviors), its ok to go and talk to the guidance councelor if you’re feeling crummy. The same way we teach children that honoring their parents is a Biblical obligation, we should be teaching them that God wants them to take care of themselves, which means being healthy, and sometimes part of that health is talking to a professional, and it doesn’t violate the laws of lashon hara.

2. There are many well-meaning individuals and leaders in our community who may simply be unaware of what signs to look for to spot abuse, and how to deal with said signs once they are found. Community members, and leaders – especially rabbis and teachers – should be taught what to look for. We don’t want a community where a kid can’t bruise her knee on the playground without fearing a neighbor will call Child Services, but there should be a healthy way to teach people to recognize abuse, in a way that is aware, but not paranoid or quick to jump to conclusions : Judaism does teaches the importance of giving people the benefit of the doubt, but for that to happen, there must be a doubt. Training teachers is the most important. Thus, for example, one student from an emotionally and verbally abusive home, who was involved in her Modern Orthodox elementary school’s theater productions, wrote a short story for a class about a girl who participated in theater as a way of dealing with her (physically) abusive father – the story raised no flags, and the teacher, though he gave her a good grade, never thought to even have a discussion with her about where the story might be coming from. Surely the teacher was well-meaning, and assuming that fiction is autobiographical carries its own dangers, but still, some sort of conversation should have taken place. There also should be standard procedures in schools, for teachers to follow if they suspect abuse. There should be clear guidelines – even if the guidelines are as simple as “Confide your suspicions to the school guidance councellor”, and then the councellor will have their own guidelines.

The biggest challenge the community faces is both a cause and a product of unawareness: Silence. As an abused child, one of the worst feelings is that you’re alone. If abuse were more talked about in our community, people – both children in seek of help and adults who were abused – would feel more comfortable coming forward. Words beget words. Because the truth is, even as an adult, it is difficult to feel that there is such a large part of you that you can’t talk about. Furthermore, until we start talking about the problem, we can’t start fixing it. Does our community need special organizations to deal with child abuse? Probably. It could be such organizations already exist, and I’m simply unaware of them. Abused Children Anonymous, as well as anonymous group therapy for abusers, and a hotline for kids who feel they are in danger, are a few I can think of. Anonymity is especially important in the Modern Orthodox world because its a tight-knit community with extensive fear of social censure, thus, a lack of anonymity could prevent people from seeking help. Then there is the fear that a hotline for children could be abused by children who are angry at their parents – I personally don’t think that will happen, but I could see the fear. Should there be volunteer safe families to move kids to on a short-term basis if things are particuarly rough at home? Should we have an alternative, private-run foster-care service,  provided itsrun by proper professionals (social workers, etc.)?

This leads into the relationship between Modern Orthodox society and Child Services, which is more complicated. Modern Orthodox is generally good about alerting authorities, but I wonder what a healthier relationship with Child Services would look like: If someone reports that his father curses him out regularly, that might be considered a type of verbal abuse, but is it a reason to call Child Services, when they might uproot that child from his family and place him with a foster family that’s just as bad, thus separating him from friends unnecessarily? I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think, that its important not just for Modern Orthodox Jews, but for all Americans interested in fighting child abuse, to recognize that Child Services is not only ineffective, but also sometimes actually causes harm. Because Child Services is not (at least in its current state) an effective solution for child abuse, I do think that a balance must be struck, between calling Child Services when necessary, and not calling them when it’s not necessary.  But that is for the community – and the individuals within it – to decide. I am simply stating that the question bears pondering. While its relationship with Child Services is dependent largely on an external factor (the woeful ineffectiveness of said organization), the other issues mentioned – changing the way kibbud av vaem is taught and heightening community awareness, as well as starting proper organizations within the community to deal with this issue – all lie solely within the community’s hands – which means, to paraphrase Herzl, that if you will it, it will become a reality.


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