Expert Insights on Protecting Children

Written by Rachel Kohn on . Posted in Features

Administrators at youth-serving institutions such as schools, summer camps, and synagogues have multiple resources at their disposal to keep their hiring practices and sexual abuse reporting mechanisms up to snuff. These include guidelines available online, local organizations, and publicly recognized child abuse experts.

A couple of local institutions have dealt with the subject of sexual abuse this year. In Rockville, Maryland, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) Director of Athletics and Summer Programs Mike Riley was placed on leave last month after allegations emerged of sexual misconduct with a student at Rockville High over 30 years ago. In January, sexual abuse allegations against Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky, published in the New York Jewish Week, left administrators at Camp Shoresh in Adamstown, Maryland, and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and Suburban Orthodox Congregation in Baltimore addressing concerns from community members.

Hiring Practices

There is no legal standard when it comes to background checks for allegations of abuse, but Victor
Vieth, founder and senior director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center (Gundersen NCPTC) in Minnesota, recommended a good place to start a search for best practices.

In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published guidelines on how to screen employees, even volunteers, who will be put in charge of children. These include guidance for how to proceed if a candidate discloses he or she was previously accused of misconduct (“Tell me more about that,” have the person sign a release for access to relevant records, and so on).

“If there is a clear indication … the person was innocent or someone admits to a false accusation, I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Vieth, “but if it’s credible at any level — even if it didn’t result in charges — I would say it’s too risky to hire this person because we value children too much.” He also recommended recurring background checks.

While most institutional policies on preventing and reporting child abuse are established in consultation with a lawyer, input from a child abuse expert is key, said Vieth: They know what the research says about the mind of offenders, for example, and how to inspect a facility for alterations that might make them safer.

“Placing the Safety of a Child First”

Vieth also recommended reaching out to one of the 800 accredited child abuse centers (CACs) across the U.S.

The Baltimore Child Abuse Center’s (BCAC’s) Blueprint for Child Protection, along with its policy creation and audit services, help organizations and communities create “thorough and comprehensive policies and procedures” and implement specific training, said Senior Policy and Program Specialist Alison D’Alessandro via email.

The course of action CESJDS Head of School Rabbi Mitchel Malkus described taking fell in line with D’Alessandro’s prescription for reporting abuse: Even though the claim against his employee was about events decades ago at a former place of employment, when Rabbi Malkus first learned of the allegations against Riley from a letter to the school in mid-April, he immediately contacted the Montgomery County Police Department and CPS.

“In consultation with authorities, we placed Mr. Riley on leave shortly thereafter,” Rabbi Malkus wrote in an email to the CESJDS community May 1 — the same day Riley turned himself in to Montgomery County detectives, according to a press release from the police department. There was no indication Riley engaged in any inappropriate conduct at CESJDS, said Rabbi Malkus.

On May 23, Rabbi Malkus confirmed Riley was no longer employed by CESJDS, where he'd been on the staff for approximately eight years.

D’Alessandro confirmed that BCAC has worked with Camp Shoresh and Beth Tfiloh but would not comment specifically on either institution’s history when it comes to hiring practices or transparency with the community. She did say that both the camp and school “share a desire to keep children safe and to create a culture of placing the safety of a child first.”

As previously reported by Kol HaBirah, Rabbi Krawatsky was not rehired by Camp Shoresh for the following summer after allegations made when the 2015 camp season ended. Counselors from the 2017 camp season described an atmosphere of attentiveness to appropriate counselor-camper behavior among the staff fostered by BCAC-led trainings at the start of the summer.

Beth Tfiloh placed Rabbi Krawatsky on leave during the first CPS investigation into allegations at Camp Shoresh. He was eventually allowed to resume teaching, and continued until the allegations against him were published in the New York Jewish Week.

When asked whether BCAC would recommend that a youth-serving organization hire someone with an “unsubstantiated finding” of child abuse, which was the finding by CPS against Rabbi Krawatsky, D’Alessandro said that would not be BCAC’s recommendation.

“Organizations are not bound by the same legal standards of the criminal justice system in their hiring practices as it relates to child protection. An organization must assess the situation and always err on the side of the child. BCAC makes recommendations, but the final decision is up to the organization itself," she said.

Beth Tfiloh Director of Education Zipora Schorr declined to comment for this article on the community reaction in January or any changes to school policy since Rabbi Krawatsky was fired.

After the New York Jewish Week story came out, the Baltimore community became embroiled in character attacks against both the alleged perpetrator and victims. People were also unsure how someone accused of abuse but never criminally charged should be included in community life (the assistant state attorney declined to prosecute, citing “insufficient credible information”). In such situations, Vieth recommended local leaders consult one or more child abuse experts with no personal stake in the outcome of the case to review the available details and advise them on how to guide the community.

“Most people are opposed to child abuse, but we’re opposed to it in the abstract. What we often see up close and personal, for obvious reasons, is the alleged perpetrator would be somebody that we know, somebody that we’ve broken bread with, somebody we trust; so all our built-in incentives are to conclude that this person didn’t commit the offense,” Vieth said. “There may or may not be innocence, but we have to be aware of that dynamic and challenge our own dissonance, but the only way we can do that is with as much information as possible.”

By Rachel Kohn