In the days before Gov. David Paterson’s already-embattled administration began to implode in an alleged cover-up scandal involving a top aide, Paterson reportedly agreed to allocate $500,000 to help identify and treat sex abuse victims in the Orthodox Jewish community, The Jewish Week has learned.
The funds were sought by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and are to be administered by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, an agency that has experience with state contracts.
The money from the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, Hikind said, would be used to set up a new organization called Shomrei Yeladim — Hebrew for “guards of the children.” It would fund the creation of culturally sensitive education materials to be placed in yeshivas and other institutions as well as workshops dealing with combating the problem of pedophilia in the Orthodox community. The money would also fund counseling for abuse victims.
“This is a major campaign to educate everyone from teachers to parents and students with regard to sexual abuse,” said Hikind, who said further details of the program would be announced at a future press conference.
Hikind said the funding would represent the first time the state has directly allocated money for the problem of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community.
Hikind has been outspoken on that issue, making it a frequent topic on his weekly radio show. But he has come under fire for collecting information on alleged molestation cases without turning it over to authorities, saying he was protecting the confidentiality of victims. Lawyers for one plaintiff in a civil case obtained information from Hikind by subpoena.
William Rapfogel, executive director of Met Council, said Monday that if the program is approved by the legislature and added to the budget, his office will be responsible for the paperwork.
“We will make sure all the milestones and performance guidelines are met,” said Rapfogel.
He said the program will primarily be implemented in Orthodox areas of Brooklyn such as Borough Park by an accredited social service agency, which has not yet been named.
“The current system does not have adequate materials,” Rapfogel said. “We also need money for cases and social service management for people to come forward [as a result of the materials]. We don’t know how many people will come forward.”
The potential funding comes as Brooklyn’s Orthodox community is struggling to deal with the pedophilia problem. A central debate has been over whether the community can effectively police the problem from within and fight the stigma faced by potential victims of reporting abuse to law enforcement.
In an indication that attitudes may be changing in the community on the issue, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office recently launched a hotline, called Kol Tzedek (Voice of Righteousness), whose goal is to urge potential victims to come forward to law enforcement.
Ben Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice, a group that advocates for victims of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, said the funding was welcome, but that it should go to organizations with a track record of addressing this issue.
“We applaud Governor Paterson’s funding of programs aimed at addressing sexual abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community and hope it presages the passage of the Child Victims Act,” said Hirsch in a statement, referring to a bill that would temporarily extend the statute of limitations for lawsuits related to sex crimes.
“At the same time,” Hirsch continued, “we are left to wonder why funding is being directed to Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a very worthy organization but one with no connection to the issue of childhood sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community.”
Hirsch cited JSafe, Jewish Board of Advocates for Children and Jewish Survivors Network as examples of organizations that have been active on that topic.
“We find it frightening that a respected organization such as Met Council will be channeling this funding to large ‘licensed’ Brooklyn-based social services organizations with a history of protecting pedophiles and a total disregard for victims of childhood sexual abuse,” he said. “Established organizations don’t need more funding so they can create programs with nice-sounding names. Politicians shouldn’t be allowed to spread patronage on the backs of long-suffering victims and their families.”
“Frankly,” Hirsch concluded, “we’d prefer the money stayed in Albany instead of being sent to Brooklyn where it will likely further harm our long-suffering community.”
The organization that would implement the new program has not yet been named, but the leading social service provider in the area of abuse counseling is Borough Park-based Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services.
Ohel therapists treat survivors of sexual abuse and for years the organization ran a now-defunct offender treatment program as well, something for which it has come under fire. While some of those in the offender treatment program were mandated for treatment by the courts, others were coerced into treatment by rabbis and community leaders, who did not report them to the police.
Ohel is also a partner with Met Council in Kol Tzedek.
Another possible group that could implement the new program is Shalom Task Force, a rabbinically endorsed organization that deals with domestic violence in the Orthodox community. Its director of training is Lisa Goodman Twerski, the sister-in-law of Benzion Twerski, who served briefly on Hikind’s sex abuse task force but resigned citing pressure from members of his community and family.
Paterson’s press office did not respond to a request for comment on the funding at press time. In a statement relayed through a spokesperson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said the funds were necessary even with the state facing a massive budget deficit.
“While these are very difficult financial times, it is critical that we fight for programs that help protect our children from terrible instances of childhood sexual abuse,” Silver said.
Hikind is a political ally of Paterson since the governor’s early days as a state senator, and prior to the announcement that Paterson would not seek election to a full-term this year, Hikind said he would have been on board to support the campaign.
Hikind said the meeting to finalize the deal took place when Paterson still intended to run for governor. n
Hella Winston contributed to this report.