Sunday, May 07, 2006

Sex ed program for Orthodox disabled aims at protecting vulnerable population

By Jacob Berkman
Jewish Standard - May 4, 2006

For more information on this topic:
Physically and Intellectually Challenged Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Special Education
TEANECK, N.J., May 4 (JTA) — “Chaim” is an extraordinary boy, says his mother. The youngest of six children in an Orthodox home in northern New Jersey, he is charming, has a wonderful sense of humor, a part-time job at a local supermarket, and a black belt in karate. And he has a lot of the typical tiffs with his parents that other 18-year-old boys have — he wants a driver’s license, he wants to attend a different synagogue than his parents, and he wants to go away to college.

But Chaim is not a typical 18-year-old. Within two hours of his birth, his doctors and his parents knew that he had Down Syndrome.

He is high functioning. He packs his own lunches to take to school at Sinai Special Needs Institute, he folds his own laundry, and he can cook for himself. But he reads only at a second-grade level, and his mother guesses that he computes math at a fourth- or fifth-grade level.

Still, his mother hopes that some day Chaim will move into a group home, and she hopes that, one day, he will even get married. The trouble is that he is already starting to discover his sexuality, and while his 18-year-old body may be ready for it, his elementary-school comprehension is not.

So, Chaim’s mom gets a little concerned when she sees him turn his head when a pretty girl walks past. She gets a little more concerned when she has to confiscate advertisements featuring scantily clad women, and still more when she has to curtail his Internet privileges when she finds him looking at semi-pornographic Websites. And when she found that he was writing out detailed descriptions of sexual fantasies, she became very concerned.

Though her other religious sons might have played basketball or read or taken cold showers to distract themselves from sexual urges, Chaim does not have those options. And she is worried that he is getting frustrated.

“I don’t want him to spend a lot of his waking hours thinking about sex. I don’t think it’s healthy for any child — but a normal kid has other outlets,” she said. She also realizes, “I could just close my eyes and say, this doesn’t exist.’ But for me to say, ‘My son is retarded, so he doesn’t know about these things,’ is not true. He loves to talk to girls. He even has an on-and-off relationship with a girlfriend.”

For those who do not live with, work with, or know people with special needs, it is easy to forget that they, like the rest of us, are sexual beings — that, as their bodies grow, they too hit puberty. But while most of us learn to deal with our physiological changes fairly quickly, those changes can be confusing and frustrating for the developmentally disabled who can’t necessarily grasp what is happening, and can’t necessarily learn how to cope with new feelings and urges.

The bigger problem is that, while most of us ignore the sexuality of the developmentally disabled, they are also the population that is at perhaps the greatest risk of becoming the victims of sexual abuse by predators who take advantage of their naivete.

That is why Sinai, which teaches elementary through post-high school students at campuses in Teaneck, Elizabeth and West Orange, N.J., has put together a curriculum to teach special-needs children — and specifically special-needs children from Orthodox homes — about their changing bodies, and about how to protect them.

The curriculum, laid out in “The Jewish Self — Sexual Education for Life,” an illustrated 145-page manual, was designed by Rabbi Gil Elmaleh, who holds an master’s in clinical psychology and a doctorate in social work. Before recently moving to Israel, he was with Sinai for 11 years and directed the school’s therapeutic services. In addition, he had a private practice in New Jersey, through which he saw a large number of special-needs children.

He and school officials started developing the classes that would become “The Jewish Self” five years ago, after they became alarmed at the number of children from the Orthodox community who exhibited signs of sexual abuse. Some children were overtly sexual in ways they spoke and acted at home and at school. Others were acutely inhibited, afraid to take off their clothes in appropriate situations, or afraid to go to the gym. Others described discomfort in their genital region.

And Elmaleh saw victims of abuse ranging in age from 8 to 18.

The common denominator, he said, was that his patients and students, those who were the victims, did not know that certain parts of their bodies were meant to be private and that others are not allowed to touch them, and they did not have the language skills to communicate their fears or even to approach teachers or parents to describe what happened to them.

“By the fifth or sixth case, I was already feeling very frustrated,” he said. “I also felt a lot of anger” that there was no guide out there.

But it was the abuse of one patient in particular, Elmaleh said, that forced him into action.

Five years ago, a Sinai student was brought into the psychologist’s office because the student kept touching himself in class. Sinai teachers did not know how to deal with the boy, who was about 16, Elmaleh recalled.

When the psychologist sat down with the boy, he tried to explain to the student that there are certain body parts that one is not supposed to touch in public.

“‘Just like no one else would touch you there, right?’” Elmaleh recalled asking the boy. He replied, “No, there is someone who touches me.”

The student told Elmaleh that he would go with his father to a Jewish community center every Tuesday night. (Elmaleh is careful to note that this student came from outside of northern New Jersey, and that this JCC was not in New Jersey.) One night, while his father was swimming laps, the boy went to the JCC’s locker room to sit in its sauna. There, another JCC member, a religious man, according to Elmaleh, molested the boy.

But the boy did not know that he was being violated. He only knew that the touches felt pleasurable, so every Tuesday night for about a year, he met up with the stranger and was molested.

“He did not know that this was a terrible thing,” said Elmaleh.

More infuriating, said the psychologist, was that when he approached the boy’s father to tell him that his son was the victim of long-term abuse, the father did not want to press charges against the abuser because he was afraid of the stigma surrounding the situation.

“Basically, the parents spoke with someone at the Jewish community center, and this individual was kicked out. But he will do the same thing to someone else, just somewhere else. It was infuriating,” Elmalah said. “It broke my heart.”

Sexual abuse for any victim is often psychologically damaging, but for the special needs child, the damage can be even more extensive.

Abuse can cause trauma, relationship issues, sexual issues — and, while many developmentally disabled people do get married and can have sexual relationships with their partners, as Chaim’s parents hope he will, the experience of abuse can make those relationships very difficult, taking away their trust in others.

“When a child puts it all together and really understands what has happened to them and understands that their body was touched, it can take years of therapy to recover,” said Elmaleh, who now is the director of Tochnit Eit Lilmod, a post-high-school program for students with learning difficulties and other special needs in Jerusalem.

“There is guilt with any victim, which comes from asking, ‘How could I have let this happen to me?’ It is magnified in different ways with special needs children.”

Abuse can also lead to bizarre dreams, regression, and neurosis, Elmaleh said, and, as in the case of this one boy, it can lead to inappropriate or strange behavior.

“He was touching himself in an inappropriate place because he learned it from a perpetrator,” Elmaleh said. “Their whole understanding of sexuality gets skewed.”

The developmentally disabled population is perhaps the most at risk and the most often sexually abused segment of our society, said Norman Reim, the spokesman for the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, a federally funded watchdog group that has similar chapters in every state. Eight years ago, his group published a study about the instances of abuse.

“When we did that, the numbers were staggering,” he said. “In both sexes, abuse — not just sexual — is well over 50 percent, and upwards of three-quarters of the developmentally disabled have been abused in one way or another. We found that the instances of sexual abuse against females was up in the stratosphere. Some studies showed nearly 80 percent had been abused in one way or another.”

According to statistics compiled from different studies by the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, some 83 percent of females and 32 percent of males with developmental disabilities have been sexually abused and 49 percent of those abused will be abused 10 or more times.

Even though, according to the Wisconsin group, more than 15 percent of all children sexually abused each year are developmentally disabled, society in general has been slow in addressing the problem, Reim said.

“There is not that sense of outrage for people with disabilities, and ‘Why?’ is the $64,000 question,” he said. “They are well supported by the public in certain areas, such as residential funding, but not in other areas, such as abuse and neglect. People feel that people with developmental disabilities are generally living in very supervised environments, and they consequently forget that abused children” who are not developmentally disabled are generally abused in familiar environments, he said. “That is where abuse happens. It is often the caretaker or someone they know who is abusing them.”

Elmaleh said that in his research, he could not find exact numbers about how often sexual abuse of the developmentally disabled occurs within the Jewish and particularly the Orthodox communities.

“We don’t have data in the Jewish community because often, unfortunately, the Jewish community, and especially the Orthodox community, does not want to go public because of the fear” of stigma, Elmaleh said, adding that there is nothing to suggest that abuse happens at a lower rate in the Jewish community than it does in the general community. “We tend to keep things quiet.”

The Orthodox community has started to deal with sexual abuse in its schools and youth groups after former NCSY leader Baruch Lanner was convicted of sexual abuse. But it is still slow to act on the abuse of the developmentally disabled, he said — though the community has become good about pointing a finger at instances of possible abuse.

The trouble is that sometimes the concern is alarmist. As Elmaleh says, “just because someone has a private discussion with a child... does not mean there was sexual abuse. It is important not to point the finger at anyone unless an appropriate assessment has taken place by professionals who work with these populations. The consequences of an error is devastating and destructive, both to the alleged perpetrator and the child.”

That is part of the reason Sinai’s dean of students, Laurette Rothwachs, almost had to force the curriculum on her faculty and the school’s parents.

“It’s the world we live in, but it’s hard for people to deal with this issue, and it’s especially hard for people in the Orthodox community, where modesty is such a driving force. They just shy away from dealing with the issue,” she said. “We had to force it on them by offering it to the students and parents and training them to be open.”

Before developing the curriculum, Sinai taught health education but never dealt specifically with sex. So Elmaleh and school officials broached the subject with a pilot study shortly after his encounter with the boy who was sexually abused at a JCC. They taught parts of what would become the curriculum in group therapy sessions, starting first with the most basic lesson — the difference between private and public. And they spent time teaching their students to scream “No!” if they thought they were being approached inappropriately.

The Jewish Self curriculum teaches students what constitute public places — the synagogue, school bus, and school — and private places — the bedroom, bathroom, and closet. It teaches them to identify clothing worn in public — pants, jackets, and skirts — versus private clothing, such as underwear.

The Jewish Self manual teaches about public behavior, such as shopping and selecting food in the cafeteria, versus private behavior, such as using the bathroom and fixing one’s skirt.

And then it teaches about public parts of the body, such as hands, fingers, and the face, versus the body’s private parts — not shying away from teaching about these. The manual includes numerous drawings of naked and anatomically correct human bodies, both male and female, as well as instructions about how to teach how the penis and vagina function.

And it gives suggestions for how to teach about the changes a body undergoes during puberty, asking instructors, for instance, to have their students bring in pictures of themselves at different stages in life so they can see how they have changed.

The manual is geared toward the Orthodox, so the more graphic illustrations, such as the drawings of the naked body, and even of a boy masturbating, are covered by not-so-easily-removable paper and are clearly marked “For Females Only” or “For Males Only,” where appropriate.

Elmaleh said that he drew from secular sex-ed manuals when designing Self, but had to modify it to fit an Orthodox perspective.

“In some manuals, the mindset is that it’s okay to have sex if everyone is consensual. We don’t believe that. We believe there is a time and a place — after marriage. This is not a how-to-have-sex manual,” he said. “It is about prevention and awareness... understanding who you are and what the body is all about.”

The issue of private touching was especially delicate. While other sex-ed manuals teach that masturbation is healthy when done properly, Elmaleh said that he had to figure out how to teach Orthodox students what masturbation is, and that it is not permissible, according to halachah.

Before starting on the manual, he consulted the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and asked for members’ permission and guidance, which he said he received wholeheartedly. He worked closely with Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, and Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger of Cong. Beth Abraham in Bergenfield.

Rothwachs said that the curriculum is meant to be taught throughout the course of several years, and that each student is introduced to different parts of the curriculum only when the school, guidance counselors, and parents agree that the student is ready for it. The more advanced parts of the curriculum are generally taught only to older students, such as those living in Sinai’s group home.

Rothwachs said that even with the curriculum, teaching Sinai children about sex is not as easy as simply showing diagrams and explaining things once or twice. It takes hours of repetition, and those who are teaching it at Sinai say that they often run into trouble with abstract ideas.

“I’ve had students not understand things like menstruation. For some students it can be confusing and even scary,” said Heather Haggler, Sinai’s director of therapeutic services. “I had one student who thought that she would bleed for seven months, and not seven days. She was petrified and did not want to get periods because she didn’t understand that she was confusing” the timeframes of menstruation and pregnancy.

Haggler said that most of the questions that students pose have to deal with bodily function, and that she has to make her students understand that while some bodily functions are okay to speak about with a doctor, it is not appropriate to speak about them at synagogue.

Each student, though, is taught differently, she said. Some have one class a week, others have two or more 15-minute sessions per week, some are taught individually, and others in small groups, and as often as possible the school tries to have female teachers work with girls and male teachers work with boys.

“It’s more challenging than teaching math, because math is black and white,” she said.

But the school has seen results, Elmaleh said. Students tend to behave more modestly around each other, and Haggler said that students now come to her with questions about how others are behaving.

Officials hope that they can help boys like Chaim understand their own bodies and stay safe, and they hope that other schools and organizations that work with Orthodox special-needs children pick up the manual, which they are now making available for sale to the public.

Chaim’s mother said that while she was concerned — for all of her kids — that they might get into a situation where they could be abused, she is more afraid for Chaim. She is also concerned that he might do something inappropriate because, for instance, he doesn’t understand that he can’t hug just anyone.

“The Mishnah says that the wise person is one who can see the consequence in his actions,” she said. “Chaim is not wise that way.”

The curriculum has helped alleviate some of her fears. And she thinks that it has helped Chaim understand that he cannot talk about what he has learned about sex with kids who are younger than he is.

“I think anyone who has an ounce of common sense in their head, knows you can’t pretend that these boys don’t have urges,” she said. “It’s unrealistic.”

For more information about The Jewish Self and how to deal with sexual abuse of the developmentally disabled, e-mail or or visit


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