Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Investigative Jewish Journalism?

(Hat tip: Da'as Torah blog)

Upon first seeing the title and subtitle of this Jewish Week article, the thought that sprung to my head was "Wow - investigating Ohel. That's some serious journalism." To take on Ohel, which is the darling of Jewish organizations and which accomplishes an incredible amount, particularly with its social services, takes some serious guts and, one would think, a serious story.

But then I read the story. Suffice it to say, it was heavy on innuendo and implications, but light on substance. After detailing a single instance in which questionable (but not entirely unreasonable) decisions were made regarding the status of a child who was perhaps (and then confirmed to be) being abused through proper protocol, it sums up the story by noting "that he was not removed from the home or put into foster care by ACS."

From there, the story goes on to discuss completely unrelated issues, including
the handling of sex abuse that, while technically legal, many advocates and observers believe has put the community’s children at serious risk: treating known sexual abusers who have not been reported to law enforcement and whose proclivities are protected from being made public by confidentiality laws, should they drop out of treatment.
Essentially, Ohel is being criticized for being "technically" legal, but a later paragraph explains why they don't do more:
In 2009, The Jewish Week reported on the case of Stefan Colmer, who had been “sent” by rabbis to treatment at Ohel after he was discovered to have been sexually abusing boys in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Because neither the victims nor anyone else with knowledge of the situation reported Colmer to law enforcement at that time, his treatment at Ohel was not court mandated and thus considered voluntary. Further, because of confidentiality rules, the therapist treating Colmer was prohibited by law from notifying anyone in the community about the danger he posed to children unless Colmer signed a release or disclosed to the therapist that he was currently abusing or had serious thoughts of abusing a specific child (such information allows for the breach of confidentiality rules).
Throughout the piece, the writer seems to fault Ohel for not handling this issue differently, but based on the other information included in the story it seems clear that Ohel is bound by confidentiality laws to act exactly as they do. The closest reasonable critique is that Ohel should be guiding referring Rabbis to report people to authorities and not send them to Ohel, but there seems to be no data to suggest whether or not Ohel has done exactly that nor how many of these cases come from self-reporting individuals. Nor does it explain how ideally Ohel should handle such a patient, particularly considering the specific confidentiality laws that apply to such cases.

The story then segues back to the original example, even realizing itself that the two are not related, noting "None of this, of course, directly applies to the case of the mother, who did not come into treatment as a known molester..." The article then cites the Brooklyn DA's office which says simply that if they had a reason to investigate a failure to report they would, before discussing the Brooklyn DA's relationship with Ohel which includes a hotline for reporting abuse directly to law enforcement.

Finally, the article concludes with an odd paragraph which says "Regardless of the law, the fact that Ohel did not report the case of the mother comes as little surprise to some" followed by a statement from YU's Rabbi Yosef Blau which calls Ohel
"...the problem, in a nutshell. They [have shown that they are] not able to deal with the situation that they are legally required and morally required [to deal with]. [...] Solutions [to the current problem] would involve changing [Ohel’s] leadership. [And] you will know there’s change when they start reporting.”
There seems to be little evidence, at least in this article, to back up the statement that Ohel is not able to deal with the situation properly, nor does it make clear how changing the leadership will effect that change. One friend remarked upon reading that he wonders if this is merely the first shot across the bow in a series of articles about Ohel; I replied that perhaps that is the case, and this was written in the hope that others will come forward with more information. These seem like plausible, if not particularly comforting, explanations for the piece.

Ultimately, though, for a respected Jewish weekly to attack a well-regarded organization on such paltry evidence comes off as horribly weak, sensationalist journalism. There are almost no facts in the entire story, and most of the facts that do exist are spun to present Ohel negatively, despite them acting exactly as they seem to be mandated to in all but one questionable and unclear case. This is extremely disappointing and unfairly besmirches Ohel's reputation, and if there should be more evidence then it is only appropriate that it have been included here.