Along-held belief in some segments of the Jewish community that Jews are forbidden to report other Jews to the authorities is being brought to the fore over what Jews should do when someone is suspected of child abuse. Agudath Israel of America, one of the two major Orthodox rabbinic organizations, recently released a policy statement that is ill-advised. It could lead to a violation of New Jersey law and it could place children in danger. On the other hand, the Rabbinical Council of America, which overall takes a more moderate view of Jewish law, came out with another statement that is more measured and conforms to New Jersey law.
Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, explained in his statement of July 22: “Where there is ‘raglayim la’davar’ [roughly, reason to believe] that a child has been abused or molested, the matter should be reported to the authorities. In such situations, considerations of ‘tikun ha’olam’ [repairing the world], as well as other halachic concepts, override all other considerations.”
He added that according to Jewish law, the duty to report is incumbent on everyone. However, if the threshold of “raglayim la’davar” has not been reached – where, in the words of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a leading haredi decisor, there is only “eizeh dimyon” (roughly, mere conjecture) – reporting someone would lead to destroying the world, not repairing it.
“Because the question of reporting has serious implications for all parties, and raises sensitive halachic issues,” Shafran continued, “the individual should not rely exclusively on his own judgment to determine the presence or absence of raglayim la’davar. Rather, he should present the facts of the case to a rabbi who is expert in halacha and who also has experience in the area of abuse and molestation – someone who is fully sensitive both to the gravity of the halachic considerations and the urgent need to protect children.”
In contrast, the Rabbinical Council of America reaffirmed on July 25 its previously stated position “that those with reasonable suspicion or first-hand knowledge of abuse or endangerment have a religious obligation to report that abuse to the secular legal authorities without delay.”
The RCA added that “mandated reporters” must obey reporting requirements of their particular states.
According to New Jersey law, everyone in the Garden State is a mandated reporter, meaning all of us. As stated on the website of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, “In New Jersey any person having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or acts of abuse should immediately report this information.” If a child is in immediate danger, call 911 as well as 1 877 NJ ABUSE. If abuse is suspected, call 1 877 NJ ABUSE. As explained on the website, “Any person who knowingly fails to report suspected abuse or neglect according to the law or to comply with the provisions of the law is a disorderly person and subject to a fine of up to $1,000 or up to six months of imprisonment, or both.”
Simply put, if a New Jersey citizen suspects that a child is being abused, not immediately reporting that suspicion to the proper secular authority is a violation of the law. The law does not exempt that person from reporting because he or she is waiting for a rabbi’s opinion. The law does not allow for a person to consult with clergy before reporting a suspicion. It provides no leeway whatever.
If that was not enough, let us not forget that any delay in investigating, whether brought about by first consulting with clergy or for any reason, could lead to serious injury, or even the death of a child.
This is not to suggest that people should call state authorities with frivolous complaints about neighbors. There needs to be reasonable suspicion. But if there is reasonable suspicion, call it in. Let the government authorities do the investigating; they are the experts in this.
As an attorney representing parents in Division of Youth and Family Services-related litigation, I do not always agree with all determinations made by DYFS with regard to whether an abuse suspicion is substantiated. But if someone is wrongly accused, we do have a legal process for correcting such errors. As imperfect as the legal system may be, failure to report is not an option.
Here in New Jersey, therefore, any citizen who suspects child abuse who wishes to conform to the law must do the right thing; as stated by the RCA’s statement, the suspicion must be reported to authorities without delay.