Michelle Meyer
Team Leader at Tzedek/SECASA

Understanding of child safety and hachnasat orchim

Jewish organisations can cultivate a child safe environment by developing and implementing sound comprehensive child protection policies.
Jewish organisations can cultivate a child safe environment by developing and implementing sound comprehensive child protection policies.

The Jewish community should be a safe place for all of our children, but protection of children can be too much for one person or one organisation to implement with full effectiveness, so child safety must be a collective responsibility. The Jewish community acting together, in consort, can proactively promote a child safe culture. To do this, the community needs the confidence to respond effectively to the requirements of child safety.

Jewish organisations can cultivate a child safe environment by developing and implementing sound comprehensive child protection policies. Individuals can also play a role, advocating for organisations remiss in this area to take action. This can be achieved by vocally insisting that organisations take responsibility for prioritising child safe practices and by holding to account organisations that do not have a well designed and effective policy. In some jurisdictions, organisations can be reported if they do not have a child protection policy. Taking simple actions, such as checking that an organisation has a policy before attending its programs, can also have an effect.

In our child protection policy training at Tzedek, a common practice is to present vignettes and to start a discussion on how to address each situation.

Here, I present a couple of scenarios, to highlight how hachnasat orchim (hosting guests for a meal or a sleep-over), albeit a very welcoming and highly valued Jewish custom, is also fraught with potential child safety risks.

* A post is placed on social media inviting members of the community to join a hosting service for Shabbat (sabbath) meals. A participating guest at such a meal notices another guest cuddling and tickling a child out of sight of the other guests.

* Several families have gathered for a joint Shabbat meal and the host finds two children hiding in a cupboard, one looking rather fearful.

Hosting guests can take place in a number of ways. Some of these arrangements are formally organised through schools, synagogues and communal organisations. Within some communities there are standing hosting provisions of a less formal nature and, still more informally, are impromptu arrangements between groups of friends or individuals.

In our community, organisations run a number of programs for the hosting of children or young people. Jewish schools might arrange for students to be hosted by people in the school community or from the broader community. A synagogue might have a hospitality roster, arranging for adults or families to be hosted by a local family. An organisation might recruit families to host guests, people for meals or an overnight stay.

Organisations that make such arrangements have certain obligations to ensure child safety. In the Australian State of Victoria, for example, child inclusive organisations are required to comply with the Child Safe Standards (https://ccyp.vic.gov.au/child-safety/being-a-child-safe-organisation/the-child-safe-standards/) as set out in the Child WellBeing and Safety Act (2005). One requirement is that adults involved in providing accommodation, support or welfare to a student must hold a valid Working-with-Children-Check or relevant police check. The standards also require risk reducing practices to be implemented in various areas of human resource management, such as screening processes in its recruitment of staff and volunteers, and processes for supervision, training, reporting and oversight. The standards require organisations to put in place a code of conduct which establishes clear expectations for appropriate behaviour with children. Policies should be accessible to the community, with demonstrated implementation plans.

Other hosting arrangements through individuals or other informal networks are less guided by child safety policies and are instead reliant on awareness from other sources. It is important that the community is educated to be aware of types of grooming behaviour, (https://www.secasa.com.au/assets/Documents/grooming-and-predatory-behaviour.pdf) how to identify abuse and how to respond if abuse occur (https://www.secasa.com.au/pages/indicators-of-child-sexual-abuse/) Ultimately it is also the responsibility of the adults present to supervise their children at all times.

Children should also be prepared for the hosting experience. While it is important for children to be taught about hospitable practices, it is important to recognise that children have the right to say no to uncomfortable situations. The days when a child was urged to accept or give a kiss or a hug are gone now. Children should be given choices, be encouraged to speak up about their feelings in a situation, and adults should check that they feel okay with a situation. They should be given the proper language for body parts to ensure that they are able to communicate clearly and forthrightly – and without embarrassment due to lack of appropriate vocabulary or taboos on the use of such vocabulary – in case they ever need to tell someone they have been abused. Parents should have regular discussions with their children on respect, rights, boundaries and choices. Parents should also assist children to prepare a list of at least five people in their own network to whom they would disclose if something bad happened.

Empowering children is important, but ultimately the responsibility for child protection lies with the community’s adults. For this, adults need education to recognise abuse, how to respond to a child’s disclosure and how to report to the authorities. The community should also be empowered to ask organisations for their child protection policies and to hold to account organisations that do not comply with expected child safety practices.

About the Author
Dr. Michelle Meyer has been the manager at Tzedek for the last 4 years, bringing her years of social work experience to the organisation in the areas sexual assault, family law, mediation and restorative practices. Tzedek is a support and advocacy service for survivors of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. This year, Tzedek joined the South East Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA), ensuring a long term service for the Jewish community. At Tzedek, Michelle has developed specific prevention strategies for the Jewish community, including a child safety education program for schools, youth movements, synagogues and a child protection policy consultancy service. Michelle has worked with a range of services both locally and internationally, toward creating a Jewish community free of child sexual abuse.
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