Photo Credit: Nati Shohat / Flash 90
Haredi school children in Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.

Anyone reading this has already read more than they wish to about the Chaim Walder tragedy. I have read at least a few dozen different articles and blogs surrounding this saga, and I endeavor to add here only that which has not been much discussed elsewhere.

From a rabbinic perspective, I am grateful for those rabbonim who have taken a stand against Walder and stand in solidarity with his victims. I will add that I heard directly from a rabbinic colleague of mine of his personal correspondence with a man from Bnei Brak whose family was destroyed in the wake of his wife’s affair with Walder.

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From a psychological perspective, though, there is an unhealthy message that has emerged from amidst the courage and goodwill of some who stand against Walder; namely, that people should avoid child therapy at all costs unless the door is ajar or there is a two-way mirror. The problem therein is that if so, there will never really be an effective therapy option for children.

Two-way mirrors cannot be implemented in most places. And having the door open harms an essential part of therapy. An essential component of therapy is what we call the “setting,” which in a nutshell refers to having a reliable (same time/place) and safe place (with privacy, plus the knowledge the psychologist won’t share anything said by the client unless someone is in physical danger). Children, certainly, whose parents are often sitting in the hallway during the therapy session, will not feel safe speaking openly if the door is ajar. One concrete suggestion is to look for a room that has a small glass window but, unfortunately, many existing clinics don’t have that infrastructure in place.

Now more than ever – with corona generating myriad mental health issues, including increased familial child abuse – more children need therapy. Besides the “Sur m’ra” of avoiding therapy, perhaps it’s more constructive to bring attention to the “asei tov,” i.e., how to ensure trust and safety even when therapy is called for. For all of us, rabbonim, psychologists and parents, the question is how to promote a safe therapeutic environment. Here are some thoughts, in no specific order.

  1. Differentiate between different types of therapists. Clinical psychologists have one level of training, mental health counselors another, licensed social workers another. They each serve different functions, but all undergo extensive training and supervision. People should ask for a therapist’s state license before starting therapy. A vague or avoidant response raises a red flag.
  2. Chaim Walder, it seems, had no formal training. It is therefore difficult to come to conclusions regarding psychologists or other licensed therapists based on this case. Besides the training and supervision, licensed psychologists obligate themselves to a high professional standard of ethics, including the possibility of being suspended if guilty of untoward conduct. Unlicensed “therapists” do not.
  3. A basic requirement for therapy, and also one of a good therapy’s major milestones, is creating mutual trust. Something that can help towards this while also ensuring safety is to emphasize at the beginning of therapy that confidentiality only binds the therapist. The child should know he can always tell his parents what he chooses. At the same time, to maintain the usefulness of the therapeutic framework, it is important for parents not to pressure a child to share what happened in therapy, unless they have reason to be suspicious. Parents are encouraged to discuss this with the therapist before starting.
  4. Child therapy ought not include touch as a therapeutic feature. Innocent incidental physical contact can happen during different kinds of play therapy (e.g., if building with Play-Do together), but a standalone touch on any part of the body is generally not called for, and never near a private part. There is some professional debate on this point, so parents should clarify what the therapist’s approach is before starting and make sure they are comfortable with it.
  5. This is not the place to discuss halachic approaches to the question of yichud and therapy, but even if one chooses to have their child see a therapist of the same gender, attention should still be paid to all the above points, as abuse can and does happen between adults and children of the same gender.
  6. Granted, licensed therapists also commit these crimes, but statistically, they are not the average offender. Family members, unfortunately, are a much bigger risk factor. Thus, it would be more constructive to tell our children to avoid specific situations in all kinds of settings (including with trusted family members), rather than warning them to only avoid certain settings such as therapy.
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Rabbi Chaim Goldberg has semicha from RIETS and is completing a graduate degree in child clinical psychology at Hebrew University. He lives in Har Nof, Israel with his wife and children.
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