When veteran social worker Debbie Fox’s name appeared in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald on April 10, the story about her claimed she was doing the unthinkable: protecting a known abuser of children.
The story purported to quote from an e-mail she wrote to an unnamed sex offender in November 2011. “I have no idea how anyone found out,” she was quoted as saying, “but calls are coming daily from many sources. So far, we’ve been protecting you.”
Fox worked at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), until budgetary pressures led her to resign late last year. Most recently she was the agency’s director of children and family services. She also served as director of the Aleinu Family Resource Center, an arm of JFS serving the local Orthodox community.
Fox, who is internationally known as a leading authority on child abuse prevention within Orthodox communities, confirmed in an interview with the Journal that she wrote the e-mail quoted in the Herald, but said the Australian newspaper took it out of context in a way that misrepresents its intent.
Speaking on April 14, Fox stated that her e-mail was not about protecting the offender from prosecution or from the local Orthodox Jewish community.
Rather, Fox said she was informing the offender of what he already knew: that if he did not follow through with the evaluation and treatment that he and JFS had come up with, the victim, who had first brought the offender to Fox’s attention, would go public with what the offender had done to him 20 years earlier in Australia.
The complete chain of e-mails, Fox said, make clear that she and Aleinu had no intention of protecting the offender from such exposure, and Fox said that each e-mail she sent to the offender also was copied to the victim and to a rabbi on Aleinu’s Halachic Advisory Board (HAB), a group of Orthodox rabbis who work with Aleinu on its cases and protocols.
“The victim, the offender and the rabbi were all notified of every communication,” she said.
The Herald’s story is just one of many published about abuse within the Australian Jewish community, and it comes at a time when revelations and prosecution of sexual abuse within Orthodox Jewish communities around the world are on the rise.
This story could draw further scrutiny of the work of Los Angeles’ HAB, which has been considered by many Orthodox experts as a model for treating abusers because of HAB’s close cooperation with law enforcement. Critics, however, see HAB’s work as undermining reporting requirements by presenting itself as an alternative to law enforcement.
Since the early 2000s, when three sex abuse scandals in Los Angeles’ Orthodox Jewish community received broad press coverage, Fox has been working on a number of fronts to prevent sex abuse.
A licensed clinical social worker, Fox created a program that aims to educate children, parents and educators about how to prevent and respond to child abuse. She worked with the HAB rabbis to devise a “conduct policy” that has been introduced in Jewish schools and camps. And she oversaw the growth of the HAB to its current size, with 11 local rabbis from across the Orthodox community now working on a volunteer basis on some particularly sensitive issues.
Fox is herself a mandated reporter — if she has reason to suspect child abuse, she must inform authorities — as are JFS and Aleinu. But the HAB, Fox said, only intervenes in cases of child abuse where there is no reportable offense, and has taken on between 25 and 30 cases of alleged or confirmed child abuse in the past eight years.
Fox said she was contacted in 2011 by a victim who was seeking to force the man who abused him decades earlier in Australia to go before the HAB.
The offender, now living in Los Angeles, admitted to the abuse, but Fox said that when she called the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, she was told there was nothing to report locally because the offense took place decades earlier and in another country. Fox said she also encouraged the victim to call police in Australia, but he declined to do so at the time, citing personal reasons.
For a victim of abuse to decline to report an offense, even years later, is not unusual in insular Orthodox communities. That is, Fox said, what drives the HAB in the work that it does.
In 2011, both the victim and the offender — both of whom provided statements to Fox, but declined to be interviewed by the Journal either by phone, e-mail or in person — were in “100 percent agreement,” Fox said, both about what took place decades earlier and what had to happen going forward.
Under threat of exposure, the offender underwent an in-depth assessment to determine whether he was still a danger to children.
Such evaluations, used frequently by the HAB, can last up to 50 hours and involve lengthy questionnaires, a lie-detector test and other examinations.
This one, however, ended up being atypical, Fox said: The assessment found the offender had offended in the past but had not reoffended in “more than 20 years.”
The outside evaluators recommended the offender undergo therapy with an expert in the field, Fox said, and in accordance with the victim’s wishes, disclose his past offenses to his own rabbi. The offender is now required to meet with that rabbi on a monthly basis.
The offender complied, Fox said, and the victim told her he was completely satisfied with the results of the HAB’s involvement.
The other unusual aspect of this case, Fox said, was that the offender took, in his words, “a significant period of time” to complete the evaluation and to get set up with treatment.
Too long, as Fox made clear in her e-mail of Nov. 21, 2012.
“We have NEVER had any evaluation take nearly this long,” Fox wrote in the e-mail obtained by the Herald, reminding him that he had to complete it “for [his] security.”
Fox declined to share the entire e-mail chain with the Journal, but read the text of those that preceded the one obtained by the Herald to a reporter over the phone. The e-mails were insistent that the offender move forward with the agreed-upon assessment and treatment regimen.
“Every communication was about following through with the protocol,” Fox told the Journal. “When he [the offender] did not follow through in a timely manner, what I said is, ‘I can’t protect you.’
“The victim is going to just let everybody know that this is what you’ve done 20 years ago, and I’m not going to stop it,” Fox added. “I can’t protect that. That is what the e-mail said.”
Fox has many supporters within the Orthodox Jewish community, but some advocates for the sexual abuse victims are critical of her work with the HAB.
“Why do you need an advisory board? Why do you need gatekeepers?” asked Ben Hirsch, a spokesperson for Survivors for Justice, an organization that educates and advocates on issues related to child safety. “Duplicating the job of trained law enforcement professionals serves no purpose other than the occasional cover-up.
“The only thing rabbis should be doing is to tell people to report all incidents of abuse directly to the authorities — even when there is no legal requirement to do so — and to offer public moral support to victims who do report,” Hirsch added.
Richard Baker, one of the reporters who wrote the Herald article, said this week that the unnamed offender is now under investigation by detectives in Sydney for acts committed against four victims when they were children.
Australia has no statute of limitations on criminal charges of sexual abuse against children.