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OHEL suit opens window on foster care placements

OHEL suit opens window on foster care placements

Woman alleges abuse in ’80s in Elizabeth home; claim of ‘inadequate vetting and monitoring’f

The Bronx County Courthouse/Mario Merola Building houses the Supreme Court. (Wally Grobetz/Flickr Commons)
The Bronx County Courthouse/Mario Merola Building houses the Supreme Court. (Wally Grobetz/Flickr Commons)

In a lawsuit that raises questions about foster care placements by a leading Brooklyn social service organization, a Jewish émigré from the former Soviet Union is alleging sexual abuse at the hands of an Elizabeth family where she was placed as a child.

The complaint, filed this week in State Supreme Court in the Bronx, alleges that in the 1980s the child suffered “brutal and traumatizing rapes” in the foster home assigned by the OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services. And it claims that OHEL’s policy of “placing undue emphasis on connecting biologically Jewish foster children with Orthodox Jewish foster homes” led to inadequate vetting and monitoring of those foster families.

According to the suit — believed to be one of the first filed against OHEL under the new Child Victims Act — OHEL failed to take adequate care to protect the child against frequent sexual abuse committed in the 1980s by Moshe Aharon (Milton) Jacobs, a married member of Elizabeth’s Orthodox community who subsequently moved to Israel. Jacobs, in whose legal custody the plaintiff spent one year, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit by the woman, now 45, who is identified in the court document only as Jane Doe.

Jacobs, who made aliyah in 1997, was active for more than 20 years in Jewish education and communal services in the Chicago area and Elizabeth.

The City of New York, whose Child Welfare Administration assigned Doe to OHEL for foster care placement, is the third party named as a defendant in the complaint.

The suit claims that OHEL, which largely serves the Orthodox community, did not fully vet Jacobs before placing young Doe in his home, and allegedly did not perform the mandated bi-monthly monitoring visits that may have helped to expose that abuse was taking place.

“OHEL like any other organization cannot comment on any litigation,” said David Mandel, OHEL’s CEO, in an email interview. “OHEL provides training to employees, as well as foster parents on a broad range of issues including prevention and response to sexual abuse. We investigate and take seriously any allegations. OHEL follows all protocols and policies of ACS [the city’s Administration for Children’s Services] and other city and state agencies including as a mandated reporter.

“Prospective foster parents undergo an extensive process including home evaluation, references, background checks, and training as per state regulations,” Mandel said. “Children are placed in foster homes as they are referred to OHEL by NYC ACS.”

NJJN was unable to reach Jacobs for comment on the lawsuit.

Doe, according to the complaint, “was in foster care under the supervision of OHEL for approximately five or six years during the 1980s. During this period, she was placed in approximately five or six different foster homes. Each of the foster homes in which Plaintiff was placed was an Orthodox Jewish home. [The mission of OHEL] includes placing biologically Jewish foster children in Orthodox Jewish foster homes.”

Doe was adopted as a teen by an Orthodox family in Brooklyn where OHEL had placed her, but the trauma she had earlier gone through continued, the suit claims. “OHEL and its case workers even hid her abuse from Plaintiff’s eventual adoptive parents, preventing them from providing her with the validation, support, and care she desperately needed.”

Doe, whose name at birth in the Ukraine was Yana, but who has legally changed her name, is now divorced and lives in the Bronx with her son. Her mother died of suicide when Doe was about 12.

“By placing undue emphasis on connecting biologically Jewish foster children with Orthodox Jewish foster homes, at the expense of adequately vetting and monitoring the foster homes in conformance with clear legal requirements, OHEL placed Plaintiff in a gravely dangerous home, ignored obvious warning signs, and failed to take even the most basic steps to ensure Plaintiff’s safety,” the suit alleges.

“OHEL’s actions and inaction caused Plaintiff to be repeatedly sexually abused” by Jacobs when Doe was approximately 6, 7, or 8 years old, according to the suit. “During the ensuing years, Plaintiff has struggled to address the severe trauma that she continues to experience as a result of being sexually abused … The abuse has caused and continues to cause her extreme terror and has affected all of her relationships throughout her life.”

“OHEL’s case workers didn’t just fail to protect me. They falsely branded me a liar,” Doe said in a statement issued by her attorney, Eric Hecker. “They told me never to talk about being abused because no family will let a liar into their home.”

“They did not do their job,” Hecker said of OHEL. “They did not adequately supervise the [foster] home.

“The [long-term] emotional damage is profound,” Hecker, who works at Cuti Hecker Wang LLP, told NJJN. “It destroyed her entire identity. We look forward to using the legal process to establish that OHEL utterly failed to protect this defenseless little girl while she was entrusted to its care.”

The civil suit does not specify an amount of compensatory damages from the defendants, but “we certainly will be seeking seven figures,” he said.

The suit is one of the first brought against OHEL under the New York Child Victims Act (CVA), a state law that came into effect on Aug. 14, 2019, extending the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. The limitations period permits civil cases to be brought until victims are 55 years old. Critically, the law includes a one-year window for survivors to file a civil lawsuit.

After the CVA was signed into law, charedi Orthodox organizations — as well as the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, and other groups — expressed fears that the look-back provision and extended statute of limitations could wreak havoc on schools, camps, and other institutions under their auspices.

Agudath Israel, the charedi umbrella group that lobbied against the passage of the legislation, warned that the one-year look-back window “could literally destroy schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of our community.”

Mandel, the OHEL CEO, declined to comment on what financial effect the suit may have on his agency. “Like in any organization or private individual, there is always a concern about any lawsuit and its outcome. We review the information, review the facts, and present our findings.”

While the 51-year-old OHEL has earned high praise in the Jewish community for services it provides for foster children, the way it has dealt with sexual abusers has drawn criticism in some circles. Child advocates and observers of sexual abuse cases have accused the agency of functioning in a way that does more to protect the reputation of the Orthodox community than the safety of its children.

The Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication, has reported several times in the last decade about allegations that OHEL handled sex abuse accusations in ways that were legal, but, some experts say, put children at risk.

“Concerning [the] question of OHEL being ‘lax’ on previous allegations, all such issues were fully investigated by OHEL and oversight agencies including allegations made by The Jewish Week and OHEL was found to be in full compliance by NYS,” Mandel said. “These documents stipulating OHEL compliance are found on OHEL’s website. OHEL as all other agencies in the child welfare system continues to be audited by government as part of ongoing compliance.”

Steve Lipman is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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