Children need this protection

Orthodox rabbis must recognise that women caring for children need to be alert to potential abuse

By Geoffrey Alderman, March 19, 2009

Three years ago, Parliament enacted a wide-ranging Childcare Act, which addressed, among other things, the lamentable lack of professional training for those to whom the care of young children is entrusted in crèches and nurseries.

It was once the case that more or less anyone could set up a nursery, and employ more or less anyone to do the caring. This is no longer legal. All “settings” in which young children are cared for outside the home must (since last September) be regularly inspected by Ofsted.

Moreover, those who do the caring — or at least who supervise the caring work — must be suitably qualified. A minimum of half of those who work in nursery schools must be qualified at least to the equivalent of level 2 of the relevant National Vocational Qualification in Children’s Care, Learning and Development.

God knows how much national soul-searching there has been since the scandal of the cruel death of Baby P. And, as if that heartrending story was not enough, there have been even more recent cases of babies assaulted and killed by their parents and guardians. How much more careful should society be, therefore, when children are placed in nurseries and similar childcare facilities?

The close regulation of these establishments is a moral as well as a legal imperative. So is the training of those who work in them. Nobody in their right mind would say other than that the new rules and regulations are welcome and necessary. Nobody, that is, other than the rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

According to an encyclical issued by the Union’s rabbinate earlier this month, the latest government regulations on the training of nursery workers amount to “a difficult and bitter decree against Torah education”.

The rabbinate has, therefore, issued a series of counter-decrees, the purpose of which can only be to frustrate the intentions behind the 2006 Childcare Act and its attendant regulations.

I am going to give the Union’s rabbinate the benefit of one doubt. I am as certain as I can be that every member of that rabbinate is as horrified as you and me by instances of child abuse. But I am equally as certain as I can be that the ultimate intention behind the counter-decrees issued by that rabbinate is to preserve — at any cost — a particular image of Charedi society and a particular model of women’s education within that society.

The overwhelming majority of those who work in Charedi nurseries are young women. Having left school at 16, they will have spent two years or so at a seminary where, if they are lucky, in addition to Torah studies, they will be prepared for a range (a rather narrow range, it has to be said) of suitable employments.

Childcare has traditionally been one of these. But now, if the law of the land is observed, they will have to gain an approved NVQ at Level 2, and in order to do so they will have to follow a closely prescribed syllabus that includes instruction on how to detect various forms of emotional and physical abuse, including (of course) sexual abuse.

The Union’s rabbinate would like to believe — and to have everyone else believe — that such abuse simply does not exist in the Charedi world.

Alas, this myth is belied by instances of such abuse that have become public knowledge. Most of you reading this can have no idea of the intensity of the pressure that is imposed upon those, within that world, who dare or threaten to expose child abusers in their midst.

Those who speak out can expect nothing but social exclusion and rabbinical censure for their pains. So having to put young Charedi women through a course in the detection of child abuse would amount to an admission that a problem exists — at least potentially — when it is not supposed to exist.

Then there is the actual content of the NVQ training materials to be considered. You cannot learn about the sexual abuse of children without knowing about sex in general and about male and female genitalia in particular.

Hitherto, these topics have not featured in the education of Charedi women, for fear that they might lead to awkward questions about conception and contraception.

But, if Charedi nurseries are not to risk closure by Ofsted, these topics will now have to be fitted into the curriculum. And that is the “bitter decree” that has so angered the Union’s rabbinate.

Last updated: 2:19pm, March 19 2009