NY Jewish social services organization accused of papering over sexual assault suit

Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services has not properly investigated or disclosed allegations from 1980s against manager, and has kept him on staff, claim survivor advocates

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Activists protest against alleged sexual assault at an Ohel facility in Brooklyn, New York, August 21, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Activists protest against alleged sexual assault at an Ohel facility in Brooklyn, New York, August 21, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — A Jewish social services organization in New York City has been accused of hushing up a sexual assault lawsuit against one of its employees and keeping the person on staff, against best practice recommendations.

Sexual assault survivor advocates say Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services has not properly informed clients, or parents and guardians who use its services, of serious allegations against one of its veteran managers.

Ohel says three separate probes cleared the employee, but has not released detailed information about investigations into the case or made investigators available for comment.

The alleged sexual abuse case, which dates to the 1980s, is one of seven against the organization, and follows charges of misconduct at Ohel in the past.

On Sunday, Za’akah, an advocacy group for sexual assault survivors in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, held a protest outside an Ohel office to demand action.

Around 20 demonstrators held signs outside an Ohel facility in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood, chanting, “Protect victims, not abusers,” “No excuse for child abuse,” and “Who are you protecting if you’re not protecting kids?”

Activists protest against alleged sexual assault at an Ohel facility in Brooklyn, New York, August 21, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“The reason why we’re here and the reason why we care about victims of sexual abuse is because we know that sexual abuse destroys people,” Asher Lovy, Za’akah’s director, told the protesters.

“It’s not something people just get over. They suffer for the rest of their lives with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, suicide, difficulties in relationships. This is why we come out here,” he said.

Ohel said in a response to the charges that it was “cooperating fully and will work diligently to uncover any wrongdoing and to hold any potential individuals fully accountable.”

“We have zero tolerance for any kind of abuse, and we take any kind of allegations very seriously, as any such conduct is the antithesis to the incredible, lifesaving work our staff does day in and day out, providing support and care to the most vulnerable in our community,” an Ohel spokesperson said.

The statement said the individual named in the case from the 1980s had been investigated, put on leave, then returned to his position because the reviews found “no basis to conclude that this employee engaged in any inappropriate sexual conduct.”

Ohel is a large Brooklyn-based organization that offers services including mental health counseling, care for children, bereavement and trauma support programs, shelters for survivors of domestic abuse, older adult counseling and support for people with disabilities. It says it has served more than 23,000 people since its establishment in 1969, and employed close to 2,000 people as of 2019, tax filings showed. The organization serves all who seek help, but mainly caters to members of the Jewish community.

New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services gave Ohel a safety rating of 98 out of 100 in 2021.

The accusations focus on a civil lawsuit filed in New York State Supreme Court against Ohel in May 2021 that claims an Ohel program director severely abused a child in an Ohel foster care facility in the early 1980s. The plaintiff was 7 years old when the alleged abuse began. Ohel is named as the defendant in the case.

The employee named in the case supervised children at the time and regularly assaulted the plaintiff and other children who were living at the facility, the lawsuit alleges, claiming the plaintiff was regularly abused on Ohel grounds for about four years.

An Ohel facility in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York. (screen capture: Google Street View)

The plaintiff said he reported the sexual abuse to other staff members at the time and was punished by being locked in his room, having his belongings taken away, being given less food and was subjected to threats. The plaintiff also alleged abuse by teenagers living at the facility and by a foster family, and reported the abuse to staff. He said he ran away from the foster care facility numerous times due to the abuse.

The lawsuit alleges Ohel staff knew about the abuse, but failed to protect the plaintiff, establish policies to protect residents, supervise dangerous individuals or investigate sexual abuse. The lawsuit demanded a jury trial and the case is still active.

Though the employee is named in court filings, The Times of Israel is withholding publishing identifying information due to the fact that litigation is ongoing.

The abuse allegation suit was filed in 2021 during a window of opportunity opened by New York State’s Child Victims Act. The 2019 law expanded the criminal statute of limitations for child abuse cases, meaning survivors could file charges against alleged abusers at a later age than was previously allowed, and opened a two-year “lookback window” during which expired cases could be brought to civil court. The window ended in November 2021.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, center, stands with with survivors and advocates while speaking in favor of passing legislation authorizing the Child Victims Act during a news conference at the state Capitol in Albany, NY, on Monday, January 28, 2019. (AP/Hans Pennink)

There were more than 10,000 sexual assault allegations filed in New York State during that period, and over 5,000 in New York City, including against an array of social services organizations. There were seven Child Victims Act cases filed against Ohel alleging abuse in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ohel’s director, David Mandel, said in an internal staff email ahead of the Za’akah protest that the cases against Ohel were being fully investigated. The email, which was seen by The Times of Israel, said the “longtime employee” named in the case from the 1980s was put on leave during a review by Ohel, and a separate review by an “outside firm.”

The email also said the New York State Justice Center, a state agency dedicated to protecting people with special needs, had also investigated.

Ohel CEO David Mandel, seen in a video from 2018. (Screen capture: YouTube/Ohel)

(Mandel has written on The Times of Israel’s open blogging platform.)

The three investigations indicated that “there was no basis to conclude that this employee engaged in any inappropriate sexual conduct with clients,” and he would be returned to his position “while the legal process unfolds,” the email said.

Ohel issued a similar response citing the three investigations to The Times of Israel, saying the reviews showed the “employee has no allegations of any misconduct during his more than 40-year career with Ohel.”

The Justice Center told The Times of Israel that it has no jurisdiction for cases before the center was established in 2013, however, and would therefore have no legal mechanism for investigating the allegations in the lawsuit.

It’s unclear if there have been additional allegations against the same individual since 2013. The Justice Center said privacy laws preclude it from discussing any individual cases, and it could not confirm or deny the existence of any other investigations.

Ohel did not respond to a request for more information about a Justice Center investigation, did not make the results of any of the investigations available and did not confirm if staff or parents had been informed of the investigations when they took place.

Activists protest against alleged sexual assault at an Ohel facility in Brooklyn, New York, August 21, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Ohel has not informed the parents of children who use its services of the allegations, and has kept the accused manager in his position, according to Za’akah.

A 2015 tax filing showed the individual employed as a program director making $161,403 the previous year. Tax filings from more recent years do not list any employees at that salary range.

Rahel Bayar, a former sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor in New York, said she was not familiar with the details of the Ohel case, but in general, said external civilian investigators are limited because they do not have subpoena power.

An organization should be transparent about any investigations, reveal whatever findings it can, and at a minimum disclose the probe’s scope, the parameters involved and who conducted it, she said.

She said that it would be premature for an organization to rule on a case during ongoing civil or criminal proceedings, as discovery and other legal processes could bring new information to light.

“In general, when there are allegations that lead to either a criminal investigation or a [Child Victim’s Act] lawsuit, it would make sense for the subject of that lawsuit or that criminal investigation to be put on a form of leave during the pendency of that case or trial,” she said.

Bayar said that any organization should inform parents, clients and others about allegations of abuse by a staff member as soon as it becomes aware of that information, and disclose how it plans to handle the situation. Even if the organization cannot share much, clarity of communication is key, she said.

The former prosecutor stressed that she was not commenting on the Ohel case, or any other case, but speaking in general terms, and noted that best practices are recommendations, not law.

The charges against Ohel are not the first allegations against the group. The New York Jewish Week said in a 2011 report that Ohel had kept a case of a mother abusing her child quiet several years before, instead of reporting the case to authorities as the law requires. Ohel denied the report, calling it “inflammatory” and “driven by a misguided agenda.”

In 2009, the Awareness Center, an organization that fought sexual abuse in Jewish communities and has since closed, demanded the removal of Mandel, Ohel’s CEO.

The Awareness Center said it had received a number of complaints about Ohel, and shared a video in which Mandel urged an audience to keep suspected abuse quiet and inside the community, away from authorities, despite laws requiring mandated reporting of abuse.

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