By Michael J. Salamon (The Jewish Star)
Issue of July 10, 2009 / 18 Tammuz 5769
On May 13, 1964, Catherine Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens as she came home from work late at night. Forty-five years ago, "Kitty," as she was known, was stabbed multiple times by an attacker who assaulted her three separate times over a 35-minute period. She screamed for help but, as we all know, few of her neighbors who heard the scream got involved until it was too late for her.
The Kitty Genovese murder has developed into a well known and widely studied social psychological event with major impact on our understanding of certain types of human behavior, and her story has become the symbol for what psychologists call the "Bystander Effect" or "Diffusion of Responsibility" theory. It is the symbol for how people do not get involved in helping others when they should.
Over the years some debate has developed as to the accuracy of all the information known to be related to the Kitty Genovese story - some say only 12 neighbors, not 38 as originally thought, heard Kitty's cries for help. In the original report it was inferred that some of the neighbors actually saw her being stabbed in addition to hearing her repeated screams for help. That has called into question with some former neighbors now saying they did not have a clear line of vision. It is also clear that the New York City Police Department changed their phone response system following events of that particular night long ago despite dispatching a patrol car that arrived at the scene within two minutes of the call.
While historians and social scientists will likely debate these issues for many years, the fact that people do not get involved to assist others when they should remains a part of human nature and we see it clearly today in our own community.
As we slowly begin to acknowledge that sexual abuse of children exists in the Jewish world, there has been considerable debate recently as to what constitutes our responsibility to report those who abuse. Some hide behind the halachic view that mesirah, or reporting to secular authorities, is not allowed despite the fact that virtually all halachic decisors disagree with that perspective. Others, especially health care professionals who choose not to report pedophiles, use aspects of state and federal law interpreted narrowly to justify the non-reporting of abusers.
The law that mandates certain professionals to report abuse uses the phrase "reasonable cause to suspect" that there will be abuse or neglect. The Federal guidelines for disclosure as stated in the HIPAA rules states: the "Covered entities [health care providers, that is] may disclose protected health information that they believe is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to a person or the public, when such disclosure is made to someone they believe can prevent or lessen the threat." The law further states: "In certain circumstances covered entities may disclose protected health information to appropriate government authorities regarding victims of abuse, neglect or domestic violence."
New York State Mental Hygiene Law is somewhat more circumspect, referring to "limited situations when therapist-client relationship can be broken as when there is an imminent risk to specifically identified person." This is often interpreted as meaning that unless a health care professional (or teacher) has specific information as to whom a pedophile might abuse, despite the fact that they are aware that the pedophile is abusing someone, they are not required to report it. This is an obvious legal question but should not be a pragmatic one. This interpretation allows people to diffuse responsibility. If you are unsure or afraid to report an abuser, this interpretation of the law allows you to not report it.
There are, however, other guidelines that health care professionals must take into account when deciding whether or not to report a suspected abuser. The Ethical Principals of Psychologists and Code of Conduct states that psychologists disclose confidential information in certain limited cases including "protect the client/patient, psychologists, or others from harm." Similarly, the American Psychiatric Association, in its Code of Medical Ethics, states: "When in the clinical judgment of the treating psychiatrist, the risk of danger is deemed to be significant; the psychiatrist may reveal confidential information disclosed by the patient." In these guidelines there is no need to have to identify a person who is being abused.
I have taken a firm stand when it comes to protecting our children. And, it is not simply a professional issue. I believe that if a professional is confronted with a situation that may require reporting, it is best to err on the side of doing so. If the professional is unsure whether or not to report, it is possible to gain legal guidance from state workers who know and understand the law, as well as legal advisors to the professional organizations we belong. They can help us make a clear and balanced decision as to when and how to report a suspected pedophile.
This, however, is an issue that goes well beyond just what professionals should do. Are we, as neighbors, hearing the screams and not responding because we know others will also hear them? And if the others hear and do not respond, why should we? Do we need to have only a clear line of vision to see our neighbor's children being hurt before we do anything? Perhaps the most relevant question is: are we like the neighbors of Kitty Genovese? Can we live with ourselves knowing that an abuser is in the public, abusing someone, while we do nothing?
Dr. Salamon, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of the Adult Developmental Center in Hewlett, NY. He is the author of numerous articles and several psychological tests. His recent books include, The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures, published by Urim Publications and Every Pot Has a Cover: A Proven Guide to Finding, Keeping and Enhancing the Ideal Relationship, published by Rowman & Littlefield.
By Michael J. Salamon (The Jewish Star)