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Preventing Sexual Abuse Through Mentoring

Rivkah Lambert Adler

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post’s In Jerusalem section, February 16, 2018

Children with poor social skills are especially vulnerable to being sexually abused. According to Sima Gordon, who runs a successful mentoring program at Jerusalem’s private non-profit social service agency  Kav L’Noar, abusers often target, “kids who don’t have social skills or who have some sort of isolation. They can easily spot the kind of kids who you’ll find alone.”

Mentoring sets appropriate boundaries

Miriam (not her real name) was 11 years old when she joined the Kav L’Noar mentoring program. Despite the fact that she attended special education classes in Gush Etzion, she had a lot of unmet needs. Her father was not fully functional and her mother had her own special needs. Miriam’s personal hygiene was also an issue and her lack of appropriate boundaries was another.

Miriam’s Kav L’Noar-assigned mentor was a very mature and well put-together young woman. She and Miriam developed an excellent rapport and Miriam reported feeling very close to her mentor.  In the approximately two years they worked together, Miriam’s mentor taught her a lot about boundary setting.

One day, while Miriam was waiting for her mentor, a man drove past and invited her to come into his car. Miriam refused and credited the mentor with teaching her that getting into a stranger’s car is not something that would be appropriate. The mentoring Miriam received likely saved her from being a victim of sexual abuse or worse.

As Gordon explains it, “Most children naturally develop social and emotional skills by watching them being put into practice by their parents or other adults around them. Those that lack parental support and who don’t have equivalent role models need someone else to fill the gap. Sometimes, even children with a stable background have their development blocked due to an external cause, such as an abusive relationship, witnessing a traumatic event like a terror attack, drugs etc. Other children do not develop these skills due to their own internal challenges and simply need extra help.”

Why youth mentoring works

Over the past 10 years, Kav L’Noar has provided hundreds of children in the Greater Jerusalem area, ages 10-18, with mentoring, either as a free-standing service or in conjunction with family therapy. Mentors are typically in their 20s or early 30s and, Gordon emphasized, are not professional therapists or social workers.

“The mentees can relate to them without the distance and stigma that meeting with a social worker or therapist would carry. The mentor meets the mentee once or twice a week for activities like going out for pizza or playing guitar together. The goal is that the mentor builds a strong and positive relationship with the mentee, and through the relationship, the mentee naturally absorbs and practices some of the emotional and social skills that he or she needs to develop. For the mentee, the mentor is a stable role model and a non-judgmental presence, dedicated to helping him or her with whatever challenges arise,” Gordon explained.

The mentors are carefully selected. They are paid for their time and are extensively trained and supervised throughout the program by Kav L‘Noar’s professional staff.

Former mentor Aryeh Rubenstein says, “My experience being a mentor taught me the tremendous benefit a kid who’s struggling can have from simply having two hours a week with someone who’s not there to judge, teach or parent him.”

Mentors must commit to a minimum of one year. “What makes the intervention work is the duration of it. It takes time to build trust,” Gordon remarked.  She also said that the mentoring relationships she sets up last 18 months on average.

Gordon empowers the prospective mentee with the ability to make the decision about whether or not they want to have a mentor. When she introduces the suggestion of a mentor to a young client, Gordon emphasizes that a mentor is, “not their age and not their parent’s age. It’s not a relationship where they have to talk about something specific.

“Kids need that chill out time. They aren’t required to talk about anything. They just need to hang out with someone who will accept them as they are. They are leading the relationship. They aren’t forced to say anything. And the guidelines on confidentiality are shared.

“The main idea is that the mentoring provides a safe and supportive relationship which allows the child to grow in confidence, improve their social skills and work through whatever issues they are facing, Gordon confirmed.

 Jeremy’s Story

In another case, Jeremy (not his real name) was adopted. He also had ADD and made aliya against his will. Gordon calls his case “Triple A – adopted, ADD and aliya”. His parents were divorced and his father brought him to Israel. Jeremy did not want to be in Israel and his relationship with his father was rocky.

Jeremy’s mentoring relationship provided him with an ability to look at being in Israel in a new way. The mentor encouraged Jeremy to find any kind of anchor, any way he could adjust to being in Israel and even to enjoy it.

As a result of the mentoring relationship, which lasted a year, Jeremy switched schools to something more suitable for his needs. He became more able to integrate into the larger society. Jeremy saw his mentor as role model who was able to help him see his life differently and not act just out of anger at his parents. Jeremy’s mentor taught him to ask, “What can I do with the situation I am in now? What can be controlled in this situation?”

Learning how to have a normal peer relationship by having one

Gordon confirms that the kinds of clients the program serves has shifted over the years she’s been involved. “Now we have more Asperger’s diagnoses. There are more clients diagnosed on the autism spectrum. These children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and more likely to be victimized.”

If a parent feels that their child is not thriving socially, they might come to Kav L’Noar to request a mentor, especially for younger children. If a child has ADD, which affects their social interactions with peers, a mentor can be an ideal intervention. If there’s a lot of tension at home, it’s also helpful because the child can have their own place and space to chill out while spending two hours a week with mentor.

“Mentoring is a form of experiential learning. It’s having a relationship with someone who is safe and structured. The children learn from actually having a relationship, not just talking about it,” Gordon explained. In other words, children are learning how to have a normal peer relationship by having one.

Today, Elianna Rubinstein is a social worker. A few years ago, she was a mentor with Kav L’Noar. “When I first started mentoring, I was a bit skeptical about the whole mentoring idea,” Rubenstein reports. “I was a big believer in therapy, but didn’t believe that mentoring could cause too much  of a change.” Her own experiences as a mentor changed her perspective. “The chilled, relaxed setting allowed my mentee to develop trust in adults again and also learn a lot about friendship and relationships in general. She then took what she gained from our relationship and implemented it with friends in school. It also gave her the courage that she needed to start going to therapy. Today she’s still doing very well.”

Mentoring is both a sexual abuse prevention and intervention tool

Gordon estimates that approximately 10-20% of the mentees have already been victimized sexually.  Some of the mentees have talked with their mentors about incidents of abuse that no other adult knew about. Without that mentoring relationship, nobody would have known. The rest of the cases are aimed at preventing sexual abuse as well as other youth at risk issues.

“We feel that, although this program is suitable for children with a range of issues, it is an especially valuable tool both to help prevent potential sexual abuse, and to help victims of sexual abuse. The profile of a typical potential victim of sexual abuse is that they are socially isolated, with low self-esteem, poor judgement and poor sense of personal boundaries. The mentoring relationship teaches all these skills, and naturally builds the child’s own defenses,” Gordon asserted.

Kav L’Noar specializes in working with adolescents and their families and have a particular expertise in working with Anglo olim. The mentoring and counseling programs are available in Hebrew, English or French. Kav L’Noar also offers traditional therapy to parents whose children are being mentored. Kav L’Noar is a non-profit. We offer sliding scale fees based on household income for most of our services.

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