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In wake of #MeToo, fight against sexual abuse persists
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In wake of #MeToo, fight against sexual abuse persists

Panelists include, from left, Patricia Teffenhart, Stanley Goodman, and Helen Archontou. Photos courtesy NCJW/Essex
Panelists include, from left, Patricia Teffenhart, Stanley Goodman, and Helen Archontou. Photos courtesy NCJW/Essex

Posted throughout the room at Temple B’nai Abraham (TBA) in Livingston were signs that read:

“I tried my best to avoid him. If I saw him in the elevator, I would take the stairs.”

“I was hoping I could bluff my way through my discomfort.”

“I should have known something was up when he sent his assistant to the next room.”

The quotes captured some of the difficult situations faced by victims of sexual harassment and violence which was the subject of a panel discussion, “#MeToo: What’s Next?,” held at TBA on Nov. 7 by the Essex County Section of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

“It’s wonderful to finally see some awareness, some education, some understanding” of these issues because of the nationwide #MeToo movement, said Helen Archontou, CEO of YWCA Bergen County, to the 100-or-so people in attendance. The #MeToo movement was inspired last fall by a large number of celebrities who revealed incidents of sexual harassment and abuse, often at the hands of men who wielded professional power over them early in their careers.

But Archontou asked, “Does the person who is not a celebrity, not a model, not an actor really feel supported by the #MeToo movement?”

Archontou, one of three panelists, helped found in 2018 the Time is Now Action Coalition, which works to eradicate sexual violence and discrimination. The group has held several town halls as forums for victims to come forward.

“There’s such secrecy and shame around this experience. We knew we were going out on a limb asking people to share publicly,” she said. Nevertheless, more than 120 people — ranging from college-aged to senior citizens — told their stories at four town halls held in Bergen County, she said.

Lila Bernstein, at left, and Robin Naphtali, cochairs of “#MeToo: What’s Next?”

Sexual assault is the most underreported crime. For every 1,000 assaults, only 310 survivors will file a report, and just seven perpetrators will be convicted, according to FBI statistics.

“Most survivors don’t tell anyone — not their best friend, not their sister, not their mom — for at least a year,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

In New Jersey, half of the organizations for sexual assault victims that offer counseling services have wait lists that range from three to 12 weeks. About 10,000 people in the state turn to such services every year, according to Teffenhart.

Teffenhart’s organization is advocating for a change to New Jersey’s laws regarding the statute of limitations. While there is no statute of limitations in the criminal justice system for sexual assault, there is a two-year statute for cases brought in civil court. The group is calling for an expansion of that limitation for civil suits. 

The third panelist, Stanley Goodman, an attorney who specializes in employment discrimination and sexual harassment litigation, said the #MeToo movement has prompted legislation that is improving the way companies handle sexual harassment.

Laws in several states, excluding New Jersey, compel companies to provide employees with training on the subject of sexual harassment, Goodman said. And there is pending legislation to limit tax breaks for companies that utilize confidentiality agreements to conceal sexual harassment settlements.

“A statute is working its way through the legislature here in New Jersey that would render settlements that are confidential not tax deductible, so in essence they would cost the company a great deal more than the base amount” of the settlement, he said.

Sexual harassment is especially a problem for restaurant staff, hotel workers, and others in low-paying fields, Archontou said. Her group, YWCA, is working on educational programs for these workers so they can better understand their rights.

An attendee asked, “How can we be more proactive in informing young people about what abuse and harassment is? Can schools take
this on?”

In response, Roberta Zacker, who was in the audience, rose to talk about NCJW’s Teen Dating Abuse Awareness Project, which she chairs.

“We go into the high schools and present a program on teen dating abuse,” she said about the program staffed by NCJW volunteers. She said that they cover topics that include defining a healthy relationship, spotting the warning signs of abuse, and how to leave an unhealthy dynamic.

“We’re hoping that if we can reach them at this level, domestic violence will go away,” said Zacker. “Unfortunately, that’s not happening. What’s happening is it’s getting worse. It’s happening more and more, to kids younger and younger.”

The national program, which has been running for more than two decades, serves close to 3,500 teens each year. For more information, contact 973-994-4994 or centerforwomen@ncjwessex.org

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