Protesting Agudah's Child Sexual Abuse Enabling Policies

Why We Protested In Midwood Last Sunday – ZAAKAH

Photo credit: Anya Shpilkovskaya

This past Sunday, ZA’AKAH took the issue of child sexual abuse and Agudah’s horrendous record on it to the heart of the Jewish community in Midwood, Brooklyn. We started outside the home of Chaim David Zweibel, and after an hour moved to Landau’s Shul, a block down. A lot happened during that protest, and I want to try and break it down, answer some of the more common questions we got, and talk about my experiences as the organizer.

First I want to talk about why we did this in the first place.

For over 20 years of my life, I was abused. It varied between emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and it happened unchecked. My family did nothing to help me, in part because my abuser was my mother and they were more concerned with what would happen to her if they threw her out of the house, and in part because they were worried what would happen to our family reputation. I can’t even remember how many times I had ACS, CPS, or the NYPD in my house asking me if I wanted to make a statement, and every time my family pressured me to keep quiet. They said it would ruin my chances at a shidduch. They said I’d be taken away to a foster home to be raised by goyim and mistreated. They said I’d ruin my cousins’ chances at shidduchim. They told me that the neighbors would talk about me.

Never once did they consider me. Never once did they look beyond their reputations, their concerns over their shidduchim, their concerns over what the neighbors would say, and really see how much I was suffering. It was always about them and what they thought was best for them, best for my abusive mother. They didn’t understand what was happening to me. They didn’t understand that I was dropping out of school because I just couldn’t bring myself to care about math and science when I had to worry every night whether I could go to sleep safely, or whether my door would be broken down in the middle of the night. They didn’t understand that those bottles of booze they found in my drawer were my only way of hanging on to life in a world that with each passing day became crueler, less worth staying alive in. They didn’t understand why I stopped going to shul even though to me it seemed that God clearly didn’t seem to care.

Instead they blamed me. They accused me of making up the abuse to justify my aveiros. Relatives of mine who had seen the abuse firsthand, who had been in my house every day to see what was happening to me, suddenly seemed to have forgotten what they’d seen. I attempted suicide twice while living there, and neither time did they know. I didn’t bother telling them because I knew they wouldn’t care. I knew they wouldn’t understand. Suicide doesn’t happen to frum people. It’s assur. So I didn’t even bother telling them.

And that’s the thing. There’s such a pervasive ignorance in the frum world about abuse and its consequences, that the people who do know firsthand what abuse is and how devastating the damage it causes is don’t even bother speaking up. They know that their pleas will fall on deafened, ignorant ears. They suffer in silence. They lose their children in silence. They become addicted, cut themselves, develop eating disorders, attempt suicide, suffer PTSD, anxiety, flashbacks, trauma, relationship problems—they die in silence. Muffled by this stifling ignorance.

This ignorance is not accidental. It’s not incidental. It’s deliberate. It’s caused by rabbis and institutions who fully understand the nature of the problem, yet care more about their power, positions, money, and institutions to do anything about it. It’s caused by rabbis who tell their congregants that the people who talk about sexual abuse are anti-Semites, stirring up blood libels to make them look bad, mentally ill people with axes to grind. It’s caused by the terror people feel in the frum community at the very thought of shidduchim or yeshiva acceptance. It’s caused by a reluctance to accept that someone who ostensibly seems religious—yarmulka wearing, Torah learning, beard sporting B’nei Torah dressed in white and black—could ever do such a thing. It’s caused by an insistence on the infallibility of gedolim regardless of their obvious mistakes and misdeeds, under the guise of Emunas Chachamim.

It’s exacerbated by policies put forth by these gedolim—like Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, President of Agudath Israel of America, and head of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah—that require victims of child sexual abuse and their families to ask rabbis permission before going to the police. It’s entrenched by their lobbying efforts against legislation like the Child Victims Act, which would eliminate the civil and criminal statutes of limitations—which are currently 5 years—for child sexual abuse, and open a one-year window during which people whose cases have already passed the statute of limitations could still file suit against their abusers, and the institutions that covered up for them.

And while the community as a whole may be able to claim ignorance, Agudah cannot. Many survivors and activists have sat with them. Negotiated with them. Poured their hearts out to them. Appealed to the consciences they hoped Agudah had. Nothing worked. They’ve protested outside their offices, outside their annual dinners. It’s gotten us nowhere. Agudah remains stubborn in its policies.

In fact, they do what they can to pretend they actually care. They sent David Pelcovitz around to hold seminars for teachers and educators on preventing abuse. Not once did he mention reporting to the police. When asked why not, he responded that he was told not to address that. They implemented preventative measures in schools, like putting cameras in classrooms, windows in doors, and instituting policies forbidding teachers from being alone with students. They even had some abusive teachers fired.

But it was all a diversion from the real issue: the fact that underneath all of that fog, the truth is that most abuse happens outside of yeshivos. It happens in the home, in shul, in relatives’ homes, in friends’ homes. It happens mainly outside of the institutional setting, and while Agudah is making a big show of implementing preventative measures in yeshiva, they’re doing nothing to protect children where abuse really happens. They’re doing nothing to raise awareness in the community, and when they allow other organizations to try, they make it clear that reporting to police is not to be mentioned at all.

All this means is that they’re more concerned with avoiding civil liability than they are with actually preventing abuse, supporting victims, prosecuting abusers, and giving survivors the resources they need to recover from the abuse they’ve suffered. We’ve tried so long for so hard to make them change their policies, and we’ve finally had enough. We’ve gotten fed up with their indifference. We’re sick of buying their empty promises.

That’s why we protested this past Sunday outside the house of Chaim David Zweibel, and outside of Landau’s, the former because he’s the Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, and the public face of these policies and lobbying efforts, and the latter because it is a place where we knew our message could reach the people who needed to hear it: The members of the community whose children are put at risk every day because of Agudah’s abuse-enabling policies.

Almost immediately when we lined up outside of Landau’s we were challenged by two men who wanted to know why we were there. When I told them about our cause, they asked me if it happened to have anything to do with Landau’s. I made it clear that the protest was not about Landau’s, and that we were just there because it’s a place we knew our message would be heard. In fact, I mentioned that to anyone who asked me, and several times loudly to the assembled protestors and spectators. Nevertheless, they attempted to shout us down.

When they realized that we weren’t going away, one of them went off to the side to call 911. When the police showed up a few minutes later, they took a look at us, saw that we were simply exercising our right to protest, reminded us to keep part of the sidewalk clear, and left.

Over the course of the protest, we were approached by some other belligerent people who wanted to disrupt us, one of whom yelled at the assembled protestors—which included a couple and their months-old baby—that we were all going to die within this year for what we were doing. He then proceeded to light one of our fliers on fire and throw it on the floor, all the while insulting me for my weight, and yelling about how we were all going to die.

But they’re not what’s important about the protest, and they’re not why we were there.

So many people gave us thumbs up as they drove by that corner, saw our signs, and heard our chants. People came over to us, offering us water. One man even gave us a donation right there on the spot, and thanked us for what we were doing. A former coworker of mine came over to me on his way into Mincha and told me “Tizku L’mitzvos.” Survivors came over to us, told us their stories, thanked us for being there, and said they wished people had been doing this when they were kids so maybe they could have been spared from being sexually abused. Parents of survivors thanked us for raising awareness about child sexual abuse.

The sense I got on Sunday was that there are, in fact, a lot of people who know firsthand how insidious, pervasive, and deadly child sexual abuse is, but have been suffering silently, waiting silently for someone to give them a voice, an opportunity to make their voices heard.

And that’s why we protested on Sunday. For them. For the victims of child sexual abuse, both the ones still alive, the ones hanging on by a thread, and the ones for whom all help is too late. That’s why we’re going to continue protesting, and making our voices heard, making it clear to Agudah that we’re not going away, that we will not tolerate their abuse-enabling policies, that the community will not stand idly by while they allow our children to suffer and die in silence.

That’s why we’ll be back next month, July 23rd, in front of the Novominsker Rebbe’s shul in Boro Park at 3 PM, protesting the policies he’s responsible for imposing, letting the community know that while he may not be there for them, we will always be, and giving them a voice so that they can finally be heard.

To join us at next month’s protest, please RSVP at the event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/261681534310970/

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My Abuser Was Not One Dimensional

Author’s note: This piece is based on something I wrote to some friends while writing a chapter for my webseries. I’m leaving it in its unedited form because that’s how I want the message to be seen. 

Writing about the bad times isn’t hard. That comes easy to me. I’m safe now. The bad times are now a weapon I wield rather than something I’m running from. Know what’s really hard? Writing about the good stuff. I have to keep forcing myself back to Scrivener to keep writing because I don’t want to acknowledge that they happened.

Because why does it fucking matter if there were good times? She fucking abused me on and off for most of my life, and then for 5 years nonstop toward the end of my living there. Why does it fucking matter that sometimes we went to restaurants, and travelled that one time, and used to talk a lot, and went places and stuff? Why the fuck does it matter?

It’s not like any of it mattered when she was trying to kill me. It’s not like it mattered when she was sexually abusing me, beating me, berating me, making me think I was a worthless piece of garbage who would have been better off aborted. None of it mattered when she ran out of the house yelling about getting a gun, then came home 3 hours later and sat there at the table with an oddly shaped paper bag, letting us wonder which of us she’d shoot first. It’s not like it mattered when she made my grandmother her literal slave, made her try to breastfeed her, grabbing her breasts and basically sexually assaulting her, made my grandmother wipe her ass, wash her, clean up her piss.

NONE OF THE GOOD STUFF MATTERED WHEN SHE WAS MAKING OUR LIVES A GODDAMN LIVING FUCKING HELL ON EARTH WHY SHOULD IT FUCKING MATTER NOW WHY DOES SHE DESERVE TO EVEN HAVE IT ACKNOWLEDGED WHY THE FUCK DO I EVEN REMEMBER IT I’D BE SO MUCH HAPPIER REMEMBERING ALL THE TERRIBLE SHIT THAT HAPPENED TO ME AND NEVER REMEMBERING THE GOOD TIMES THEY WERE SO IRRELEVANT TO WHAT SHE DID TO US

It’s not. not for me. For you it is. Read this blog post, read my story, watch my webseries, and remember that there were good times for me with her. Remember that I used to enjoy spending time with her. That she used to be my best friend. Remember that people are never one dimensional. They rarely only perpetrate evil. Remember that they’re not cartoon monsters, that they do good along with the bad. Remember that they can be great hosts while also beating their children. They can be very charitable, while also enslaving their families. They can be the person you turn to for help while also being a sadistic, barbarous, vicious abuser.

Remember that they can be the reason you get up in the morning, while also being the reason their son tries to kill himself.

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Protest Agudah’s Abuse Enabling and Opposition to SOL Reform

Author’s Note: Here is a link to the protest event, which will be taking place at 3 PM on June 25th, at 1146 east 9th street in Midwood, Brooklyn: https://www.facebook.com/events/1861272087529969

Agudath Israel, headed by Chaim David Zweibel, as been opposing and lobbyig against the Child Victims Act, which would protect children from sexual abusers by eliminating the Statute of Limitations for Child Sexual Abuse. Currently, according to the New York Statute of Limitations laws, child sexual abuse survivors can’t prosecute or sue their abusers in court once they’re older than age 23.

According to many studies, it takes, on average, between 10 and 30 years for victims to even come forward about being abused sexually. Agudath Israel, the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, and Chaim David Zweibel know this, and yet they continue to oppose legislation which would eliminate the Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse, and open a 1 year retroactive window for old cases, thus allowing survivors of child sexual abuse to get justice from their abusers and the institutions that protect them.

Furthermore, it is the official policy of Agudath Israel of America, The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and Chaim David Zweibel, to forbid victims of child sexual abuse and the parents of victims of child sexual abuse to go immediately to authorities to report child sexual abuse. They require that victims and their families first consult a rabbi who can choose whether or not he wants to give them dispensation to go to the authorities.

This law is not just grossly illegal, but it also ensures that coverups continue unchecked in the Charedi community that constitutes Agudah’s base. Thousands of children are put at risk, and scores of abusers are protected, by this policy. Abuse is routinely covered up, and abusers are routinely protected by this policy as a matter of course.

That’s why ZAAKAH will be protesting outside of the house of Chaim David Zweibel, 1146 east 9th street Brooklyn, NY 11230, at 3 PM on June 25th, to send a message to him, and the other members of Agudath Israel of America, that they don’t get to escape the damage they’re causing by supporting these harmful and illegal policies. Their policies continue to make homes and communities unsafe for victims of child sexual abuse, so we’re bringing the issue to their homes and communities, and confronting them there where they can’t avoid it.

The only way we will ever truly end child sexual abuse in the charedi community is by making Agudath Israel of America, headed by the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, and Chaim David Zweibel, change this harmful, illegal policy, and support legislation that will end the Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse, and give existing victims the window they need to get restitution for their suffering from the people and institutions that abused them.

For more information, please contact Asher Lovy at Asher@Hareiani.com.

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Manis Friedman Headlines Event With Child-Rapist Protector

Manis Friedman, inspirational religious leader, and well known speaker, renowned in the Chabad community, and well known for his infamous comparison of sexual abuse to a case of diarrhea, is headlining a shavuos retreat being organized by JEM Retreats, and the Illulian family. The same Illulian family that steadfastly protected registered sex offender, Mendel Tevel, and allowed him to be around children.

People might not understand the extent of the damage caused by this pairing. Let’s start with Manis. Many people feel that because Manis is such an influential figure, and because he’s “helped” and “inspired” so many people, he should get a pass for saying something that’s at worst insensitive. Like, what’s the big deal, right? So he compared sexual abuse and its devastating effects to diarrhea, he apologized, didn’t he?

His apology was half-baked, insincere, a non-apology apology that he forced out to get the “angry bloggers” off his back. But his attitude, and the attitude of the community that worships the ground that Manis walks on hasn’t changed at all. It’s the attitude that tells victims that the community’s comfort is more important than their safety, than their justice. It’s the attitude that would rather pretend that the problem either doesn’t exist, or that it’s not nearly as prevalent as activists would have you believe.

But let’s examine who’s hurt more by which. Sexual abuse is an uncomfortable topic. It’s horrific. It’s painful to think about. It turns the stomach. It offends the conscience to even think about the kind of evil required to commit such a heinous act. It’s almost inconceivable to believe that someone who has ostensibly accepted what they believe to be a moral way of life would be able to do such a thing and live with themselves. But while it may offend your sensibilities to accept that sexual abuse happens, that’s the most you’ll suffer in accepting it as reality.

The victims of this reality, however, suffer so much more. They suffer PTSD, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, relationship, and sexual problems, the list goes on and on. It’s so much worse than diarrhea. You can’t fix sexual abuse with imodium. Minimizing the problem may make your life more comfortable, but in doing so, in ignoring the very real problem of child sexual abuse in our community, you ignore the suffering of its victims. You stand idly by while they suffer and die.

And that’s the problem with Manis, really. The problem is that he is so influential and inspiring. The problem with Manis is that people listen to him and believe what he says, believe that sexual abuse is no big deal, believe that it’s not worthy of discussion, that it’s blown out of proportion. He doesn’t deserve a pass because he’s respected, he deserves greater accountability because he’s respected. There’s responsibility attached to that much power, and he’s shirked his. If he can’t responsibly handle his influence, then he should lose it. And that’s everyone’s job: To make sure that people like Manis can no longer cause damage through the sway they hold over the people who follow them.

And then there’s Illulian. The fact that the Illulians are paired with Manis just proves my point. Minimize sexual abuse enough, sweep it under the rug enough, and people like Illulian, people who cover up for child sexual abusers like Mendel Tevel, freshly registered as a level 2 sex offender, keep their chezkas kashrus, even though, even more than Manis, they’re responsible for the sexual abuse of children. There can be no crueller irony than the pairing of Manis and Illulian on an ad prominently featuring a kids’ program.

 

This story was first broken by Meyer Seewald of Jewish Community Watch.

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Yom Tefilla Announced To Fight Technology; Silence Still Deafening On Sexual Abuse 

Apparently, the Moetzes Gedolei Yisrael of Israel have called for a “Day of Tefilos” to raise awareness about the spiritual problems technology posed by technology. As a community, we’ve become accustomed to these mass displays of piety, and international calls for prayer in hopes of inspiring a generation, and perhaps some divine assistance, to rid itself from the potential stumbling blocks in the way of spiritual purity, and connection to God. From asifos against the Internet in Citi Field, to international days of prayer, the Charedi world is awash in the mass organization of truly astounding feats of community organizing. One imagines that this kind of response could only be triggered by something perceived as an existential thread to the international charedi community. That is, after all, how they perceive modern technologies like smartphones and the ubiquity of the Internet: as an evil ploy of the Evil Inclination, whose only interest is in making sinning easier than its ever been before. 

But what of the other existential threats that plague our communities? What of the rampant sexual abuse that is enabled by polices like those of Agudath Israel of America, which enable abuse and protect abusers, by mandating that victims of abuse and their families go to rabbis rather than law enforcement when they are abused? Surely this is as much an existential crisis as any other. Surely, with the number of people who eventually leave Orthodoxy, going “off the derech,” as a result of abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of a seemingly indifferent community, something must be done! 

Apparently not. 

You know, it’s interesting. Back when ZAAKAH first proposed protesting the Internet Asifa at city field, I was opposed to the idea. I didn’t see the issues as mutually exclusive. I felt, at the time, that there was enough space on the moral landscape of our collective conscience for two issues to exist simultaneously. One can easily perceive the Internet as being a spiritual threat in need of eradicating, while also acknowledging that child sexual abuse is a horrific violation of our most vulnerable people, and committing to stand against abusers and their enablers. I didn’t attend the protest outside the asifa. I argued with one of the organizers, and tried to convince him to cancel it. I had such faith in my community’s ability to treat both issues with the attention each deserved. 

But it’s 5 years later, and we’ve had no asifa for victims of child sexual abuse. We’ve had no serious commitments by Agudah, and other major Charedi organizations and leaders to stand behind victims instead of abuses. We’ve seen no change in the policy that dictates that victims go to law enforcement rather than rabbis. Agudah continues to pour money into prevention, but still does nothing to ensure that abusers are prosecuted, and victims see justice. They spend all their time trying to make sure abuse doesn’t happen in yeshivos, while doing nothing to protect the majority of victims who are abused in their homes or by people they know. 

They continue to attack those of us who speak up against them, while partnering with organizations like the Catholic Church to oppose legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Their excuse? That it would be cripplingly expensive to allow themselves to be open to that kind of liability, and that it’s more important for yeshivos to stay open than for victims of those yeshivos to get any justice. 
And now we’re having an international day of tefillah to fight smartphones and Internet. It’s nice to see that the Moetzes Gedolei Yisrael of Israel have their priorities in order. 

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Calling Bullshit On Supposed Charedi Sexual Abuse Progress

In an article published in The Forward on May 2nd, Barbara Finkelstein painted a very optimistic picture of the shifting landscape in the Charedi world concerning child sexual abuse policies. In that article, she claimed that “Virtually no mainstream religious Jewish organization or sect publicly insists anymore that victims speak to their rabbi before going to the police.” As proof she cited the grassroots efforts of rabbis from Chabad, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, Yeshiva University, and the Rabbinical Council of America.

While it is true that progress has been made over the past 5 years in regards to sexual abuse awareness and prevention, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Of course, Finklestein might argue that it depends on how you define ‘mainstream religious Jewish organizations.

Arguably, Agudath Israel of America is a mainstream religious Jewish organization. It’s constituent organizations and demographic include large swaths of the Charedi, Litvish, and Yeshivish populations in North America. The official policy of Agudah, as of writing this, is still that a rabbi must be consulted before any abuse allegation can be brought to the authorities.

Presumably, the hundreds of different sects of Chassidim living in New York qualify as mainstream Jewish organizations, and yet there has been no public change in policy from any of them toward advocating reporting abuse directly to the authorities.

While it is admirable that some Charedi sects, particularly those under Agudah’s umbrella are pouring resources into prevention and training, the fact remains that they do not advocate going immediately to the authorities in cases of sexual abuse. In fact, it could be argued that their overemphasis on prevention, while certainly beneficial, is designed to shield them from public scrutiny and criticism, especially since a majority of their preventative curricula and protocols are focused on preventing abuse in institutions, while a majority of abuse happens outside of institutions, and is perpetrated, in a majority of cases, by someone the victim knows.

While Agudah’s preventative measures may reduce, and hopefully eliminate abuse in institutions, their policies still do nothing to prevent abuse by family members, family acquaintances, tutors, or other people known to the victim outside of institutional settings, and, in fact, enable these other forms of abuse, because while the preventative curricula do, in fact, cover potential intrafamilial abuse, the psychological dynamics inherent in intrafamilial abuse are such that even the most well educated child is susceptible.

Home settings cannot be controlled the same way institutional settings are. You can’t have cameras in every room. You can’t have glass in every door. You can’t always have a buddy system. You certainly can’t implement policies which mandate that a student and teacher are never alone and unobservable. Abuse will happen in the home, and other non-institutional settings. Siblings will abuse their siblings. Parents will abuse their children. Trusted family acquaintances will abuse children they know. Rabbinical authorities will abuse the children of adults who trust them. Abuse happens everywhere, and the only tool we have to fight it, other than preventative education, is the ability to report it once it happens.

By implying that the problem is next to solved, Finklestein does a dangerous disservice to victims by providing a shield behind which institutions can hide when faced with claims of apathy and obstruction concerning child sexual abuse. If there’s one way to ensure that the fantasy espoused in her article never comes true, it is by issuing unearned participation trophies to organizations that hide behind the illusion of change to perpetuate harmful policies.

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How The AHCA’s Abortion Requirements Hurt Rape Victims

Reading through the AHCA. Say goodbye to Planned Parenhood.

For those of you who think that it’s reasonable to ask an abortion provider to only provide abortions in the case of rape, incest, or medical danger, let me throw some facts at you.

63% of rapes are never reported.

Only 12% of child sexual abuse is ever reported.

That means that an overwhelming majority of sexual assault and abuse cases are never reported.

According to the NIH, approximately 5% of rapes of women of childbearing age result in pregnancies. Approximately 50% of them abort the pregnancies.

Here’s the problem. That 5% isn’t neatly distributed over the 37% of rapes that are reported. If you’re going to pass a law that makes it illegal for medical facilities to receive federal funding in the form of Medicaid reimbursements – which is what people talk about when they discuss federal funding of Planned Parenthood – if they provide abortions, except in cases of rape or medical danger, assuming Planned Parenthood would even be prepared to comply with that, then you have to have some mechanism in place to prove that rape took place. Medical danger is easy enough to prove, but a majority of rapes go unreported.

If you think that the solution is just for victims to report if they feel so strongly about getting the resulting pregnancy aborted, consider this. According to RAINN, out of 1000 rapes, only 310 are reported, on average. Of those reported, only 57 lead to arrest. Of those, only 11 ever reach a prosecutor’s desk. Of those, only 7 will lead to conviction. Of those, only 6 rapists will be incarcerated.

Let’s consider, therefore, what, other than those appalling failings of the justice system, might incline a victim not to report. Fear of retaliation. Fear of the backlash. Belief that it was their own fault. Fear of having to relive the whole thing in court. Fear of having to face their abuser. Fear of backlash from their school, or family. Fear of losing employment, or even custody of their children. Remember, most rapes are committed, not in a dark alley, but by someone the victim knows.

In most cases, a victim chooses not to report not because they don’t think what happened to them was a crime, but because they’re scared of what happened to them. Forcing them to report, particularly in light of the reasons they choose not to, can be a form of re-victimization. Any policy requiring abortion clinics to only provide abortions in cases of rape will necessarily lead to forcing victims to report, because even if at first the law allows for self-disclosure to the clinic, eventually the same people who support this will claim that women are crying rape to the doctor to get an abortion, and will require a police report.

None of this even addresses the fact that Planned Parenthood provides so many other forms of care to sexual assault victims following the assault, including STD testing, HIV screening, emergency contraception, and pelvic exams.

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