Washington Hebrew Congregation violated D.C. law, judge rules

A judge has ruled that Washington Hebrew Congregation violated the District’s consumer protection law when it failed to follow several child safety regulations while operating its preschool, the latest in an ongoing lawsuit between the city and the Northwest Washington synagogue.

Other allegations laid out in the 2020 lawsuit filed by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) — including a claim that the congregation misrepresented the safety of its programs to parents — will go to trial, Judge Alfred S. Irving Jr. ruled.

The District has alleged the congregation frequently ignored city laws designed to keep children safe. Its lawsuit followed accusations that a teacher sexually abused more than a dozen toddlers for over a year, which are detailed in a separate lawsuit against the synagogue that was filed by a group of parents in 2019.

D.C. sues Washington Hebrew Congregation preschool for not protecting children from alleged sexual abuse

In April, Racine’s office filed a motion for summary judgment, a request for the court to make a ruling before a trial. Irving on Sept. 13 ruled on some of the city’s allegations and said others should be tried by a jury.

He ruled the congregation violated safety regulations by hiring unqualified teachers and assistant teachers, failing to maintain paperwork that showed staff were qualified and operating a summer program without a license.

He also ruled the congregation failed to properly report suspected child abuse — unrelated to the parents’ sex abuse lawsuit — to the District government on at least three occasions. Those instances, from 2016 and 2018, involved accusations that staff members used physical force with children, court documents show.

By violating child safety regulations, Irving said, the congregation breached the city’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which prohibits deceptive and illegal business practices, according to court filings.

“Washington Hebrew Congregation broke the law and ignored the rules intended to protect children in its care — with truly tragic consequences,” Racine said in a statement. “Childcare providers must hire qualified teachers and assistant teachers and immediately report suspected child abuse. With this ruling, we are one step closer to accountability.”

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Jennifer Millstone, the congregation’s director of member engagement, said leaders have taken all allegations seriously and that they were reported to D.C. police and Child Protective Services as soon as they were uncovered. She added the congregation continues to perform background checks on prospective educators and that staff participate in training and development.

“Ensuring the safety and well-being of children in our care is embedded in our Jewish values. Throughout the criminal investigation, we brought in support and resources to help them and their families,” Millstone said. “We sympathize with the anger and hurt the families feel and have worked tirelessly with all parties to explore every avenue for resolution.”

Irving sided with the congregation in one instance: He ruled that the District “failed to meet its burden and the court” regarding an allegation Washington Hebrew violated the city’s Nonprofit Corporations Act. Several other allegations — including a claim that the synagogue violated a city regulation that requires at least two adults to be present with toddlers in licensed child development centers — will go to trial. A trial date has not yet been set.

D.C. authorities say ‘insufficient … cause’ exists to make an arrest in alleged sexual abuse at a preschool

Irving also denied the city’s request for summary judgment regarding an allegation that the congregation “violated District of Columbia laws and regulations, continues to violate such laws and regulations, and may violate such laws and regulations in the future,” according to court documents. The judge wrote Washington Hebrew has implemented a corrective action plan from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and that the education agency issued a license in 2019 for the congregation to operate a year-round facility.

Additionally, OSSE inspection reports from 2020 and 2021 indicated the congregation has complied with the agency’s regulations, according to court documents.

Next, the court may decide whether to determine remedies for the legal violations before the other claims go to trial or wait until after.

Families sue Washington Hebrew preschool over alleged sexual abuse

This ruling comes after developments in the lawsuit between Washington Hebrew and a group of parents who said their children were sexually abused at the school.

Court documents filed in July showed the synagogue argued that parents surrendered their right to bring forth a lawsuit when they signed activity waivers upon enrolling their children in school.

The paperwork parents signed included a document that stated “neither parents nor their children will bring claims against WHC or any of its employees for personal injuries sustained ‘as a result of’ a child’s ‘participation in these activities [of the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center],’ ” court documents show.

But parents understood those “activities” to include “typical preschool activities,” their attorneys responded in court records. “Not a single plaintiff parent who signed the release contemplated that it would cover injuries sustained as a result of their children being sexually abused by a trusted WHC employee.”

A trial date for that case has been set for March 13.