Israel’s Abused Children

0n the opening day of the International Conference on Child Abuse held in Jerusalem in November 1991, a 32-year-old Haifa policeman was charged with assault after banging his eight-year- old son’s head against a wall. Unfortunately the incident was not mere coincidence; such reports increasingly appear in the Israeli press.

Close to 25,000 children (1.5 percent of the child population) are abused in Israel every year, according to a recent survey by the American Joint Distribution Committee. While every case is regrettable, Israel’s statistics are far below those of other developed countries. But fears of a possible increase have spurred Israel into legislative action. And Israel is, in fact, now amongst the most advanced in the world in terms of legislation to protect the child.

The three-day event, the first of its kind, drew over 250 participants from 14 countries, many of them leading experts in their fields. The eighty sessions ranged from the various forms of prevention and handling to medical and legal issues. Dr. Hanita Zimrin, director of ELI, the Israel Association for the Protection of Children, is heartened by a mounting public awareness of the problem: “Until recently, child abuse was greeted in Israel with outright denial,” she says. “When I raised the topic 20 years ago, I was dismissed as a crazy woman.”

The assumption that Jewish parents don’t abuse their children was so strong that up until two years ago, according to Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, Executive Director of the National Council for the Child in Israel, “Child abuse was considered an internal family matter and not even classified as a criminal offense.” Today, child abuse is a felony carrying stiffer sentences when the offender is the child’s primary caretaker.

According to Kadman, the turning point occurred in 1989 following the death of three-year- old Moran Danamiam from Tiberias, whose uncle had physically abused her, eventually causing her death. The incident caused a public outcry, and within nine months a series of changes and amendments were enacted in the Israeli law.

The Mandatory Reporting Law obliges parents and childcare professionals, as well as neighbors, to report even a suspicion of child abuse to the police or a social welfare agent. Says Kadman: “It is now a legal and not simply moral imperative to report such cases.” Failure to report is a criminal offense.

According to Miriam Faber, head of the Social Welfare Ministry’s department of child protective services, the number of cases reported over the past two years has doubled, and in some areas has increased fivefold. This is in part due to the tremendous publicity the law has received. Eighty percent of the calls to ELI’s hotline are made by the perpetrators themselves.

Children under 14 are protected by the Israeli law both from police interrogation and from testifying in court. A closed interview is carried out by a special youth interrogator, who may even testify in court on the child’s behalf. Thirty-six years have passed since this law’s enactment, and according to Tamar Morag, Legal Director of the National Council for the Child, “In spite of having undergone a number of amendments, it remains a highly original piece of legislation. Its main innovation is that it excludes heresay evidence and denies the right to cross-examination,” says Morag, “something which exists nowhere else in the world.” This minimalizes the emotional damage to the child, while improving the chances of prosecution.

Other innovations in the law empower the court to remove the offender from the courtroom when a child does testify in court and to order a violent family member out of the home, as opposed to the more common practice of removing the child from the threatening environment.