Not long ago, a nine year old girl returned home from her Jerusalem school in a state of shock. She had been standing on the sidewalk near the school, when a kindly older man asked if he could help her cross the street. Together, hand in hand, they crossed – but once they were on the other side the man told the girl that he had something to show her. He then led her into an empty basement and pulled down his pants.
When she got home, between sobs, the child told her father what had happened. He ran to the school, and looked frantically for the pedophile who had abused his daughter. Unsuccessful, but unwilling to take his child to the police station, he called a kindergarten teacher friend for advice. She referred him to the Beit Lynn Child Protection Center where the multi-disciplinary staff held a quick consultation, then invited the family for an immediate intake.
While she played with the housemother in the colorful game-filled sheltered playroom called the Fortress, the girl’s parents were interviewed by one of the Center’s social workers. She needed to know as much as possible about the child’s background, her ability to communicate clearly, the words she was used to hearing or saying that described a person’s private parts, and expressions with which she was familiar. In effect, the social worker asked questions that would make an interview between the little girl and a special social worker called a Child Investigator as easy and productive as possible.
Until just a little over a decade ago, in the same situation, you would have ended up in the police station, where your daughter might have been petrified as she sat, shivering, within its cold, sterile walls. Strange people would have come and gone as you waited for a Child Investigator to be located. Or perhaps you would have been sent home until one could be found – maybe later that day, the next, or the next.
At some point your little girl would have been questioned, the police would have investigated, you might have had to take the girl back for a lineup. It would all have been eminently frightening. There would have been no one to follow up on her trauma, to help her understand that what happened was not her fault. And there would have been no one to comfort you.
In 2002, the Ministry of Welfare and the Municipality established a Child Protection Center in Jerusalem within whose walls everything necessary for dealing quickly, efficiently and compassionately with abused children takes place. Based on a paradigm found, at the time, in a few hundred North American cities, it operated successfully for three years before the Knesset passed a law requiring the State to establish additional centers.
But nothing happened until two years ago, when the National Council for the Child appealed to the High Court because the law had not been implemented. As a result of the subsequent pressure on the government, today there are also centers in Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Haifa and Nazareth with a sixth – in Ashkelon – slated to open next year.
What does this mean for thousands of abused children in Israel, and for their families? According to social worker Shosh Turjeman, the Jerusalem Center’s director, there is always a procedure that has to be carried out when a child has been abused. Fortunately, today, you and your child begin the process of understanding what has happened, and take the steps that come next, in a warm and welcoming environment with experienced professionals.
Jerusalem’s center, the model for those currently running elsewhere, includes social workers, a prosecutor, a forensic pediatrician, a juvenile police woman, a house mother, and a receptionist. The cheerful red-brick building in which they work is divided into two main sections: a spacious entrance and reception area with coffee and computer corners as well as the “fortress”, and a completely separate part of the building with offices, an examination room, and interview rooms.
In the United States, children of all ages are interrogated by police personnel. Here in Israel, abused youngsters — from the time they can speak up to the age of 14 — are interviewed solely by the specially trained social workers called Child Investigators (hokrei yeladim in Hebrew). Youths 14 to 18 are questioned by the police, but are also eligible for emotional, legal and moral support at the Centers.
In many other countries, including the United States, abused children are often forced to appear in court. Here, sessions in which the Child Investigator questions the child are always filmed, and can be used in court in lieu of the young victim having to give evidence in front of his or her abuser. The staff’s policewoman sits in an adjoining room during the interview. While watching on an in-house camera, she may learn important real-time clues that help in finding an abuser.
One 12-year-old boy had fun corresponding online with another child his age. They made plans to get together, but when the boy arrived at he appointed site he found a man waiting for him instead of another boy. The man explained that he was his internet friend’s dad, and he would take the boy with him so that they could meet. Instead, he lured the child into an empty bomb shelter and brutally sodomized him.
Bruised and in a state of shock, the child somehow had the sense to set up another meeting. He then told his parents who took him directly to the Center. During his questioning by the Child Investigator he was able to describe the area around the shelter and several items that had been dropped there by the abuser.
This time, the policewoman observing from another room contacted police headquarters, where plans were made for an ambush at the time set for the next meeting. The criminal was caught, arrested, tried and sentenced to a long period in prison.
About 1 million Israelis in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Gush Etzion, Betar Illit, Hebron, Abu Gosh, Maale Adumim, Mateh Binyamin, the Jordan Valley, and Modi’in Ilit are served by the Jerusalem center. Arabic-speaking Child Investigators are available for the Arab population; staff is available in other languages as well, for work with new immigrants. And as ultra-Orthodox leaders have learned to trust the Center’s sensibilities, their families are appearing in increasing numbers.
According to Turjeman, most of the children seen at the Jerusalem Center are between the ages of five and 10, with over 500 new children coming for help each year. The Center is involved, annually, in more than 1,700 cases that include interviews, assessments, investigations, medical examinations, advice, support, and referrals for further treatment – funded by the Ministry of Welfare.
Outside of Israel the Jerusalem Center has earned a sterling reputation, and professionals visit throughout the year. “They come to learn about the services Israel provides to abused children, and are especially interested in our unique child interview process,” states Turjeman. Most recently delegations arrived from Germany, South Africa, Japan, Sweden and France.
“Although other countries may have larger staffs and far more financial resources than we do here in Israel, says Turjeman, “within the framework of our Centers, this country’s investigative methods and legal system protect already traumatized children from additional, unnecessary ordeals.”
Aviva Bar-Am is a former social worker as well as the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.