Overcoming horror

Child victims of sexual abuse receive innovative and compassionate care at Jerusalem’s Beit Lynn Child Protection Center.

The examination room is bright and warm. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The examination room is bright and warm.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
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 multidisciplinary staff held a quick consultation, then immediately invited the family.
While the child 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. The professional 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 over a decade ago, in the same situation, the parents would have ended up at the police station, where their daughter might have been petrified as she sat shivering within the cold, sterile walls. Strange people would have come and gone as the parents waited for a child investigator to be located. Or perhaps the parents would have been sent home until an investigator could be found – maybe later that day, the next day, or the next.
At some point, the little girl would have been questioned, the police would have investigated, and the parents might have had to take her back to the station for a lineup. It would all have been very frightening. There would have been no one to follow up on the girl’s trauma, to help her understand that what happened was not her fault. And there would have been no one to comfort the parents.
In 2002, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry 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 then found 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 of Justice because the law had not been implemented. As a result of the subsequent pressure on the government, today there are three additional centers scattered around the country, with a fifth and sixth slated to open later this year.
What does this mean for the 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, the parents and 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 in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba, includes social workers, a prosecutor, a forensic pediatrician, a juvenile policewoman, 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 US, 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 specially trained social workers, the child investigators. Youths aged 14 to 18 are questioned by the police, but are also eligible for the emotional, legal and moral support at the centers.
WHAT HAPPENED to the little girl who had been sexually abused? Parents and child remained together in the fortress, while the child investigator and the staff policewoman were brought up to date. Then as the parents spoke with the policewoman, their daughter spent time with the housemother, in an effort to help the child relax before her own interview. They went outside, where the two played ball and the housemother pushed the little girl on the swings; afterwards, they passed the time in the friendly fortress, where the girl drew pictures and watched a movie while snacking on cookies and chocolate milk.
Later, during her session with the child interviewer, the girl was able to remember several important items of clothing worn by her abuser, even giving a partial description. If necessary, she could have looked at pictures in a police file – right there in the center. But in this case, suspicious that the abuser loitered near the school and in conjunction with the center, the police decided on an ambush. The girl, her parents and the child investigator cruised the area until he came into view. He was arrested, and ended up in prison.
In many other countries, including the US, 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 the appointed site he found a man waiting for him instead of a boy. The man explained that he was his Internet friend’s dad, and would take the boy with him so that they could meet. Instead, he lured the child into an empty bomb shelter and brutally abused 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.
Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Gush Etzion, Betar Illit, Hebron, Abu Ghosh, Ma’aleh Adumim, Mateh Binyamin, the Jordan Valley and Modi’in Illit are all served by the center; altogether the residents number about one million Jews, Christians and Muslims. Arabic-speaking child investigators are available for the Arab population; staff are 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.
Most of the children seen at the center are between the ages of five and 10, with over 500 new children coming for help each year. The Jerusalem center is involved in more than 1,700 cases annually, which include interviews, assessments, investigations, medical examinations, advice, support and referrals for further treatment – funded by the Welfare Ministry.
Jerusalem’s Protection Center is located at 6 Chile Street in Kiryat Hayovel, and is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday to Thursday. Although its staff has remained almost completely stable over the years, there is a natural turnover among the community of professionals and educators on the outside.
Since she began at the center, Turjeman has marketed its services in workshops, seminars, interdisciplinary conferences and lectures; she continues to do so as new professionals replace the old.
Outside 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.
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 the already traumatized.”