J'lem District child investigators at frontlines of abuse case

"Haredi society is going through a process where reporting such incidents is becoming more acceptable."

child abusers 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
child abusers 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
With caseloads rising and community awareness of child abuse growing, the Jerusalem District's tiny Department of Child Interrogation has been putting in overtime hours, but it was only last week that the department's efforts made headlines, following a high-profile incident of alleged abuse in one of Jerusalem's most prestigious neighborhoods. The six members of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry's Department of Child Interrogation's Jerusalem District office are responsible for covering an area stretching from the Benjamin Regional Council in the north to Hebron in the south, reaching as far west as Beit Shemesh and including the neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. The unit is tasked with questioning children under the age of 14 who are believed to have been victims or perpetrators of, or witnesses to a crime, as a law dating back to 1955 prohibits police from interrogating children. Within the Jerusalem District's boundaries, there are approximately 200,000 elementary school-aged children - a number that supplies upwards of 1,000 cases per year. Of those 200,000 children, an estimated 100,000 - including the eight children of the family involved in last week's case - are haredi. Over 50 percent of the district's children attend independent haredi schools, which lack some of the basic stop-gap measures through which instances of family violence are frequently reported. Nevertheless, said Dov Bernstein, the Jerusalem District supervisor for the Department of Child Interrogation and a veteran in the office almost since its establishment over two decades ago, "haredi society is undergoing a process" through which reporting such incidents is becoming more acceptable. "In the last decade, you see that haredi society has begun to develop patterns of reporting." Now, he said, there were more cases in which a mother would tell her rabbi about a situation or concern, and if he deemed the situation to be one that created a problem for the community, he would advise her to report it to the relevant authorities. Bernstein has even been called to give lectures and explanations to organizations within the haredi sector, which have been met with enthusiastic responses. Nevertheless, he says, the haredi public is frequently "still wary or uncertain of the 'establishment,' including police and welfare officers." Last week, after two young brothers were hospitalized with signs of violence on their bodies, Bernstein's team - all of whom are trained first as social workers - were called in to try to understand, both from the hospitalized victims as well as their older brothers and sisters, what had transpired in the family's house. "In this case, the children were suspicious, angry, lacking in faith. They already knew that their parents had been arrested," Bernstein said. "The investigators could see that questions of abuse aside, the children had come from a difficult family background." All but one of the children were below the age of 14, meaning that the interrogators had six children to interview - an assignment that over the course of two days involved half of Bernstein's staff. The challenges posed to investigators by this particular case are manifold. First, the older of the two hospitalized children is only four years old, an age difficult for even experienced child interrogators to effectively question to develop an account of events. He told investigators that the burns on his body had come from a fire at the house. The younger of the two is a mere three years old, and still has not regained consciousness after he was rushed to the hospital early Wednesday. The other children have all been questioned once, but Bernstein said that in cases as complex as this one it was common for the children to be questioned more than once, in the hopes of building their confidence in the investigators. This case, he said, was "exceptional because of what police say that they found in the apartment, and because of the level of injuries to the children. It is definitely exceptional to see children this young with such serious signs of violence."