Social workers try to restore haredi trust after riots

Welfare ministry D-G wants to start interagency information-sharing program to protect children.

herzog haredim 248.88 (photo credit: Avi Hayoun)
herzog haredim 248.88
(photo credit: Avi Hayoun)
Jerusalem social workers were still reeling Sunday after three days of violent protests by members of the Toldot Aharon hassidic sect over the arrest of a woman accused of abusing her three-year-old son - protests that led the municipality to shut down social welfare services in several haredi areas. "I'm not surprised by the extreme reaction [by the protesters]. We warned the police that this might happen, but now we just need to find a way to go back to work and rebuild the trust that has been lost between our social workers and those in the haredi community," Ruth Shapira, director of Jerusalem's Social Services Department in the capital's Bukharim neighborhood, where the mother lives, told The Jerusalem Post. Shapira and some 30 other social workers responsible for the capital's haredi neighborhoods met Sunday morning with Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and ministry director-general Nahum Itzkovitz to assess the situation. A spokesman for the municipality said offices in the troubled neighborhoods had reopened Sunday, with additional security for workers. "We are talking about a community that is trying to protect its culture and traditions from outside influences," explained Shapira, who is directly involved in the case. "They are not willing to accept that such acts exist in their community." Despite the anger among some in the haredi sector last week, Shapira claimed that over recent years, great strides had been made in working within the community, including meetings with key spiritual leaders. "We've worked behind the scenes and with the utmost cultural sensitivity to build this connection, while at the same time managing to keep our professionalism and uphold the law, too," she said, adding that the developing relations had allowed social workers to save the lives of many children. "Even after what has happened this week, we hope that this relationship will continue to flourish and that together we can help save more lives," said Shapira. According to information released by social workers, the mother, who is accused of starving her son until he weighed less than 7 kilograms, suffers from the psychiatric disorder Munchausen's-by-proxy, which entails abusing someone, typically a child, to draw attention to or sympathy for oneself. The woman's family claims that the child has cancer. Doctors treating the boy have refuted that claim. "The truth is that there are communities within the haredi sector that are completely closed to outside influences, and we need to make great efforts to gain their trust," Herzog told those gathered. However, he added that while cultural sensitivities must be respected, any type of mistreatment of children or violation of the law was unacceptable and must be dealt with accordingly. Itzkovitz told those gathered that "this is not the first time we are seeing these kinds of protests, and it will surely not be the last time… but the ministry will provide you [social workers] with the necessary support and resources to rebuild the trust that has been lost." Both Herzog and Itzkovitz reiterated the ministry's policy of zero tolerance for those who perpetuate violence against social workers. Also at the meeting, Itzkovitz vowed to make top priority a new program aimed at encouraging social workers, health professionals, state legal departments, educational services and the police to share vital information about families. A similar program is already running in Britain. "In London, if a child is brought to a hospital with a certain type of injury, a red flag goes up and the hospital staff can check the family's background and see if they have been in the hospital in the past, compare the injuries and receive a more full picture," he told the forum. "We plan to implement a similar system as soon as possible."