Privacy & sensitivity

How should Israeli society evaluate itself in the case of the mother suspected of starving her son?

haredi riot burning garbage 248 88 (photo credit: Alisa Ungar-Sargon)
haredi riot burning garbage 248 88
(photo credit: Alisa Ungar-Sargon)
Mental disease is not a crime. Society's role is not to banish mental patients, but to care for them while recognizing the patient's human rights and the need to safeguard the public. A society's attitude toward the mentally ill reflects its moral standards, values… - Former supreme court chief justice Aharon Barak By this criterion how should Israeli society, and the media in particular, evaluate its performance in the case of the mother suspected of starving her toddler son due to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSP)? In this rare disorder, which is almost impossible to diagnose and cannot be treated, an adult caregiver deliberately causes harm to a vulnerable dependent - most often a child. The underlying cause is a morbid craving for attention. MSP is either a personality or a psychiatric disorder - experts disagree - though it can have criminal consequences. Most professionals believe that a mother with MSP does have the capacity to control her urges. We cannot know what impelled this mother to allegedly inflict suffering on her child. Her psychiatric evaluation began only Monday night. After the mother was arrested by police, the family obtained a court order barring publication of the story. Somehow a Hebrew tabloid got wind of the news, challenged the injunction and won. Perhaps the court acted precipitously in lifting the gag order, robbing authorities and community leaders of the opportunity to resolve their differences away from the limelight. The tabloid then sought and obtained a comment from Hadassah hospital. Subsequent coverage by the press emphasized that the family involved was from an insular anti-Zionist haredi sect - Toldot Aharon. Coming on the heels of the so-called Taliban mother from Ramat Beit Shemesh and several other instances of child abuse among the ultra-Orthodox, the haredi angle to the Munchausen Syndrome story grabbed the headlines and wouldn't let go. SO THERE are two issues here. One is whether the right to privacy of the suspect - who is also allegedly mentally ill - was violated; the other is whether the haredi angle was overplayed. Should Israel's 1981 Privacy Protection Law and 1996 Patients' Rights Law have shielded the presumed MSP mother from having her condition exposed to public scrutiny? While her name hasn't been published, her identity is known within her own neighborhood. The privacy question can't be resolved at this stage, partly because of the murky nature of MSP, and partly because we still don't know if the mother's alleged behavior could be attributable to some other factor. The president of the Israel Press Council, former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, argued that referencing the mother's haredi affiliation tainted the reputation of the law-abiding ultra-Orthodox majority. "By Press Council standards it's unethical to define a person in a manner that maligns an entire social category," she declared. While we emphatically subscribe to the ideals Dorner enunciated, might it be asking too much of the media to downplay the appearance of a pattern of abuse among haredim? Plainly, however, once haredi demagogues incited their followers to react to the mother's confinement with violence, once ultra-Orthodox crowds began destroying traffic lights, burning trash bins, hurling rocks and snarling traffic along Jerusalem's main arteries, the haredi angle became integral to the story. (Damage to city property is well in excess of NIS 1 million.) Then, too, for many haredim who had nothing to do with the violence this focus only emphasized the feeling that their community was being unfairly scrutinized, stereotyped and shunned by mainstream Israel. To which their critics would retort: An entire collective can't claim to live their lives "trembling before God," yet expect not to be held to the highest standards. Recently, the Israel Broadcasting Authority ombudsman sided with complaints against Reshet Bet radio news that repeatedly described a juvenile joy rider who injured a toddler as haredi. The ombudsman agreed that "the item didn't mandate the reiterated harping on the teen's haredi identity." Even if the media committed no ethical infractions in the MSP mother case, the experience ought to remind us that we have an obligation to protect the privacy of those who may be mentally ill. And to be more mindful of not tarring entire communities following the misdeeds of individual members.