Focus on Issues: Israeli Programs Help Families Overcome Scourge of Child Abuse
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Focus on Issues: Israeli Programs Help Families Overcome Scourge of Child Abuse

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For years, Maya Cohen was seized with sudden, uncontrollable fits of rage when one of her children, who are hyperactive, spilled a glass of milk or refused to turn in at bedtime.

“I was under pressure, so much pressure, and sometimes I beat them,” admits Cohen, whose name has been changed to ensure privacy.

Sitting in the living room of her modest apartment, she adds, “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what was wrong with my kids. I cried all time, I was a nervous wreck. It was a horrible situation.”

It was not until Cohen was charged with assaulting an adult that she and her children received the help they so desperately needed.

Sitting before a judge in family court soon after her arrest, Cohen made a decision: “I told the judge that I was a bad mother, an abusive mother, and that he should take the kids away from me. They needed help, my husband and I needed help, and I saw this as the only way.”

Although Cohen displayed courage by admitting her abuse, many Israeli parents who beat or neglect their children never come to the attention of Israel’s overburdened social welfare system.

“For every case of child abuse that’s reported in this country, we estimate that three times as many cases go unreported,” says Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child.

In 1995, authorities here handled 20,000 new cases of child abuse. Some of those cases involved severe neglect.

Although the figures for 1996 are not yet available, Kadman suspects that the numbers will be comparable.

Long a taboo subject in Israeli society, child abuse “has been slowly let out of the closet,” says Hana Katz, director of Children at Risk programs at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel.

“Israelis have always attached a great stigma to child abuse. Until just a few years ago, the society was in denial. People just couldn’t accept the fact that Jewish parents can abuse their children.”

The turning point, experts agree, came in 1989, the year Israel introduced a mandatory reporting law requiring social workers, teachers and others suspecting abuse to report such cases to their local municipalities.

The legislation was instituted after the Israeli media devoted an uncharacteristically large amount of attention in the late 1980s to the case of an abused child.

A series of graphic news reports at the time encouraged a nationwide debate and ultimately shocked Israelis into action.

Not all reports of suspected abuse lead to remedial action, however.

Although follow-up investigations reveal no wrongdoing in about half of all reported cases, “it’s always, always better to be safe than sorry,” says Frada Feigelson, director of the Schusterman Center for Children at Risk and their Families in Jerusalem.

“We once had a case where the parents divorced and the mother remarried. When the children visited a family member, they related how their stepfather had abused them.

“This turned out not to be true, but the social workers saw children under severe stress, feeling torn between the two parents. One of the children was almost on the verge of a breakdown. The intervention came just in time.”

Although there are several risk factors that can contribute to the probability that a parent will become abusive, “it is a mistake to think that abusers belong to a specific strata of society,” says Kadman. “We find abuse in all kids of settings: in towns, kibbutzim, in religious and secular homes, rich and poor, Sephardi, Ashkenazi.”

Instead of targeting a specific segment of the population as potential abusers, Kadman says, “we determine whether the family is under considerable stress. Has there been a divorce or separation, are there financial problems?”

The fact that poor and new immigrant families have a higher-than-average rate of abuse may be due to increased stress, Kadman says. In addition, however, these families are often connected to the social welfare network, and are therefore more likely to be observed by professionals, he says.

Contrary to popular Israeli belief, “it’s simply not true that olim (immigrants) have a higher abuse rate because they come from Third World countries,” he says.

“Immigrant families are in a particularly high state of flux — cultural, economic, they must learn a new language, find jobs — and that is the reason that most of the reported cases [of abuse] come within the first two to three years of a family’s arrival in Israel.”

Lest anyone doubt that child abuse afflicts every segment of Israeli society, a visit to one of the country’s six children’s shelters — including one for Israeli Arabs — proves the point.

At the Schusterman Center in Jerusalem, up to 15 children from every imaginable background spend up to three months as boarders. Hundreds more receive outpatient evaluation and counseling throughout the year.

While the children seem ordinary enough at first glance, the slightest thing can precipitate a violent temper tantrum.

Rather than allow the children to hurt themselves or others, they are placed in one of the center’s “soft rooms.” Here, amid rubber toys and matted floors, the children can safely vent their anger.

“Because of the pain they have experienced, abused children often express their anger in sudden, explosive outbursts,” says Feigelson.

For the center’s work to be effective, parents, too, must overcome their anger, Feigelson says.

When Maya Cohen’s children were placed at Schusterman she and her husband were encouraged to seek counseling. The children have since returned home.

The therapy also extended to the carefully supervised visits they had with their children, during which they were taught a wide variety of communication and parenting skills.

After this kind of intervention, more than 50 percent of abused children are eventually returned to their parents.

The remainder are placed in boarding schools, foster homes or, in rare instances, put up for adoption.

The Cohens are one of the system’s success stories.

“The counseling I received helped me find the courage to leave a marriage that wasn’t working and to move to the city,” she says. “The people at the center taught me how to improve my parenting skills, how to communicate with my kids.”

To enable Cohen to work a full day, and to give her an hour of free time in the late afternoon, municipal social workers found an enriched after-school program for the Cohen children.

There, the children complete their homework, have a hot meal and play with other children. At 6 p.m. they return home.

“This is a woman with great strength,” says a social worker who counseled the family. “She loves her children and was willing to improve herself to get them back.”

“Things are so much better,” says Cohen, her eyes a bit misty. “I’m calmer, the kids are calmer. I wasn’t capable of taking care of them. If I hadn’t gotten help, I think I might have lost them.”

“Now,” Cohen says, “what’s good for my children is good for me.”

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