Rose Pizem and Alon Borisov are not alone
Special-needs children are twice as likely to suffer neglect or abuse as those without problems.
They were both 4 years old and both had mothers who immigrated to Israel from other countries - one from France and the other from Russia. The water motif is also present in their deaths; Ronny Ron, Rose Pizem's grandfather and the live-in lover of her mother, says he threw the girl's body into the Yarkon River, and Alon Borisov's mother, Olga Borisov, allegedly drowned him at a Bat Yam beach.
But beyond the deaths that brought these two children together in the Israeli public's consciousness over the past week, Rose and Alon had something else in common in their lives: Both of them suffered from impaired development and behavioral problems.
"Children with behavioral problems, whether as a result of neglect and abuse or an organic defect, are children who don't smile a lot, don't hug all the time, are stubborn and shout," says Rivka Shai, who heads the department for special needs children and adolescents at the Israeli organization Ashalim, which provides services for children and youth at risk. "Their behavior is burdensome and makes dealing with them very difficult, even for excellent parents."
"Such children are a tremendous challenge," says Shai. "They are children who are a disappointment to their parents."
Young children with handicaps, learning disabilities or behavioral problems are among the most vulnerable segments of any society. Studies around the world show that children with special needs are twice as likely to suffer neglect or abuse as healthy children, says Shai.
"A girl like Rose - who moved from place to place, did not acquire a language, and did not communicate with a single stable adult figure - undoubtedly has behavioral and communications problems, and perhaps even signs of autism," says Shai.
Indeed, Rose's mother, Marie-Charlotte Renault, said last year that she would soon be joined by her autistic daughter, who was living in France at the time.
"Such a child is very challenging and if his environment is weak, he is at the greatest risk," says Shai. She says about 30 percent of special needs children are neglected or abused.
There have previously been cases of autistic children whose family wanted them dead. Five years ago, a 7-year-old girl was shot to death by her grandfather, who said he could no longer bear the suffering of his daughter - the child's mother - or that of the rest of the family. He then shot himself.
Poverty poses a further complication for children with disabilities, potentially increasing their exposure to neglect or abuse. While 8 percent of children in the general population suffer from some kind of disability, the rate rises to 11 percent among the poor, according to a recent study by the JDC-Brookdale Institute, an Israeli center for applied research on human services.
But although the general public has increasingly come to recognize the importance of reporting domestic violence, violence in families that have children with disabilities is widely underreported, and the authorities often have trouble locating special needs children suffering from abuse or neglect.
As the Pizem and Borisov deaths entrench themselves in the Israeli consciousness, a book by staff from Ashalim and the education and social affairs ministries that teaches professionals how to spot special needs children at risk - the first of its kind - is due to be published in the coming weeks. Batya Hodatov, one of the authors, says the type of risk each child faces varies depending on the kind of disability. For example, children with retardation are more vulnerable to sexual abuse than those with other types of disabilities, while children and adolescents with learning disabilities or behavioral problems are at a greater risk of getting caught up in criminal activity and drug use.
Until recently, special needs children at risk for abuse or neglect had hardly anywhere they could go. But last year, commenced operations. It deals primarily with children who have been assaulted, and attempts to prevent a recurrence by treating the children, their caretakers and their parents.
"Special needs children are particularly exposed, among other reasons because of the large number of people caring for them and their tremendous dependence on others," says Yael Stern, the center's director. "If they are disabled, they also can't run away. If they have some kind of retardation, they have a hard time describing what happened, and if they do describe it, they are not always believed. They are also very used to obeying an authority, and do things even if their gut feeling tells them that it's wrong, because after all they are taught that their judgment is flawed."
Professionals describe the burden on the parents of these children as being heavy, and sometimes even unbearable. The families must contend with emotional pressure, bureaucracy, professional assessments, the child's physical and emotional needs, financial costs, work, spouses and other children in the family.
Even the emotional crisis parents experience upon learning that their son or daughter has a disability can be deep and long-lasting. "A parent goes through different stages," says Shai. "He lost the child he dreamed of and must adjust to the child there is - a handicapped child. In order to function, in order not to get to extreme situations, he needs support."
Studies show that the way most people treat those with disabilities further increases the risk faced by those with special needs, by legitimizing degrading and humiliating behavior.
"My approach is that a child with disabilities doesn't really understand what difference it makes if he was abused," says Shai. "But these are positions that do not respect people as people. In order to be able to raise a handicapped child, and integrate him into the family, parents must undergo a tough process of overcoming such positions and of communicating with the child."
Right now, under the auspices of the Kesher organization, which provides support for parents of special needs children, work is underway in conjunction with JDC-Israel that will provide emotional support for the parents, information about the rights of the children, guidance and referrals to suitable medical personnel and accompaniment.
"It's really critical, so that it will be possible to see in the child first of all the person inside and then only afterward, the handicap," says Shai.