Nearly Half of Israel’s Children Suffer Physical, Sexual or Emotional Abuse, Study Finds

The University of Haifa study is the first to rely on direct testimony of children rather than the social-welfare authorities.

A study on child abuse of more than 10,000 children — the first of its kind to be conducted in Israel — found that close to half of them reported that they had been physically, emotionally or sexually abused. The study, which was conducted from September 2011 to September 2013 by the Center for the Study of Society at the University of Haifa, was headed by Prof. Zvi Eisikovits and Prof. Rachel Lev-Wiesel. Until now statistics on child abuse in Israel have been based solely on cases reported to the authorities and on information received from the authorities themselves. The University of Haifa study collected first-hand accounts from Jewish and Arab children aged 12 (sixth grade), 14 (eighth grade) and 16 (tenth grade). The total size of the sample was 8,239 Jewish children and 2,274 Arab children.

The study found that almost half of the children (48.5 percent) reported that they had suffered one or more kinds of abuse. Twenty-eight percent reported emotional abuse, 18 percent reported sexual abuse, 15 percent reported emotional neglect, 14 percent reported physical neglect, 14 percent reported physical harm and nine percent reported that they had been exposed to violence within the family. More than two-thirds of the Arab children (67.7 percent) reported that they had suffered one or more kinds of abuse. This means that two of every three Arab children suffer some sort of violence.

“The study examined not only the scope of violence against children and their vulnerability to harm, but also the factors that encourage or delay reporting it to others," said Lev-Wiesel. "The findings require a re-evaluation of everything we know about the phenomenon and professionals’ behavior regarding the children.

“As people who have been in the field for many years, we were unfortunately not surprised by the statistics," she continued. "We were surprised by the children’s willingness to answer the questions with such openness. This proved that speaking directly with the children was the best and most effective way.”

“This is inconceivable," said Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, chairman of the National Council for the Child and a member of the study’s steering committee. "It requires an emergency multi-system approach so we can start thinking about how to reach the children who suffer in secret without our knowing anything about them.”

The researchers note that the study - the largest to explore this phenomenon in Israel to date - did not focus on youth at risk, but rather examined a representative sample of children in the country.

The results show that a yawning gulf between the number of children who suffer abuse and report it to the authorities and the number of children who state directly that they have suffered abuse and harm. In 2012, 48,992 suspected cases of child abuse — the number reflects 1.9 percent of Israel’s child population — were reported to social workers. Of the total number of children who suffered sexual abuse, about half (46.5 percent) said they had been sexually abused more than once, and about two-thirds (66.2 percent) said they had been sexually abused more than once over the past year. In most of the cases (81.3 percent), the children said that the abuser had been a man, and 18.2 percent of the children said the perpetrator had been a woman.

The study also found that boys were at higher risk of physical and emotional abuse, while girls were more vulnerable to sexual abuse and witnessing violence within the family. It was found that the older the child, the more frequent the incidence of abuse became: 43 percent of the 12-year-olds reported that they had been harmed by violence of some sort, as compared with 49 percent of the 14-year-olds and 58 percent of the 16-year-olds.

Almost half of the children who had been sexually abused (46.5 percent) had been victimized by a family member. Of them, the abuser was a relative in 22 percent of the cases and a biological parent in 7.5 percent of the cases. In nine percent of the cases, the abuser was the parent’s partner, and in eight percent, the abuser was a sibling. In most cases (78.5 percent) in which children were physically harmed, the abuser was a family member (a parent, grandparent, uncle and so on).

Sixty-five percent of the children who had been physically abused were harmed by a man, 26.3 percent by a woman, and 8.7 percent by both a man and a woman. In most of the cases (70.9 percent) in which children suffered physical abuse, the abuse took place more than once. Physical abuse referred to the child being hit, kicked or otherwise hurt physically in any way by an adult whom he or she knew.

Of the children who had been sexually abused, 75.3 percent said that they had been harmed by someone outside the family whom they knew (a neighbor or an acquaintance from school), and 34 percent reported that they had been harmed by a stranger.

As far as reporting incidents, 68.2 percent of the children who had been sexually abused told someone about it, compared to 63.5 percent of the children who had been physically abused. A high percentage of the children who informed someone about the abuse chose to confide in a relative or friend. The percentage of children who told a professional about the incident was significantly lower.

Physical neglect -- reported by 14 percent of the children -- referred to situations in which the adult responsible for the child did not give him enough food, or take him to a doctor or nurse when he was sick or ensure that he had a safe place to be.

The study was initiated and funded by Traiana, a hi-tech company headed by Gil Mandelzis that provides automated trading solutions. It was conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Education.

Moti Milrod