For Sexually Abused Children in Israel, 'The Damage Done by the System May Be Worse Than the Assault'

A panel of experts that has reviewed hundreds of cases says survivors’ emotional decline is sometimes worsened by implying that they cooperated or did not resist. It now calls for a drastic changes that could save lives

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Protesters in solidarity with teen rape survivor in Tel Aviv, last month. The Hebrew reads 'You're not alone' and 'It's not your fault'
Protesters in solidarity with teen rape survivor in Tel Aviv, last month. The Hebrew reads 'You're not alone' and 'It's not your fault'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israel has failed in almost every way in treating sexually abused children, says a report by a committee of experts aiming to change social norms, treatment and government policy on the issue.

Children learn that they should blame themselves for their abuse, the health system ignores clear warning signs, and the legal system puts up psychological and bureaucratic obstacles, the preliminary report states. Few cases of abuse are reported in the media, and the abuse often persists for years with no one to stop it.

“The treatment and the attitude of the authorities and society make things worse in many cases,” Prof. Carmit Katz, director of research at the Haruv Institute, which does research and training to help child victims of abuse and neglect, told Haaretz. Sometimes “the damage done by the system and by society are worse than the rape or the assault.”

In August, experts including Katz, who also is on the faculty of Tel Aviv University’s School of Social Work and editor of the International Journal on Child Maltreatment, set up the committee. Her research has led to the conclusion that Israel’s education, welfare, health and legal systems – as well as the wider society – must shatter “the harmful myths that we tell our children, to save them from damage by the system.”

Also on the committee is a retired district court judge, Nava Ben-Or. “The cases of sexual abuse of children who are exposed are the tip the iceberg, to put it mildly,” Ben-Or says. “Society’s systems that are supposed to identify child victims of sexual assault and treat them fail in many cases.”

No, it’s not cooperation

One major conclusion of the panel is that children should no longer be educated to protect themselves from dangerous adults.

“Every educational program tells children to say no, to scream, to fight, to stay away from suspicious types,” Katz says, but “the assailants usually don’t fit the profile of a ‘dangerous person’ ... and the warnings only create self-blame for their whole lives.”

Another conclusion is the mistaken perception of the way children respond. While jurists, researchers and the wider society prescribe the three Fs – fight, flight, freeze – as the response to a traumatic event, this model is irrelevant when children are repeatedly assaulted.

“New research we did shows that children respond by surrendering to the assailant in an attempt to minimize the damage as much as possible,” Katz says. “People who are not knowledgeable in the field might think that a girl wears a sexy nightgown of her own free will, and she’s often accused because of this.”

Prof. Carmit Katz of Tel Aviv University

But when talking to the girl, Katz says, you realize that this is the way she defends herself because the assault will end more quickly. “Another child realizes that if he kisses his father and doesn’t tense up his buttocks during the rape, it hurts less. But we blame him,” Katz says.

According to the committee, children can suffer feelings of guilt and shame for decades. But the panel believes that this can change, because the source of the guilt and shame is society’s response to the children.

“Guilt? Shame? Sexual assaults are our responsibility, and it’s our duty to prevent them,” Katz says. “And if we don’t do so, the shame is ours and the guilt is ours, as a society that claims to be moral.”

According to Katz, when the assault takes place within the family, one reason for not reporting it is that other family members are victims themselves. “When the mother suffers from violence, usually the children suffer too,” Katz says. “There are cases where girls offer themselves to their father to protect the mother. They see she is suffering.”

According to figures provided to Haaretz by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, in 2018 and 2019, 2,057 children were with their mothers in shelters for battered women. It is not clear how many of these children were also victims of violence.

In a recent survey of 1,000 Israeli adults, 60 percent of the respondents witnessed suspected child abuse that was not reported to the authorities. Of these, 43 percent said they were afraid that such reports would harm the child, and 23 percent feared that it would harm them. The survey was conducted by the Haruv Institute, the National Council for the Child and the Child Abuse Prevention Initiative.

So far, more than 400 men and women have appeared before the committee of experts. The full recommendations are expected to be published in November, after 1,000 testimonies have been heard.

In addition to Katz and Ben-Or, the committee members are Prof. Muhammad Haj-Yahia of Hebrew University, Ofra Ben-Meir, director of the Haruv Children’s Campus, social worker Yael Sherer of Haruv, and Tzviki Fleishman, a founder of Lo Tishtok, a group that raises awareness of sexual abuse in ultra-Orthodox society.

Retired District Court Judge Nava Ben-Or

'Normalcy and disregard'

The testimony of one female victim illustrates how even experts who saw her didn’t recognize her call for help. “When I was 15 and a half I tried to commit suicide. I swallowed sleeping pills. I wrote a letter to my parents saying that there were things they didn’t know …. I woke up in the hospital to a pair of angry parents who very quickly made me understand that not telling them wasn’t an option,” she said.

“I couldn’t tell them a lot, just who it was and some general thing like he touched me when I was 10. They were busy hiding it, so no one would know I tried to commit suicide. Two days later I found myself in school as if nothing had happened, and none of the teachers knew.

“They sent me to a private psychologist so that, perish the thought, nothing would be in my medical file. About six months later I couldn’t talk there and she ended the treatment. I was distressed, I screamed as loudly as I could, and all I got was normalcy and disregard.”

The testimonies show that the health system failed twice, once in identifying the sexual abuse and then in treating it. Many men and women said they were sick as children with stomachaches and urinary tract infections, and girls with vaginal bleeding, but were never asked about possible sexual assault.

The committee sees the legal system as one entity needing comprehensive change in this regard. Victims say that not only does the system not do them justice, it stokes their emotional decline by implying that they cooperated or did not resist.

Ben-Or, the retired judge, says that while children open their hearts, the legal system doesn’t focus on them but rather on the criminal proceedings against the person accused of assault. According to Katz, the root of the problem is the focus on the assailant in treatment and in the public debate, without listening to the victim.

Ben-Or concludes: “The time has come to learn directly from the victims of sexual assault in childhood, where the failures are. Instead of listening to the conclusions of experts, as important as they are, we should learn from those who, so very unfortunately, experienced sexual assault on their own person.”

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