Tel Aviv Hospital Under Fire for Forcibly Hospitalizing Eritrean Mom in Psychiatric Ward

Tel Aviv hospital admitted asylum-seeking woman, a victim of human trafficking, to mental health center even though she couldn't speak Hebrew and was with 1.5-year-old son at the time

Abarbanel Mental Health Center, Bat Yam.
Daniel Tchetchik

An Eritrean victim of human trafficking was separated from her toddler son and forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital in central Israel earlier this month, despite alleged difficulties communicating with her and doubts about her actual mental state.

The asylum seeker was kept in Abarbanel Mental Health Center, Bat Yam, for a week and a half. She was ultimately released before her case was even heard, following a petition to the local district court.

The woman had gone to a Tel Aviv police station about two weeks ago to complain about threats from her husband. While at the police station, her 1.5-year-old son fell and hit his head, and they were taken to the city’s Ichilov Hospital. She explained he had fallen from a chair while she was at the police station. However, the hospital claimed she had dropped her son, although there was no mention of this in the police report.

At Ichilov’s request, the district psychiatrist ordered the woman be forcibly hospitalized and separated her from her son, who is still nursing.

Ichilov wrote that the woman was in a severe psychotic state and was a danger to both herself and her child. But they noted they couldn’t really judge her condition because of the language problem, since she speaks only Tigrinya. They were unaware of her background – that she was raped in Sinai’s torture camps.

The hospitalization request noted she had no status in Israel, although she was recognized as a victim of human trafficking and had a work permit. There was also no record she had previously been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, as claimed.

The woman’s case was only brought before a psychiatric committee seven days after her hospitalization – after a request by a foreign embassy to the Justice Ministry – even though the law requires a panel discussion within five days in such cases. The discussion was further delayed since there was no translator available.

One of the three committee members, a psychiatrist, opposed the hospitalization, saying the woman couldn’t be examined properly without a translator and didn’t feel her situation was acute and requiring forced admittance. He added that if there was a concern she might harm her child, he could have been removed from her care even without hospitalizing her. In the end, after the appeal to Tel Aviv District Court, she was released before the committee sat to make its decision.

Lawyer Daniel Raz, who is in charge of forced hospitalizations for the legal aid department at the Justice Ministry (and is also a psychologist), said there was no reason for the woman’s forced admittance. “Not only was she not dangerous – she wasn’t even ill,” he said.

He added that the hospital itself said it was unable to understand her due to the language barrier. “That’s the most relevant,” he said. “They didn’t bother to check her history, which is also relevant to the diagnosis. Had they checked carefully, they would have concluded that there was no need for a hospitalization request from the district psychiatrist.”

Raz also criticized the psychiatric panel. “The committee should have insisted on having a translator, and also failed by not performing any medical examination of its own and relying on other mistaken examinations,” he said. “It is undermining a person’s freedom and dignity. To leave someone in a closed ward after what she had experienced was endangering her life. It was a disaster. They didn’t think of trying to find an alternative.”

Prof. Shaul Schreiber, director of psychiatric services at Ichilov, said: “The patient was examined in the emergency room by an expert and experienced psychiatrist, with a translator.” She met all four criteria for urgent forced hospitalization, he said.

Schreiber said the law regarding treatment of the mentally ill does not mention a person’s legal status or their previous psychiatric history. And even if there are inaccuracies in these details, they aren’t relevant to the patient’s clinical situation and the fact she required psychiatric hospitalization.

The Health Ministry said “the case was examined in-depth by the ministry’s mental health department and the hospital, and the complaints were found to be groundless. The examinations were performed with a certified translator; the hospital was aware of the woman’s status as a victim of human trafficking; and the case was discussed in the appeals panel as soon as a translator was found. The hospital made every effort to provide the optimal treatment and with all due respect for the patient.”