The number of reports to the authorities on sexual abuse against children has fallen over the past year – even though experts and government officials estimate that the true numbers have actually risen. This was the result, in part, of the closure of the schools and the lockdowns imposed because of the coronavirus outbreak, which limited the number of interactions children had with professionals who could have identified the harm and reported it – along with the understanding that many of the cases occur at home.
A government official told Haaretz that he estimates the gap has widened between the number of children affected and those known to the authorities and are being treated during the pandemic, and there are “many thousands of children at risk, who were abused in their homes, that we don’t know about and are not treating them. These are serious and fresh injuries, that have not received a response,” said the official.
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The Social Services Ministry has not yet finished its processing of the data from 2020 concerning sexual offenses against children. But Hava Levy. the head social worker in charge of the matter in the ministry confirmed that during the past few months, problems have come up in making contact with these children – and Levy expects a sharp rise in the number of such reports over the next few months.
All the authorities and professionals who are normally responsible for the reporting, such as the schools and health system, were closed, said Levy. “We have identified a declining trend in the 2020 data – which does not testify that there are fewer victims, only that shows that they were not near those who were supposed to notice that something was wrong. The great challenge of the last year was to locate the harmed children when they were in their homes, especially in light of our many years of knowledge that reveals that much abuse occur at home.”
The Social Services Ministry expect that the return to normal will lead to renewed reporting and a rise over the next few months, when many of the children will revealed to authorities, she said. “We will do everything to provide everyone with the best response.”
Data from the Israel National Council for the Child from 2020 shows that the ministry’s 118 hotline received 21 percent less reports of negligence compared to the previous year, and the number of reports of suspected sexual harm fell by 38 percent. In addition, the number of cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse against minors identified by the health service organizations and reported to welfare authorities or the police fell by 19 percent compared to 2019.
The number of emergency room visits by children because intentional harm – the definition applies to domestic violence, sexual assault and attempted suicide – compared to the previous year fell by 26 percent.
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At the same time, the situation of at-risk children already known to the authorities deteriorated. An internal report of the national program for at risk children and youths reported in Haaretz in February, stated that the percentage of these at-risk children exposed to a new incident of violence, sexual abuse of negligence almost doubled – from 3,5 percent in 2018 to 6 percent in 2020.
Vered Windman, the executive director of the National Council for the Child, said that it is in the period in which the “pressure cooker in many homes is boiling and the distress and risk factors become more extreme, it seems there is an enormous difficulty in identifying and locating at risk children in general, and the victims of sexual offenses and negligence in particular. It is possible to estimate with a great amount of confidence that this does not stem from a decline in the risk situation but from less exposure to outside eyes and because of the fact that children are in the public space less,” said Windman.
Recent research also concluded that the coronavirus pandemic had a negative effect on the state of children who suffered sexual abuse, and this worsened the damage. Prof. Carmit Katz of Tel Aviv University and others interviewed professionals working in children’s services for those suffering domestic sexual abuse – 23 in Israel and 37 in the United States. The conditions of the past year increased the chance of children being hurt and reduced the chances of it being exposed, stopped and prevented, they agreed. The severe abuse the children suffered during the pandemic period only strengthened the need for a new public council, hearing the voices of the children and conducting a comprehensive reform of the services supplied to the children, said Katz.