Wednesday, June 22, 2016

What happens when you contact Jewish Community Watch to report abuse? Part I

Shana Aaronson -Victims Services- Israel Office  of the Jewish Community Watch in Israel kindly volunteered to write the following description of what happens when someone comes to them to report abuse. One of the major blocks for victims to report abuse is the fear of not knowing what it entails. The fear of being humiliated by questions or by the revelations of shameful details to the public. Her job is to be a personal guide through the system to minimize the effort and pain involved. This is the first part.

Initially when someone contacts JCW it is usually through the website or central email address. These messages go directly to the director of victims services (a clinical social worker), who then assigns them to the proper staff member. Obviously depending on the nature of the inquiry, the process that follows varies.

If the individual is looking for therapeutic support or referral, peer support, a support group, therapeutic funding assistance, etc, they are assigned a case manager (a certified mental health professional) who will accompany them throughout their process, and connect them to whatever is needed. They will be connected to local resources and/or whatever virtual help can be helpful. (While most of JCW's clients are in the US, Canada, and Israel, we also have provided services to individuals in South America, Australia, UK, Asia, and Africa.)

Someone with a specific question regarding legal proceedings (within the US) of any kind is sent to our in-house attorney.

If someone is looking to report their abuse, they are sent to the director of the investigative department (a social worker with a degree in criminology). If the case is to be reported to the authorities, the survivor (or whoever is doing the reporting) will be assisted through the process by one of the investigative associates and/or the attorney, depending on what is needed. They will work together with law enforcement (police, FBI, US marshals, etc) as the case proceeds.

If the report cannot be sent to law enforcement (most commonly because the statute of limitations have expired) and there is concern that the alleged abuser still poses a serious risk to the community, JCW may proceed with a private investigation. This would involve the investigative team, the attorney, the PI, and then the investigative committee.

The process and policies around JCW's exposure of information about convicted and alleged offenders is outlined in detail on the website, link below.

Obviously certain questions might be forwarded to the CEO or a board member, whether halachic, legal, or otherwise. A list of most (a few may have come on since last updated) board members and staff can also be found on the website.

As far as the process of filing a report to the police in Israel-

In Israel, children under the age of 14 are not allowed to be questioned by police officers, only specific social workers trained in forensic interviewing techniques. So when a report is filed regarding a child being abused, the child is then brought in to a center (Mercaz lhaganat hayeled) to meet with a social worker. There is a center in each district in Israel, I believe 6 in all.

(As a parent, I believe that it is important to note that I have been to two such centers, and have found them to be warm, comfortable, and inviting. Real effort was made to design these centers in a way that would seriously minimize the level of possible secondary trauma. They are beautifully decorated, have gardens, many toys and art supplies, and every staff member I met was lovely. With that being said, I do believe that the single most important factor in how a child handles being questioned in the mercaz hagana is their parents reaction to it. While the law seriously discourages discussing the details of the abuse with the child before being questioned, because this can taint the testimony, I have found that in situations where parents are calm, reassuring, and encouraging that although this might be awkward and a little confusing, the child is brave and doing a big mitzva by telling the truth, the children come away feeling empowered and validated.)

The child's interview is videotaped. There is a one sided mirror, so if necessary a police officer and/or prosecutor can stand on the other side and call a phone inside with any questions that they have as the interview is going on. If the case proceeds to trial, the videotape is presented as evidence, and the social worker testifies on the child's behalf; children in Israel do NOT testify in court.

The center also has a doctor on staff who can perform a forensic medical exam if it needed. There is a plainclothes police officer usually present, who can take the parents statement while the child is meeting with the social worker. If the police officer is not present that day for any reason or if the testimony is lengthy, sometimes they will have the parents go to the police station on a different day to give their statement.

In certain situations the social worker will be sent to the child's school instead of having the child brought in to the center. This is standard in a situation, where for example, one parent has reported that the child is being abused by the other parent. In order to protect the non-offending parent, they give them plausible deniability and don't require them to actively bring the child into the center. Here, the reactions of the school staff who are made aware of the situation are critical. I have heard from children that meeting with the social worker was fine, but the looks on the faces of their teacher/principal/yoetzet when they pulled them out of class terrified them.

Adolescents age 14 until 18 are interviewed by a choker noar, a police officer with special training. It's wise to set up an appointment when bringing in a child in this age group, since not every station always has a choker noar on site.

Children in this age group may testify in court if the case proceeds to trial, but the case is under total gag order; all details of the case cannot be publicized, and the court room is sealed (dlatot sgurot).

An adult survivor can give their statement to any police officer, though in practice I have watched concerted effort and sensitivity in making sure victims are interviewed by officers of their preferred gender. Before bringing an adult survivor in to give a statement I always remind them that a police officer is not a social worker or friend; their job is simply to get the truthful story in its entirety. I remind them not to go in expecting tremendous warmth or support, that's not what this is about. When the officers are warm and supportive (which I can thankfully say they often are) it is a "bonus".

Once any report is filed, the individual reporting should be given a slip of paper (ishur hagashat tluna). It's very important to keep this!! Many throw it out, not realizing it will be useful or necessary for them as time goes on. That paper has the file number, and should also have information to be able to access their case status on the government website.

Unfortunately, the police and social services in Israel are very, very overworked. One of the unfortunate byproducts of this is frequent difficulty in getting updates about the progress of the case. Many people feel like they are sent home and then left for weeks with no word about what's going on. You may need to call (and they are notoriously difficult to reach) and keep checking the website. This is where assistance from an advocate can be very helpful, but ultimately there is not much anyone can do to change the fact that there is usually a lot of waiting involved.

As far as how the case progresses- they will bring the accused in for an interrogation, they will collect whatever other evidence and speak to other victims or witnesses. If they feel it is necessary (ie they're not coming up with enough evidence) they may ask the victim (not a young child) to have a face-to-face confrontation with the alleged abuser. Obviously the police watch this whole meeting and it is taped. The hope is that in being forced to face his (often now-adult victim) the alleged abuser will be flustered into confessing the truth of what happened.

At that point, the case is handed over to the prosecutors office (praklitut). They will decide whether or not there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. If there is not, the victim will be sent a letter stating that the file has been closed (usually the reason being insufficient evidence). If there is enough to proceed, the prosecutor will start building their case.

Unfortunately, having cases closed in Israel due to insufficient evidence is very, very common. The laws here and the rights of the accused (zchuyot haneesham) are very strong, and the prosecution will only go to trial if they are very confident that it is an extremely solid case. I don't have the exact current statistics on hand, but for one interested the studies done by the Haifa university are worth looking up. They do indicate that the majority of cases are closed before going to trial.

However, it's important to remember that even if a case is closed due to insufficient evidence, if another victim comes forward in the future or more evidence is found, the case could still proceed then.

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