The Duty to Report Child Abuse

There have been a number of cases in the news of pedophiles in the religious community that were molesting children for long periods of without anyone reporting it to the authorities.  One such case can be seen here:

While the reluctance in the religious community to report things to the authorities, especially the Zionist authorities, is well known, it bears a look at what is the obligation to report cases of child abuse.

According to the Israel penal code, section 368d,

היה לאדם יסוד סביר לחשוב כי זה מקרוב נעברה עבירה בקטין או בחסר ישע בידי האחראי עליו, חובה על האדם לדווח על כך בהקדם האפשרי לפקיד סעד או למשטרה

“If someone has a reasonable basis to think that recently a crime was committed against a minor or a helpless person by the person responsible for him, there is an obligation on every adult to report this as early as possible to a welfare officer (Pekidat Sa’ad) or to the police.”

The punishment for failure to report this is up to three months in prison.  The law goes on to state that if it is someone in a position of responsibility, such as caretaker, doctor, teacher, social worker, etc., the punishment can be up to six months in jail.  But the important point to keep in mind is that the obligation to report is on every citizen.

The point about having a choice to report the abuse to either the welfare officer or to the police is a significant one.  Child abuse is always a sensitive issue, and one of the reasons that people don’t want to report it is that it will damage the reputation of the whole family.  When the suspicion is reported to the police, they are obligated to open an investigation.  When it is reported to the welfare officer, she has the discretion of taking the case to a special committee that can exempt her from reporting it to the police.  Then it may be possible to protect the privacy of the family.

It has been estimated that only about 20% of child abuse cases are ever reported.  Of course it’s impossible to know the exact figures, but the percentage may even be lower.  And as far as people who know about abuse and fail to report it, it is rare that anyone is ever prosecuted.  As far as I could find out, only one case has resulted in a conviction – in 1996 a mother who admitted that she knew that her husband was abusing and raping their daughters received a 4 month suspended sentence on a plea bargain.

Public awareness of the obligation to report is low.  There is a big reluctance to report people to the police.  It’s scary, and no one wants to be a snitch.  Few people know that there is an alternative to reporting to the police.  As we will see in the following anecdote, even professionals are not aware of the law.

Recently someone called me and told me about a teacher in Tel Aviv in a religious grade school that puts his hands down children’s pants, and also shows them movies of animal copulating.  He called me because he said that he needed a social worker for this case, and since I am a social worker by profession, then I should be the one to handle it.  He said that the police are not interested unless the parents complain.  I told him that this is not necessarily a job for a social worker, but is the job of every citizen.  And further, there is an alternative to reporting to the police, namely the welfare officer.  He asked me to help him to find that phone number.  I called the welfare department of Tel Aviv, only to be told that they are on summer vacation for the next ten days.  But surely there must be someone to report to in any case.  So I called the city information line – phone number 106 in every city in Israel.

I was told: “The whole municipality is on vacation for ten days, and anyway you have to report this to the police.”

I: “No I don’t, I can report it to the welfare officer.  What is her number.”

City: “I can’t give you her number, and by law you have to report it to the police.”

I:  “I’m sorry, but according to the Israel penal code, section 368d, this can be reported to the police or to the welfare officer.  I want to report it to the welfare officer.  Who is on duty now?”

City: “I’m sorry, I can’t give you that information.”

I: “Why not?  How am I supposed to report this?”

At that point she got flustered, and referred me to her superior.

He: “The city is on vacation.”

I: “I know.  Who is on emergency duty for me to report this?”

He: “I can’t give you that number.  You give me all of the information, and I will pass it on.”

I: “I’m sorry.  This is sensitive information, and according to the law it must be reported to the police or to the welfare officer.  Not to a clerk on the city switchboard.”

As you can see, this went in circles, and got me nowhere.  All there is left to do is to wait until the municipal summer vacation ends, and try to report it to the welfare office.  I hope that they are more helpful that these people were.

Every time one of these cases makes the news, there is always the maddening question of “Why didn’t anyone report this before?”  If we raise the awareness of the obligation to report, maybe more of these cases will be reported earlier.

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