- Know thy neighbor (07/29/2002)
Monday, July 29, 2002
Case of Avrohom Ger
Case of Avrohom Ger
Tel Aviv, Israel
Avraham Ger was arrested on suspicion of raping five- and six-year-old girls and of sodomizing a thirteen-and-a-half-year-old boy. He was acquitted of the rape charges, but served 13 months in prison after being convicted of the sodomy charge. Ger was rearrested October, 2002 and accused of committing an indecent act against an underage girl, who also lives in the neighborhood.
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Know thy neighbor
By Neri Livneh
Haaretz - Monday, July 29, 2002
Over the past few years, three pedophiles have been active in a small neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. How did it happen that so many children were systematically abused without anyone intervening?
There are no secrets in the small neighborhood. The apartments are crowded and the walls are thin. The stairwells are narrow and dark. Life takes place outside, in the yard, in the parking lots between the apartment buildings and mostly in the nearby park that is closed in by dense bushes. It was in that park, say social workers, that 30 of the neighborhood's children were sexually abused over the past four years.
Last week, a resident of the neighborhood, D., was indicted in Tel Aviv District Court. He is charged with committing sodomy and indecent acts on at least four children. The real number is probably higher. Ha'aretz reporter Roni Singer revealed last week that D. was a good friend of Oren Danan, also a neighborhood resident, who was accused two months ago of abducting an underage girl from the neighborhood, sexually assaulting her, trying to murder her and leaving her rolled up in a carpet. In the course of confessing to the charges against him, Danan said he knew Benny Sela well - referring to the "serial rapist" who was convicted in October, 2000 on 13 counts of rape. Sela lived not far from the neighborhood. Danan was not the first neighborhood resident to be charged with sexually assaulting minors. Three years ago, Avraham Ger, a 24-year-old man from the neighborhood, was arrested on suspicion of raping five- and six-year-old girls and of sodomizing a thirteen-and-a-half-year-old boy. He was acquitted of the rape charges, but served 13 months in prison after being convicted of the sodomy charge. Ger was rearrested last October and accused of committing an indecent act against an underage girl, who also lives in the neighborhood.
How did so many horrific events occur over such a lengthy period? Did no one in the small neighborhood know that so many children were being systematically abused by their neighbors? What are we to make of the conspiracy of silence that made this possible? And why, even now, with the police already in the picture, are so many residents still afraid to speak out?
A local store owner explains: "Everyone knew that all the Sodom and Gomorrah in the world was concentrated in this neighborhood. Everyone knew for years that there were pedophiles here and everyone kept quiet. Bveryone knew that Avi Ger was a nut case. He even worked for me at one time. Everyone knew about his inclinations, everyone knew about Oren Danan, and most of all everyone talked about D. But his family is violent, so people were afraid of him and no one had the courage to open his mouth. There is no law in this neighborhood and no police. People here are not the poorest, but they are the most thuggish and that is why, even though they knew there were pedophiles here, they kept quiet and kept it a secret."
The brave woman
It took years before one neighborhood resident, whom I will call "the brave woman," learned about the horrific acts D. had been perpetrating on her son from the time he was nine years old. If she hadn't decided to fight him relentlessly, it is possible that D. would still be walking about freely today. At least twice in the past he was caught by youngsters in the neighborhood in the act of sexually assaulting minors behind the bushes in the park. They hit him and chased him off, but it never occurred to them to involve the police.
When the brave woman's son told her what D. had done to him, she was "shattered, shocked and totally devastated." She decided to take her son to file a complaint with the police. To her astonishment, the court placed D. under house arrest in his parents' apartment, which is close to her home. Nevertheless, she decided not to give in. For some parents and children the story evoked harsh memories they had tried to forget. Because of the brave woman's initiative, other complaints were submitted against D., and eventually he was rearrested and indicted on four counts so far.
Even though it was thanks to her that the conspiracy of silence was broken, the brave woman is also regretful today. She, too, knew about D. and what he was doing years ago. When her son was 10, she heard that D. was pestering him, that he had made the boy take off his clothes and sit in his lap. Deeply agitated, the brave woman went to D.'s father and told him what his son had done. The two of them then went to the park and found D. The father hit him and D. promised never to do it again. D.'s father, who was questioned by the police, confirmed this episode.
"In my opinion," the brave woman says, "D.'s parents knew what he was doing all along and didn't even try to stop him. I definitely blame them and I am also afraid. I have gone through a lot in life and I am not a healthy woman. Since my son told me three weeks ago about D., I feel I'm falling apart. My husband and I and the boy just sat down and cried and cried and then we said to our son, `Now we are going to do something very hard, something that you need to be very brave for. We are going to go to the police and we will see to it that D. gets the punishment he deserves. It might be hard for you and people might talk, but you have nothing to be ashamed of, you are the good one and he is the monster, and you have to be proud that we are going to fight the monster.'
"That's what we said to the boy, but I have a huge family and I don't want them to know anything about what happened to him, because I am simply afraid of what they will do. I am afraid they will try to get revenge on D.'s family. But I am just falling apart. I also have a boy of three and a half. I bought him a plastic pistol, and what was the first thing he said? He said, `Do you know the first person I am going to shoot? The first person is D.'"
The denying woman
Many people knew what was going on but preferred to ignore the warning signs. Another woman who lives in the neighborhood, whom I will call "the denying woman," only worked up the courage to lodge a complaint to the police in the wake of the brave woman's actions. She first heard about what D. was doing from her daughter five years ago, when the girl was 10. She told her mother that D. was sexually abusing her and was putting out lit cigarettes on her hands. For reasons that are almost beyond comprehension, she decided to ignore it, condemning her daughter to more years of abuse.
"`Don't you have anything else to tell me? What nonsense you are talking' - that's what I said to her," the denying mother recalled this week. "I didn't believe it about him. I knew him very well. I know his mother. He is from a perfectly good family in my opinion and he was a nice boy, who I would meet in the park and have a laugh with. It's true I heard once he abused a six-year-old boy, but I met him in the park and asked him if what I was hearing about him was true and he denied it. `Come on, it's not me,' he said, and I believed him. That's why I didn't believe my daughter, either. You know, he was a boy who lacked for nothing at home, so why in the world would he want her at all? What could he possibly want from her? She wasn't one of those bombshell girls with bottoms like a bagel, she was as straight as a board, and I thought to myself, who could get turned on by something like that and why in the world would he start up with her in the first place?"
It was only when the brave mother told her about what D. had done to her son that the denying mother understood her daughter had in fact been sexually abused. "Suddenly there was this click. Suddenly I understood that the girl hadn't lied. On the spot, I called the police."
She wasn't the only one who didn't understand what was going on. None of the teachers in the various schools from which her daughter was expelled due to behavior problems (she was termed "hyperactive") tried to discover the source of the trembling she suffered from. None of them asked about the burns that regularly adorned her arms. Even her mother reacts with a blank smile when she is asked why she didn't bother to check about the burns, and then adds, "You know how kids are, and my daughter was getting hurt all the time. The school was the one that noticed that there was something wrong with the girl. Today I also see that her deterioration - and it was a very extreme and sudden deterioration - began right after she told me that D. abused her.
"Suddenly she started with the shaking, she stopped eating and she slept badly and had all kinds of symptoms. At school they said she had problems, and another girl once told me that my daughter has problems, but it sounded like nonsense then. There was no way that I connected it with what she told me about D., which I had forgotten about, because it sounded like nonsense. I guess I didn't want to believe what I didn't want to believe. I thought it was all from hyperactivity, so I gave her more Ritalin and I went to see psychiatrists. One psychiatrist even said the girl should be removed from her home, but what mother would agree to that? Luckily, another psychiatrist said, `No, that's just the way the girl was born and you have to give her more medicine.' So I gave her more medicine and I thought everything would work out in the end."
The family's economic problems are plain to see. "You can see the way the house looks," the denying mother says. "That's why I was always happy that the children like to play in the park. Even now I am not afraid of anything. Smaller children than mine are playing downstairs and I know nothing will happen to them because they are in a group. You only get scared when they are alone, and that was the trouble with the girl; she was always alone, because from an early age she was an outcast. Probably because of that, it was easier for D. to get to her."
She is convinced the relations with her daughter will be much improved from now on. "She hardly leaves my side now, she loves me terribly," the mother says. At these words, the daughter, a beautiful, very thin girl, who has been sitting with her mother for the duration of the interview, gets up and stalks out of the room. But that doesn't deter the mother. "The event brought us very close," she says, adding that her daughter's social situation is also much better now. "She was always an outcast, but now, after she went to the police, the children are calling her from downstairs for the first time in her life to come and play."
Abruptly, the conversation takes another surprising twist. The mother says she hopes the episode will be a springboard for fame and glory for her daughter. "My daughter wants to be a model. The truth is, I agreed to the interview and I would like the girl to be photographed, because maybe that way some photographer will discover her and make her a model. You know, she's really gorgeous now. I'll call her in right away and you have to see what beautiful hands she has. She was just born to be a model."
The girl comes back into the room. "Can you arrange a `big sister' for me?" she asks. "That's what I'd like. And also to get revenge on D. to the death. I have already learned how to fight and how to resist."
Asked how she felt when her mother didn't believe her story, the girl replies, "Hurt and angry and that there was no one I could trust. My conclusion is that, if something like that happens, you must absolutely not tell anyone before you tell the police. First tell the police and only then tell your parents, because you can't trust your parents. Whenever something happens now, the first thing I do is pick up the phone to Nir [Superintendent Nir Sinai, head of the juvenile department in the relevant police district]. For example, I told her that a few days after we complained to the police, D.'s mother grabbed me on the street and said she would kill me."
This comes as a complete surprise to the mother. "You never told me that," she says, "you only said she made signs as though to slaughter you."
"I told you and I told Nir," the girl says, "but you never understand anything."
Even after hearing this, the mother insists that D.'s mother is "just fine. Why should I be angry with her? Is it her fault that her son is like that? If my daughter was a thief, would it be my fault? Each to themselves. I blame D.'s parents a little - not, heaven forbid, for his behavior and for what he did to my daughter - but because they had a problem and they didn't do anything about it. I think if they saw that their boy had a problem, they should have done everything to get him help, the way I helped my daughter. I didn't have money for food, but I took her to psychiatrists and I got her private lessons. That is what being parents means. I took responsibility. Parents have to listen to their child's problems and treat them. That is what D.'s parents should have done and what I did."
"How do you explain the fact that you didn't want to hear anything about my problems and about what D. was doing to me?" the daughter asks, to which the mother replies coolly, "Maybe I was also wrong. But then you weren't such a bombshell and the whole thing didn't sound logical. I know I did wrong and my husband is also very angry with me. All the time he asks me, `Why didn't you say anything? Why didn't you tell me what she said?'"
The daughter says she felt a little better after lodging the complaint. "It was a relief that people believed me and that they are going to put D. in jail and that I won't have to be afraid anymore. But I am also a little ashamed, because the children here are making fun of me a little and also of the other children that D. raped, and also of the others that didn't complain to the police but everyone knows who they are."
The frightened woman
The rumor that D. had been arrested after complaints against him were filed with the police had the effect of buttressing the courage of another boy whom D. abused. A volunteer who works with teenagers in the neighborhood heard, like many of the residents, that the boy had been victimized by D. He persuaded the boy to tell his teacher what had happened. He did so and the teacher reported the event to the principal, who called the boy's mother and told her her son had been raped.
The volunteer and the brave woman picked the boy up after school and went with him to the police to lodge a complaint. However, the boy's mother was furious when she heard her son had been to the police. "D. didn't pester him much and there is no reason to make a big deal out of it. My boy doesn't need any help or any treatment. He is perfectly fine and nothing happened."
What do you mean, nothing happened? He was raped, wasn't he?
"Yes, but D. didn't rape him too many times, and in the meantime we don't live in the neighborhood anymore. Before that, D.'s parents lived across from us. They are actually very nice people."
Did they call you to ask you to forgive them?
"No. Why should they ask me to forgive them? Besides, now, thank God, we moved to another neighborhood. The principal told me the boy should get help, but he's wrong, everything is all right, the boy is fine and I want to know as little as possible about these things, and that is what I told him, too. The less you talk, the better, I said. My husband doesn't want people to know anything about it, either."
The social worker
Varda Horesh, a social worker by training and the coordinator of the child and family division in the eastern section of the Social Services Administration in the Tel Aviv Municipality, is convinced there are more sex offenders in the neighborhood. "I counted five pedophiles in the neighborhood in the past four years," she says. "That is because there are also pedophiles who have been released from prison and have returned to the area," she explains.
Who, for example?
"Here's a challenge for you: Ask the Prisons Service which pedophiles from that neighborhood are out of jail and are living there again. Let's see if you get an answer."
The Prisons Service spokesman did not return a call about the subject.
Horesh also says she is convinced the number of pedophiles in this particular neighborhood is no greater than in any other neighborhood. "In better-off neighborhoods, the subject is kept better hidden," she says. "There is actually greater exposure of the subject in poorer sections." Still, she concedes, "The socio-economic situation in a neighborhood has a certain influence. Situations of economic distress and a high concentration of poor, single-parent families constitute a hothouse for the growth of social pathologies and perhaps also explain the particular type of indifference that exists in the neighborhood."
She notes that "The large number of children who fell victim to sexual assault and abuse had far less an effect on the frame of mind in the neighborhood than we hoped would be the case. After the acts of Oren Danan were reported, we expected people in the neighborhood to snap out of their complacency and start to be aware of what is going on, of what is happening to their children. We even conducted a survey in the neighborhood to examine whether the Oren Danan affair was generating a furor and we were very concerned when we discovered that people were reacting indifferently. In subjects like this, the mechanisms of denial and concealment work at full steam and it is not characteristic only of people of a certain type. The same mechanisms operate to a degree even on professional people, even on me."
So shouldn't you approach the children and offer help?
"When we have information, we do that. But in the current state of affairs, in which a social worker has at least 140 files and sometimes 300, it is very difficult for us to make house calls other than for specific purposes. Even then, if we find out that there is a child in the house who has behavioral or psychological problems, we don't necessarily conclude immediately that he has experienced sexual abuse. Behavioral problems can be due to the relations between the parents, to social pressures, or to economic distress. In the existing state of affairs, if we do not have prior information, there is no way we can initiate an attempt to locate children who have undergone sexual abuse. Of course, when we learn from the child or the family or the police about such a case, we offer all possible help."
Horesh completely rules out the theory that is now making the rounds in the neighborhood, that the pedophiles influenced one another and that pedophilia was a kind of "fashion" in the neighborhood. "Pedophilia is not like youth suicide, when publicity is liable to turn it into a mode. Pedophilia is a very deep personality disorder and very difficult to treat. It is unreasonable to think someone will become a pedophile because he has been influenced by another pedophile, unless he himself has the personality background that fits the case."
Nor does Horesh believe that people in the neighborhood knew that children were readily available victims of pedophiles but preferred to turn a blind eye. "What is more reasonable is that each of them kept the secret to himself and told no one else. The children didn't tell the parents and the parents didn't tell the police or other parents. The result was a circle of silence, and that is exactly what makes it possible for the pedophile to act."
Horesh adds that she knows from the juvenile probation authorities that the three pedophiles were physically abusing children since their youth. All three went through the probation service but refused to receive treatment. "Unfortunately," she notes, "there is a law in this country stating that you cannot force treatment on sex offenders and rapists - which I believe is an outrageous state of affairs."
Does this neighborhood have any special traits that might account for the fact that it produced so many pedophiles? Ettie Boukai, head of the juvenile probation service in the Tel Aviv District, believes the concentration of pedophiles in a particular neighborhood is a chance event and that the same story could play itself out in a great many other places, too.
Miriam Faber, head of youth welfare services in Tel Aviv, says that mutual influence is possible among three pedophiles who grew up in the same neighborhood and are friends. "It's possible they boasted to one another and thus encouraged each other. That is something for the police to check."
In the past year, Faber has received about 3,000 reports of cases involving sexual attacks on children. "Let us assume that some of the reports are incorrect and let's say that only a thousand of the children were victims," she says. "We have to take into account that a great many of the victims are themselves liable to become sex offenders. It is very important to identify sex offenders early, and certainly also their victims. The trouble is that there are very few experts on the subject in Israel. Nevertheless, we are working with those experts to try to create a program for training social workers and therapists who will specialize in the area of sex crimes. So far, 60 people have taken the course, and 30 more will soon take it. I admit this is a far smaller number than what is needed, but it is all we can do."
This description irks Dr. Viki Levy, a psychiatrist who is an expert on sex crimes. "The fact that I and my colleague, Dr. Ruth Fliesshauer, are perhaps the only two experts in the country in the area of sex crimes should have set off every possible alarm bell," she says. "You were told that there aren't enough experts in Israel? Well, I happen to know a great many experts in this field in Western countries and in the United States, and I invited many of them to Israel to teach; the problem is that no one is actually interested in what they have to say. People in this country simply refuse to learn. It is inconceivable to find ignorance of this kind on such an important subject in any other Western country. So I don't think the point should be to blame the neighborhood, and the question is not whether the three men in question were friends and knew about each other's deeds. No, that is just something that the police have to look into.
"The point is that people understand nothing in this field, and I am talking about educated and respected people, such as judges and juvenile probation officers and the State Prosecutor's Office and teachers. But even though they have no understanding of the subject, they insist they know what they're doing and refuse to learn."
According to Levy, not only are the sentences meted out to pedophiles almost always too short ("It's impossible to even start treating a sex offender in a period of less than three years"), there is also no program to ease their way back into society after release and no proper supervision. "A pedophile must not be released unless there is a way to keep tabs on him," she says. "D. will now face trial for crimes he committed up to two years ago, but you can be sure that in the past two years he did not stop committing the same acts. That is the nature of sex offenses, as anyone can easily find out. But here, the judges aren't even willing to go into the Internet and find out what is considered basic knowledge in every Western country.
"For example, before an offender like this is released, I would want him to undergo a rehabilitation program and to wear electronic handcuffs so the police will be able to know when he wants to go to the park again. All kinds of prohibitions should be imposed on him. He should have to undergo polygraph [lie detector] tests regularly. Someone also has to make sure he doesn't turn up as a guard in some school or in a kindergarten."
Levy rejects the thesis that there is a connection between area of residence or socio-economic status and sex offenses. "Sex offenses cut across all classes and all population groups. It is possible that poor neighborhoods are more convenient for sex offenders to live in, because odd people are more easily integrated there." (Possibly this explains the frightening concentration of pedophiles in the neighborhood.) The education system in the neighborhood should have spotted the children's distress, Levy says, and parents who don't believe their children or don't allow them to complain to the police should be taken in for questioning on suspicion of abuse. "It is abuse and criminal negligence in regard to the most basic obligation of parents as parents. Unfortunately, however, this is a kind of neglect that is also not necessarily typical of low socio-economic population groups."
Ignorance of the subject prepares the ground for the growth of baseless myths, which are prevalent among people who deal with sex offenses without the proper training. "The myths that have to be shattered once and for all are that sex offenses are related to heightened sexual impulse. That is totally without foundation. We all have sexual urges but we all learn to control them, just as we learn to control our other bodily functions. What sex offenders need is someone to teach them that they have to learn to control their sexual urges.
"Another dangerous myth is the contention that everyone who has been the victim of sexual abuse will become a sex offender," Levy continues. "The majority of the victims will not become sex offenders. What is true is that most sex offenders have a background of being sexual victims. Another myth is that any treatment is better than no treatment: that is utter nonsense. There are a great many people who did not receive the proper training to treat sex offenders, but they take sex offenders for treatment and we are all at ease, including the offenders. They think they have got over the problem, and then, after having been supposedly treated, they go free and attack again. Take the case of Oren Danan: He said he thought he was better because he received treatment.
"Another myth is that this is a psychiatric problem that can be dealt with by means of medicines. We don't even have a psychiatric profile of sex offenders, so it is impossible to treat the problem solely with medicines. Chemical castration, which some genius always starts talking about in these cases, is no more than a tiny fraction of what should be a complete system of treatment. It will do no good at all without comprehensive treatment. Comprehensive treatment is very complex and protracted, and it has to teach the offender to revise his personal fantasies, and that takes time.
"These guys don't need chemical castration. They need someone to force them to stop doing what they are doing and lock them away for a long enough time so that it will be possible to treat them, and then when they are released, we have to see that they are monitored so it will not be possible for them to go back to doing the same things. But for all that to happen, we need judges and prosecutors and probation officers who will be willing to learn."