Sarah and Yishai, my children! Today I am a mother without my children. It was very hard for me to come to Israel but you gave me the strength to come. When I heard what Avi did to our children, our children like all of your children, I buried myself in a hole so deep, so dark and so heavy that I too thought I would die. But I am here, Yishai and Sarah, I am here.
When Karen spoke, no one in the Knesset committee room could hold back tears. Trembling but determined, she continued to explain why she had come back to Israel: “What can I do? Who am I? Who I am now? A mother without children, without children by her side. Why am I here (in the Knesset) today? In order to tell Yishai and Sarah’s story, so we don’t forget them and in order to do everything possible to safeguard other women and children, so that this won’t happen to them.”
This is an excerpt from the emotional speech Karen Levy gave at the Knesset yesterday for the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women and Gender Equality debate on the use of children as a demonstration of violence against women. The meeting was initiated by The Rackman Center at Bar Ilan University and Isha L’Isha in collaboration with MK Aliza Lavie and MK Zehava Galon. Watch Karen’s emotional speech live (in Hebrew) here.
Karen had moved with her children to America from Israel in order to seek refuge from her violent ex-husband. She was represented by the Rackman Center in the relocation procedure which enabled her to move with her children to the United States. In June this year, as part of the custodial agreement, Sarah, 10, and Yishai, 11, went to Israel to spend time with their father. They never returned; he brutally murdered them as an act of revenge against his ex-wife.
The meeting on Monday was set to coincide with International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. One of the aims of the day is to raise awareness of the fact that women all over the world are still subject in alarming numbers to rape, domestic violence and other forms of violence. Often, the scale and true nature of the abuse is unseen.
At the meeting, Committee Chair Aliza Lavie MK said, “We must put an end to the murder of children. Often the violence is directed only towards the woman so the authorities do not recognize the danger to the children. In the last decade, 42 children were killed by relatives and any system that was supposed to protect them failed to prevent it. In 67% of the cases, the father is the murderer.”
MK Lavie asked the Subcommittee of Ministers on the Elimination of Violence to prepare an action plan and present preliminary findings to the Committee within a month. “We have no time for bureaucracy. We must work together and look at the issues that have not been addressed. Sacrificing children for revenge is an unimaginable, monstrous crime, and more must be done to prevent it from happening”.
As Chair of the Rackman Center, the point that I personally stressed at the Knesset meeting was that Karen Levy’s case is not isolated, and her tragedy is not without context. We do not wish to engage in a post mortem analysis of Karen’s personal tragedy. What we wish to do, and what Karen wishes to do, is to put her case in the wider, terrible context, of violence against women, and call for overcoming the constraints that prevent recognizing the link between violence against women and violence against children.
The responsibility often rests upon legal and welfare authorities, who – regrettably – sometimes shut their eyes and are unaware of the warning signs. Sometimes this unawareness is not intentional, but rather the result of a chronic lack of resources or training.
But sometimes closing the eyes is in fact running away from confronting reality and reflects the fear of what might be taken as stigmatization of all fathers, as if they are all suspect by definition.
But this is exactly where the manipulation is. No-one engages in stigmatization of all fathers! The red light should be lit on wife-beaters. There must be recognition that when Dad hits Mom, the children are in danger not just because of the collateral damage caused to them from being exposed to violence, but on account of that violence endangering their very existence!
Nevertheless, there are those who would have us believe that concern for the welfare of the child when the violence is directed “only” at the mother, is in fact violation of the father’s rights. And unfortunately, some of the welfare and legal authorities buy into this manipulation.
So what should be done?
The first thing needed is access to information and knowledge. Nowhere is there a compilation of cases of this kind which were discussed at the Knesset hearing. The data presented yesterday does not analyse the patterns of the murders, and does not isolate cases in which the murder took place within the framework of conflict of separation or divorce.
There is alarming data from the USA: in six years, from 2008 to 2014, 355 children were killed by their fathers. Of these, the murder of 89 of these 355 children was a direct result of clear failures in the legal and welfare systems who did not protect the children despite warnings by the mothers. The murder of 72 of these children was directly due to divorce or separation, as part of revenge by the father and 92 of these children were killed during the divorce and separation process. (source:Center for Judicial Excellence)
Judicial decision-makers and welfare evaluators must be made aware of this data. They must have knowledge of the direct link between violence against women – as mothers – and violence against children.
More concretely, the existence of violence against a mother must be part of the welfare assessment, as an indication of a child-at-risk, and should not be left to the discretion of the welfare worker.
In light of all this, it is shocking to see that the proposed reform of the Guardianship Law (known as the Shnit Proposal) does not even mention violence as part of the factors that should be considered when the Court is to decide on child custody and parental responsibility!
We at the Rackman Center have been there for Karen both professionally and as a true friend. We helped her bury her children near her new home in America and we will help her now. Karen is a remarkable woman. She does not want her children to be forgotten and refuses to sit and watch this happen again to someone else and nor shall we. As she said in Knesset yesterday, “People think that when there is a court decision, it’s the end of violence. They need to know that there is no end to it.”
“We are in need of change. We need to know how to do this together. To strengthen and establish projects like the ‘SHELI’ hotline (the Rackman Center’s hotline, named after Sarah and Yishai, using the acronyms of their names). To fill the hole that my children fell into and the lack of support that I had (in the United States).”
At the Rackman Center, we will do our best to commemorate her precious children by establishing Karen’s project in their memory to legally and socially help other women and children at risk from violence.