As an attorney who represents women who were raped or sexually abused when they were girls, Roni Aloni-Sadovnik has heard many horrifying details from her clients. Each woman has her own story, but the personal accounts of three of her clients — all Ethiopian immigrants seeking assistance in accessing social benefits for trauma victims —were so similar that she began to think there may have been a common denominator among them.
Aloni-Sadovnik believes the link is negligence on the part of governmental authorities, and she’s decided to go public with these women’s stories in light of the new protest movement challenging the treatment of Ethiopian immigrants by the Israeli establishment, government and society in general.
In a May 10 Facebook post titled “Trafficking in Ethiopian Babies?” Aloni-Sadovnik detailed how each of the three women (now in their late 20s) became pregnant by rape when they were girls and were taken out of their homes and put into the custody of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry’s adoption services department. All three girls delivered their babies vaginally and their babies were taken for adoption. At the end of the post, Aloni-Sadovnik raised the question of whether the state is using Ethiopian girls as “forced surrogates” for Israelis waiting to adopt a child.
In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Aloni-Sadovnik backpedaled on insinuations she made in her Facebook post about possible stealing or trafficking of Ethiopian babies. However, she did stand firmly by her claims that government ministries and agencies were negligent in dealing with these girls, and expressed her suspicion that these particular cases were likely just three of what will turn out to be many.
“I am sure we are talking about more than just three girls,” she said. “I am sure this is happening with a lot of groups at risk. It’s not just the Ethiopians, but they are the population most at risk.”
Aloni-Sadovnik recounted that the first of the three women become pregnant at age 10 as a result of having been raped by a neighbor. She was put by court order into the custody of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry’s adoption services department and taken to a shelter for pregnant girls. Aloni-Sadovnik said she had documents indicating that when the girl arrived at the hospital to deliver, she was accompanied by a representative of adoption services, and that she gave birth vaginally at age 11. The baby was given for adoption.
The second woman became an orphan at age five. The Justice Ministry appointed an uncle to be her guardian. According to Aloni-Sadovnik, the uncle was mentally ill, an alcoholic and unemployed. He forced her to be a servant to his family and used her as a sex slave. The girl became pregnant at 14 and was put by authorities into the shelter for pregnant girls. Her baby, which she delivered at 15, went for adoption.
The third case involves a girl who was raped repeatedly by her brother. When she became pregnant at age 15, she was kicked out of school and was living on the streets. Welfare authorities picked her up and kept her in a secret location until she gave birth and the baby was taken for adoption.
Aloni-Sadovnik pointed out that according to Health Ministry guidelines, an abortion is to be performed without delay under specific circumstances, including rape, incest, and when a mother is too young— all of which applied in the cases of her three clients.
She claimed that the authorities were negligent in not referring the girls to the Welfare and Social Services Ministry’s department dealing with youth at risk and promptly arranging for them to have abortions. The fact that these girls, who had become pregnant by rape and incest, were put into custody of adoption services raised a red flag for her.
“These girls’ families were known to social services. Why did they not see that the child was pregnant? Why no abortion?” Aloni-Sadovnik asked.
She brought a suit four years ago against the Justice Ministry on behalf of the second woman on the grounds that it was the Justice Ministry that had placed her with the sexually abusive guardian. According to Aloni-Sadovnik, the State Attorney’s Office prefers not to go to court over the case and had indicated that it is ready to settle as soon as next week.
Aloni-Sadovnik has been looking into the possibility of suing governmental authorities on behalf of the other two women. A statute of limitations applies to the third woman’s case, so Aloni-Sadovnik will be unable to sue on her behalf. She is still hoping to bring suit against the Welfare and Social Services Ministry on behalf of the first woman.
“It’s a clear conflict of interest for adoption services to take custody of a pregnant girl,” she said.
The Welfare and Social Services Ministry responded to inquiries from The Times of Israel about several of Aloni-Sadovnik’s allegations.
In response to the attorney’s assertion that social services had waited too long — until it was too late for an abortion — to help the girls, ministry spokeswoman Roni Malkai said that as a rule, the girls’ pregnancies only become known to welfare authorities at an advanced stage.
“Girls with unwanted pregnancies, especially from dramatic situations of rape, often deny the fact of the pregnancy and only become aware themselves of their being pregnant at advanced stages of the pregnancy. It’s only then that the situation becomes known to welfare authorities,” said Malkai.
In addition, Malkai emphasized that abortions are authorized by medical committees in hospitals, and that the Welfare and Social Services Ministry makes no decisions in these matters.
Unlike Aloni-Sadovnik, whose comments seemed to cast aspersions on the “secret” hostel for pregnant girls, Malkai described it as a safe haven and therapeutic environment for pregnant girls and young women.
She emphasized that not only girls and women who wanted to give up their babies for adoption received shelter and treatment at the Amirim hostel, which closed in 2004.
“It was also for women and girls who feared abuse after revealing their pregnancy, or who were deliberating what to do with their baby. In the final years that Amirim was in operation, only 50 percent of the girls treated there ended up giving their babies up for adoption,” she said.
Malkai also cast doubt on Aloni-Sadovnik’s version of events according to which the babies had been taken from the girls by welfare authorities.
“The giving of a child for adoption is not the decision of the welfare authorities, but rather of the parent, and in some cases of the court,” she said.
Aloni-Sadovnik told The Times of Israel that although she possesses the court order giving custody of one of the three girls to the welfare authorities, she has yet to uncover any document signing off on any of the adoptions.
While Aloni-Sadovnik says she will press forward as best she can on these cases to achieve justice for her clients, she is at the same time keeping her eye on the larger picture as it pertains to the Ethiopian Israeli community and all other sectors of Israeli society in critical need of social services assistance.
“When it comes down to it, my argument is that there simply are not enough social workers in this country,” she said.