Protecting Those Most Vulnerable in a Time of Crisis
While advocates from Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center continue to represent women being denied a divorce, during the coronavirus crisis, the center’s social workers are working harder than ever to provide agunot with an emotional lifeline and access to critical resources during a very frightening time.
According to Israel’s N12 news, there has been a 5% increase in reports of domestic abuse since the outbreak of the coronavirus – a statistic that is, sadly, expected to rise as social distancing coupled with financial stress creates a hotbed for physical, verbal and emotional violence. At the same time, the Maariv daily reported that a full 60% of state social workers in the field of domestic abuse are not currently working.
For so many women who are being denied a divorce by recalcitrant, abusive husbands, this situation is both petrifying and dangerous – which is why the three in-house social workers staffing Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot have found themselves working harder than ever before.
“Women facing physical harm at the hands of abusive husbands are in even more danger now, as people are required to stay in their homes,” reports Yad La’isha director Pnina Omer, who says that the center is monitoring their clients’ situation very carefully. “A few days ago, we received a 5 a.m. call from a woman asking for help. We immediately contacted the local police, who rescued her, and are in constant contact to ensure the family’s continued safety.”
Round-the-Clock Emotional Support and Counseling
Even agunot who are not facing immediate physical danger are under more stress as the turbulence caused by the coronavirus exacerbates their already untenable situation, points out Michal Or, Yad La’isha’s social worker serving northern Israel. “Children who need intensive emotional support in the best of times are struggling even more when left without a daily routine or contact with their friends. Women who barely make ends meet are facing more serious financial distress now; some are already losing their jobs or being forced to take unpaid vacation, their husbands are refusing to pay child support, and their kids are no longer receiving subsidized hot meals in school.”
Through it all, Yad La’isha’s team of social workers is providing ongoing emotional counseling support by phone and video conference to the women who rely on their services.
“I am working more hours today than I was a few weeks ago,” states Or. “My clients are more anxious now with all of the current uncertainty. One woman I work with is a cancer patient with compromised immunity who is terrified of getting sick with coronavirus. Another is in a very difficult financial situation. I am making myself available whenever they need me so that I can continue to provide the emotional support they crave and help them find internal strength to also be there for their children.”
Tirza Karniel, Yad La’isha’s Jerusalem-area social worker, echoes Or’s words. “My clients have even more complicated needs now. I’m in touch with them constantly. For example, I just got off the phone with S,” she reveals. “The mother of five children, one of whom has special needs, S is terrified that in the current economic climate her husband – who refuses to divorce her – will soon be unable to pay child support, something that he’s at least been doing until now. While she works as a supermarket cashier, she’s worried that the babysitters she hires to care for her children will soon be unwilling or forbidden from being able to come. If that happens, she’ll have to quit her job, which is a terrifying prospect causing her a great deal of anxiety,” Karniel says. “For every client like S, there are tens more. Our job – our mission – is to provide them with an emotional lifeline and access to critical resources during a very frightening time.”
As many government offices have temporarily closed and the rabbinical courts are operating in a limited capacity, Yad La’isha’s legal advocacy efforts have adapted. The center’s attorneys are working with the rabbinical courts to ensure that the most pressing cases are addressed, pushing for restraining orders or rulings allowing for shaming. Hearings have been held via video conference with imprisoned husbands, and the center’s indefatigable advocates have continued to travel the country to represent their clients at hearings that do take place.
Interestingly, the current crisis has also created unprecedented opportunities. One husband who had fled the country in order to resist granting a divorce returned to Israel in light of the pandemic. Thanks to Yad La’isha’s close cooperation with Border Police, he was immediately caught and the center’s advocates won a stay-of-exit order, preventing him from leaving the country again. Yad La’isha expects other husbands who have fled Israel to return as well, says Omer. “Our staff remains in constant contact with the authorities to monitor their movements, prevent their future attempts to escape the legal system, and do everything possible to force them to finally grant their wives a divorce.”