‘The only answer is education and work’
Teresa, a Filipina about 30 years of age, is a single mother of two − a 6-year-old son and a daughter aged 2 who suffers from a rare heart defect. Teresa herself suffers from a thyroid disorder, but is not careful about taking her medications regularly. As a result she was unable to function properly and stopped working. Now she spends her days wandering with her son from one apartment to another of her Filipina friends, in Tel Aviv’s hardscrabble Hatikva neighborhood. Sometimes she sleeps in the street with her son, Angelo. She often shows up at Ichilov Hospital and asks to be hospitalized.
Angelo waits for her in an after-school center that is open until 6 P.M. “He never knows who will come to pick him up and when,” says Orna, a welfare officer, “and he’s worried and fearful.” Teresa’s daughter underwent a complicated operation. She has to be under supervision, and has been handed over to a volunteer from the Hibuk Rishon (First Hug) association, who will serve as a foster parent for her. Now it has been decided that Angelo will also be handed over to a foster family.
“Teresa told me, if you take him away from me he’ll never come back to me,” says Orna. “I told her: Take the pills, start working, you’ll get your children back. We can’t allow the child to roam the streets. They’ll take him for a year to a foster family, you’ll see him twice a week, he’ll come to you every Shabbat. Now they called me from his school that she’s sitting outside and crying.”
That’s one case, one file, out of about 2,000 files being handled by the Ahva bureau in Hatikva, which also works with residents of the Ezra and Ha’argazim neighborhoods. Each year 500 new files are opened.
“This population has the lowest socioeconomic index in Tel Aviv, with the exception of Ajami [in Jaffa],” explains Avital Gabbai, a tall and smiling social worker in her 40s, one of two staff people heading the office, who accompanied me on my visit.
“There’s negative migration from the neighborhood,” she explains, “and anyone whose situation improves and is able to leave, does so. In the past four to five years, there has been an influx of many foreign workers, refugees from Darfur and Palestinian collaborators, including Bedouin and residents of Jisr al-Zarqa [near Hadera]. People who came to the big city to find work, who have no family connections. This is a complex population with many problems.”
The handling of foreign workers and their families is informal, since they do not fall under the purview of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The juvenile court can decide, in extreme cases of severe violence, sexual assault or neglect of a minor, to remove a child from his parents’ custody and transfer him to a foster family.
Aside from the welfare officials working in coordination with the Juvenile Court, there are about 30 social workers at Ahva − all but two of them women. They are responsible for receiving those who come in for the first time and open files, and for handling the elderly and families. There are also community workers, plus paraprofessionals who have taken a short training course offered by the Social Affairs Ministry, who help the social workers.
“They make home visits, check whether the family has bought the refrigerator, whether the child returned to boarding school. They report to us and in that way we can follow up and make progress with the case,” explains Gabbai.
The main agent for planning how to handle a family in need is Ahva’s “decisions committee, which is necessary when the case is not progressing, when it’s stuck, and there’s a need for joint thinking about how to handle the children,” she continues.
“We try to involve as many professionals as possible on the committee, in addition to the social worker who is handling the case. If there are infants involved, there will be a representative of Tipat Halav [the well-baby clinic]. For young children − the director of the day care center and an adviser for toddlers at risk. For children of school age − the guidance counselor and the director of the after-school center. The decisions are made democratically, and the division of roles is done according to areas of responsibility.
Every six months the committee meets to follow up on the decisions that were made about the family and the minor.” Each day, there are about two decision committee meetings at the bureau.
On the day I visited, there was a committee meeting headed by Varda Horesh, director of the Ahva bureau, who has been working in the profession since 1982, to discuss the future of Naomi (not her real name), a girl of 13. Naomi’s older sister attends a closed boarding school, intended for young women who have become involved with drugs, criminal behavior, or who have been exploited for work in prostitution. Naomi is regularly absent from school. In fact, since the beginning of the year she has attended school only a few times, and even then she didn’t enter the classroom. She tells her parents she was in school, and nobody knows where she hangs out.
Naomi’s mother agreed to have her removed from home to a boarding school, but the girl is vehemently opposed. There are three younger children in the family. The two youngest are of kindergarten age, but the mother insists on keeping them at home.
Although the committee meetings are closed, the parents agree to my presence during part of the discussion, which takes place without Naomi. She is sitting outside supervising her younger siblings.
Her parents, who are in their 30s, look like children themselves. They don’t work and find it difficult to impose their authority. The child is witness to incidents of violence between them. The mother is very afraid that Naomi will follow in her sister’s footsteps. Hagit, the young social worker in charge of the case, speaks to her empathetically and without condescension. The school guidance counselor testifies to Naomi’s absence from school, and the director of the after-school center Ahva has established with the local Youth Advancement junior high program testifies to her absence from its activities as well. The committee decides they have to try to convince Naomi to agree to attend the boarding school.
I hear afterward from Varda Horesh about the rest of the discussion, which took place in Naomi’s presence and in a more intimate forum: “When everyone left and the child came in, the parents began shouting at one another, cursing one another, an argument with no connection whatsoever to the child, who sat there crying bitterly. She is intelligent and doesn’t want to be in distress. I asked her how she could continue living in such a home. The moment we said, ‘You’re going to the boarding school’ − she suddenly calmed down and smiled. We expected her to be furious, but she apparently is looking for boundaries.
“Children at risk are our main job,” continues Horesh. “We’re handling over 600 files. In principle, there is a decision to remove a child from home only after all the options in the community have been exhausted. Naomi’s mother was herself transferred from her home to a boarding school in her youth. We have stories here of a second and third generation of neglect and abuse. When the children become adolescents, the parents lose their authority and often resort to violence.
“Recently we started a group for abusive parents − 14 pairs of parents and children with psychologists from the neighborhood. By means of joint activity we try to create a positive experience for them. It turns out that 80 percent of the children have special needs, serious attention and concentration deficits, and the family is in a terrible pressure cooker. They talked, and we sat and cried with them.”
Ahva’s main problem is a lack of manpower, job slots and budget. “Every employee has an average of 250 cases,” says Horesh, sighing. “According to the Social Welfare Service Law, we have to accept anyone in need of our services. There is no regulation limiting the number of cases. The problems are becoming increasingly complex and there’s no manpower. The municipality pays more than the 25 percent that it is required to pay, and there is a constant war between the municipality and the Welfare Ministry as to who will pay, and we’re in the middle. And they keep adding more and more areas of responsibility, because there’s new legislation that imposes more and more tasks on us. The neighborhood attracts tough populations. The foreign workers come with different norms, they don’t understand that hitting children is forbidden. In the context of the Juvenile Law, I handle only the most difficult cases of violence against children, and there are many of them. It’s no wonder our workers are collapsing.”
Horesh adds: “At the same time, there are many nice things in the neighborhood. There’s a strong community of neighborhood activists. We work together with the community center and the local Youth Advancement program. We’ve learned that we can’t bear the burden alone. There’s someone here who is in charge of community resources, who’s connected to the nonprofit organizations and to recruiting volunteers.
“On the holidays the packages and donations arrive. They don’t excite us. I don’t believe that if a person has more matzos and oil and chocolate on Passover that’s what will change his life.
The only thing that extricates people from poverty is education and work. I say, give me the money and I’ll make sure that these people understand how important education is. And I’ll try to take care of work plans. Let them be taught how to present themselves, to write a resume, to work on their self-image.
“I’d like every worker to have 40 cases, not 250,” Horesh stresses. “I want her to accompany and to do traditional social work. Today we work more and more at putting out fires. It’s a war that we’re still not winning. You see the employees’ salaries and you cry together with them. You have to remember that aside from the routine work, they’re all part of the emergency service, too. If there’s a terror attack or a traffic accident, the families have to be informed. Sometimes we go in the middle of the night to the hospital, to Abu Kabir [forensic institute]. We are with people at the most difficult crossroads in their lives. You return home afterward, and it doesn’t leave you.”
The social workers talk about their way of dealing with the emotional difficulty. Some acknowledge that their ability to feel dulls with time, as a defense mechanism. Others speak of the need for humor. Avital Gabbai encourages them to take vacations.
“They don’t work for NIS 4,000,” she says passionately. “They’re here because it’s work with people. This giving empowers us. Otherwise it’s impossible to stay here. They’re as happy as children with every permit that they manage to get for the client from the National Insurance Institute. Sometimes at night I still think about whether I made the right decision, whether I could have helped one more child. It’s responsibility like that of a doctor. Matters of life and death.”
At day’s end, we arrive for a home visit to Jana (not her real name), 33 years old, a single mother of three children, one of whom has problems of attention and concentration, and another of whom is deaf. They live together in a small studio apartment with a kitchenette. There are three beds in the room, and the mother sleeps on a mattress. She proudly tells how she got away from her violent husband, and about taking her fate into her own hands. She was helped by welfare bureau workers with whatever they could give her, and now she is waiting for a permit from Amidar for government housing.
“It’s more important to me to send my children to after-school activities than to live in a larger apartment,” she says, opening the only closet in the room. One shelf is devoted entirely to the trophies won by her eldest son in wrestling matches.
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