Social injustice

After nearly three months of sanctions, the gov't is still not really listening to the social workers.

social worker protest 88 (photo credit: )
social worker protest 88
(photo credit: )
It's not easy to locate the social services office in Abu Ghosh. Make a left turn off the town's main thoroughfare - known for its myriad of restaurants serving the country's best humous and felafel - follow a narrow, winding road until you reach a non-distinctive cluster of buildings, which houses the town hall. The social welfare department is across the street from the mayors' office in an unmarked building fronted with a thick steel door. An intercom and a closed-circuit TV camera greet visitors, who must be buzzed in by the secretary or worker on call. "We have no security guard here. There is no budget for it," explains Mohanad Jabber, head of the social welfare department, who recently made headlines and became the catalyst for the social workers' latest action when a crazed client attacked him at work. "It was the same day that Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog came to visit [in late May]," begins Jabber, who grew up in the village and has been a social worker here for some 15 years. "A client, whom we know pretty well, was waiting for me at the office door. He has threatened me before because he is in the midst of divorce proceedings with his wife and is fighting for custody of his children." Jabber goes on to describe how the man followed him into the office spewing threats and proceeded to turn over tables and smash his computer. "I just locked up the office and went home," remembers Jabber, adding that the police arrested the man but that he was later let off with just a caution. While the troublemaker has not returned to the office, Jabber says that both he and his staff are still very scared. "We are not motivated anymore," he explains. "The nature of our work is to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations in an attempt to sort them out, but if our lives are threatened and we are attacked then we will obviously be less inclined to want to help. I really believe that if we had a security guard here then people would think twice about being violent toward us." The incident gained widespread media attention and galvanized social workers elsewhere to organize a one-day all-out strike in sympathy with Jabber. A few weeks later, the Social Workers Union - angry over the lack of manpower and resources, which is often the reason their clients become angry, frustrated and even violent - called for its 7,000 members to begin limited sanctions. Last week, after more than two months of action, the union launched into a full-scale strike, refusing to meet with the public, hold custody hearings or distribute essential equipment to the elderly, until the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services and the Treasury reach an agreement on a budget for more social workers and generally improve resources, including providing security. DESPITE ITS lengthy protest and arguably limited press coverage, union head Yitzhak Perry insists the battle is yielding results. "We are definitely in a better position now than we were when we started this action," he says. "Last Thursday we met with the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services director-general [Nahum Itzkovitz] and we feel optimistic that a solution will be reached fairly soon." The union estimates that most social workers are currently responsible for 200-400 case files, with a recent report compiled by the Knesset Committee on Labor, Welfare and Health noting that 480,464 families are currently treated at 251 social welfare departments countrywide. The report, which was published in May, also pointed out that over the "past two years, the number of violent incidents against social workers - including physical attacks, verbal abuse and threats - has dramatically increased." Last year alone, 142 reports of violence were filed by social workers. In its conclusion, the report noted that in more than 130 local authorities social workers were in short supply, and it recommended that 1,000 new social worker positions be created, with 75 percent of the funding to come from the ministry and the rest from local authorities. Herzog has repeatedly spoken out in support of increasing the number of social workers; in a previous interview with The Jerusalem Post he said that the shortage of social workers was one of his ministry's main challenges. More recently, he created a committee to draft crucial reforms to the entire social welfare system, including increasing quotas for social workers. In response to the ongoing strike, a spokesman for the ministry says that its representatives have been meeting regularly with the Finance Ministry with the aim of increasing next year's budget to incorporate additional social workers. "We trust the ministry and its assessments," says Perry emphatically. "We support the committee that is working on creating reforms in the social services, however we want to make sure that after the recommendations are made, they don't just get put to one side and forgotten. We want the reforms to work this time." ACCORDING TO the Knesset report on the status of social workers, their plight has remained unchanged since the late 1980s. "This is not a new problem," observed the report. "Things were the same for social workers at the end of the 1980s but nothing was ever done about it." Since that decade, however, the problems have become far more acute, claims Perry. He points to three main factors - demographics, legislation and the changing nature of social workers' techniques - that have exacerbated the situation and brought the country's social welfare system very close to crashing completely. "Tens of thousands of new immigrants have arrived in our country in the last 18 years, we've probably absorbed more people than most other countries," he says, pointing out that the vast majority arrived from places such as the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, flooding social welfare departments in search of state assistance. "There has also been an increase in socially conscious politicians pushing through new laws. While these are very positive and obviously a step in the right direction, they successively failed to stipulate that extra resources, including additional workers, were also needed." Finally, Perry faults the social workers themselves, who because of the nature of their profession are continuously attempting to improve their services by creating new treatment programs for their clients. "They are always looking for better treatments and only end up making more work for themselves," he says. IN ABU GHOSH, it is a mixture of these external influences and changes within the community itself that have contributed to the rush of social welfare cases and resulting violence against social workers, Jabber says. "Many times they [the clients] blame us for their problems," says Jabber, who as well as managing the office, is also a licensed child welfare officer and oversees about 90 permanent case files. "They view us as direct representatives of the government and blame us for what they are going through." Estimating that roughly a third of the community of 7,000 has active case files, he explains that while his wards share many of the same social problems as anywhere else, there are also issues that are unique to the village. "Many of the families here have large numbers of children and we have a very high-level of unemployment because most of the women do not work," he says. "But we also have many genetic problems here because of cousins and close relatives intermarrying, leading to mental and physical disabilities." Raja Abu Katish, a social worker in the village for more than 17 years, adds that there have also been changes in the structure of the close knit community, which, like many other places, is becoming modernized. "Over the last 15 years I think we have moved from community care to a more individualistic society," she states. "People today worry more about their own needs than that of the community as a whole." Jabber says that there has also been a rise in the number of people willing to ask for help from the government service. "People here used to be too proud to ask for help from a government agency. They would not come forward if they were in trouble," he says. "But that has changed now too." While Jabber believes that some change is good, he also notes that many of the old traditions that kept teens off the streets and forced problematic society members to toe the line have also fallen by the wayside. "There are growing problems among the youth, with a rise in vandalism and kids just sitting around here smoking water pipes," he says, adding that many already have police records. "It is very difficult to accept these figures, but with our limited resources it is hard for us to reach everyone. We arrive here every morning full of ideas on how to help people and all we end up doing is putting out fires or dealing with the really extreme cases. The ideal situation would be if we could visit a family for a few hours each week, sit down with them and hear their problems, but we are never able to stay that long." As for the strike that has forced him and his staff to turn their backs for the time being on people who really need their help, Jabber says that "it is very difficult in a place like ours, where everyone knows everyone, to implement sanctions. People still come to me every day begging for help and we have no choice but to do something for them. "It is just very degrading that still, after more than two months of sanctions, the government has taken no real action to help us. It just proves that the weak families of this country have no voice."