When families fail

Youth villages have raised generations of children. Now the system is at risk due to lack of funds.

youth village 298.88 cou (photo credit: Courtesy)
youth village 298.88 cou
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dressed in dark blue jeans and a black short-sleeved shirt, a green kippa atop his blond hair, 19-year-old Eliav poses for a picture with an older American couple inside his bedroom at Ben Yakir Youth Village in Kfar Haroeh. While onlookers smile at the seemingly artificial pose, this snapshot is anything but insignificant, for it is because of this couple who recently donated a building complex for graduates of the youth village who had no place to go that Eliav now has a place that he can call home. Born in Ukraine, Eliav moved here at five with his mother and two older siblings following his parents' divorce. He has not seen his father since he was three. Eliav's childhood was anything but easy - he describes it as "horrible." His mother, who has both physical and emotional problems and has been unable to work for years, has attempted suicide as a result of her NIS 40,000 debt and has been abusive to Eliav and his siblings. His family, which also includes a three-year-old brother born to his mother and a man 14 years younger, lives off welfare and the salary of his 66-year-old grandmother, the only working member in the family. Eliav's unmarried 24-year-old half-sister, who was born to a third father and has a child of her own, sometimes lives at home and sometimes in the street, and has attempted suicide five times, the latest attempt foiled by Eliav's quick thinking. "I heard her in the bathroom... I called her and called her and she didn't answer," Eliav says openly, in the same tone as one might describe a day at school or any other average childhood memory. "My mother started crying... and I started to panic. I broke the window and opened the door. She was naked in the bathtub. There was water everywhere, and she had also swallowed pills, trying to commit suicide." Eliav's older brother, a drug addict, is not any type of role model, either. Arrested 57 times, he began breaking into cars when he was 13 and currently sells drugs to 12-13 year olds. Recently, he, too, made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide by swallowing his mother's pills. When Eliav was 12 his mother realized that she was unable to raise her children and, after seeing an advertisement in the newspaper, sent both Eliav and his older brother to Ben Yakir, where she hoped they would get a good education, along with the basic necessities of food and clothing. Yet, it was not so simple for Eliav and his brother, and soon after arriving, the brother was expelled, a rare occurrence at the Jewish Agency's religious boys' village, says director Yossi Krothamer. "I started to cry and I ran after the car taking him away," Eliav recalls. "I wanted to go with him. Somehow, though, I survived. You know, it's hard without family." With the help of Ben Yakir, Eliav was able to turn his life around, graduating high school and currently over a year into his army service. During all of his leaves from the army, he comes back home to his newly built dormitory at Ben Yakir, the first of several planned for graduates without a real home. He is already thinking about his future plans. "I want to finish the army, and then come to be a counselor at Ben Yakir and make a few pennies," Eliav says with a chuckle, correcting himself with "I mean money. I want to learn English very well, complete my high school matriculation exams, go to university and become something really famous that makes a lot of money. Then I will come to Ben Yakir, and when the donors come, I will tell them my story." ELIAV IS just one of the thousands of children sent to youth villages and boarding schools each year. In 2006 there were approximately 30,000 children considered to be "at risk" who attended one of the more than 200 youth villages and boarding schools around the country. While the first youth village was established at the end of the 19th century, the phenomenon began to pick up during the 1920s, when the youth villages and boarding schools were intended both to serve children of needy families and play a part in preparing the youth to be pioneers. During the '30s and '40s, many children fleeing the Holocaust, arriving in Palestine as orphans, found a home in them. With the establishment of the state, the youth villages and boarding schools also began to absorb the children of new immigrants, helping in their socialization process. When the mass aliyot began to recede, the state focused again on offering these facilities to help youths from problematic families. Today, they deal with children and youths at risk, as well as new immigrants. Of the 30,000 children at risk currently in youth villages and boarding schools, 6,375 were sent by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services and 23,795 through the Education Ministry. According to Dr. Emmanuel Grupper, director of the Department of Residential Education and Care in the Education Ministry, 85% of the children are at a lower level of risk, for example children who live well below the poverty line, have parents who are disabled or sick, or have learning disabilities, while the remaining 15% are more serious cases, such as children who were abused by a parent or whose parents are imprisoned. Approximately two-thirds of the children placed in the various boarding facilities are between 12 and 18, while the other third are six to 12, with a small number under six who are have special circumstances. There is a significantly higher number of boys than girls and approximately one-third have divorced parents. Of the children who come through the Education Ministry, 60 percent are native born, 27.5% are Ethiopian and 7% are from the former USSR; 80.7% of children placed through the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services are native born, 12.9% are from the former USSR and 3.6% are Ethiopian. Approximately one-third of the children are living in poverty. While there are many children who live in problematic households, only certain cases are deemed as necessitating the removal of a child from his or her home. Grupper explains that placing a child in a youth village or boarding school "gives the children the opportunity to develop in a normal way." Depending on the specific circumstances, the child is placed in one of three ways: by the parents' initiation, by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry's suggestion and the parents' agreement, or by the ministry's suggestion along with a court order. As in Eliav's case, most parents realize that their home is not a positive environment for their children and that a boarding school would be a better option. These parents usually turn to the Education Ministry which, after reviewing the case in depth, decides on the best facility. According to Bentzion Branch, national supervisor of residential care institutions of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, 70% of parents cooperate, while the rest "are not aware of the danger [to the child] and are taken to court." He says the ministry usually wins these cases. WHEN IT is decided that a child will leave his or her home, there is a large variety of facilities, yet most of the frameworks fall into two categories: those that have groups with counselors and those that are arranged as mini-family units. While most youths who leave home at 12 and up are placed in facilities which have groups, many of the younger children are placed into the mini-family units in which eight to 12 children live together in a home with a married couple and their biological children. As many of the children do not come from healthy families, Hava Levene, a staff member at Neveh Michael children's village, says that the mini-family unit allows the children to see and feel what a family is like. "They don't know that a father gets up in the morning and puts on a clean shirt and aftershave, and wakes them up and says 'How are you today?'" she says. "They don't know that. They know that a father is dead or an abuser or in jail or a drug addict." Within each category, there is a wide variety of options, allowing each child to find the exact framework that fits, says Grupper. There are mini-family units which live in apartments within communities, residential care institutions in which the children live together in a building complex and attend school in the outside community, and the classic youth village in which the children both live and attend school inside the same facility. In each of these frameworks, all financial needs are provided by the facility, from food and clothes to pocket money, and from tutors and therapists to extracurricular activities. While a large portion of the expenses are paid for by the state, most youth villages belong to various organizations, such as Emunah, WIZO, Hamifal Educational Children's Homes and the Jewish Agency. Grupper explains that there are many schools which specialize in different areas, such as sports, art, science or farming. "It is not to train them in a profession," he says. "Rather because a large number of the children do not have any motivation [and] this helps them get used to sitting at a desk. [It helps] the children find something that they will be interested in." Ben Yakir is one of the "classic" youth villages which has a farm, with its curriculum including mandatory classes on farm animals and how to care for them. Many of the children come with feelings of failure and without motivation to try new things, and by dealing with animals many of them are able to work on these problems. "Researchers have already shown the connection between the ability of a child to open up to animals as opposed to his other friends," explains Gabi Azulay, in charge of the farm at Ben Yakir. "Friends as well as adults always judge the child... but an animal doesn't care whether the kid is fat or skinny, whether he is lazy in school or lazy in general. The animal accepts the kid just as he is, and therefore... he can open up." Azulay says that he has seen many children talk to animals, and "it's an incredible experience to see." He also says that giving a child the responsibility of taking care of an animal is a good method to treat the child's problems. "For some of these kids it's the first time in their lives that they are being asked to be responsible for something," he says. "They are always being told what to do, why to do it... Here they have an opportunity to give, suggest and decide things. One year they said they wanted to sleep on the farm. I knew it was a bad idea, but I said let's go with it. We brought tents... I didn't sleep that night, but it showed them that they suggest an idea and are able to do it - they are not being told no to everything." However, Azulay adds that he does not accept every suggestion. "Everything is within the boundary of logic. There are those who want to have a horse race - this we can't do." As Azulay points out the different animals on the farm, Moshe, who is entering 10th grade, continuously interrupts him with questions about a specific horse he had helped care for the previous year, requesting over and over again that he bring the horse out for him to play with. Azulay, with seemingly unlimited patience, answers every question. "Moshe's behavior doesn't match his age," he says later. "He doesn't understand the meaning of waiting patiently; it's a term that is too abstract for him, and he cannot understand the idea and then convert it to behavior." Following ninth grade, many of the boys leave Ben Yakir for an alternative framework, sometimes returning home if the option is realistic. However, those who are not ready to move on may stay throughout high school. "Some kids come in seventh grade at the level of a second or third grader and cannot read or write," says Krothamer. "We narrow the gaps." Azulay adds that Moshe is an example of a boy who is going to continue at Ben Yakir. "We still have not finished working with him," he says. ONE NIGHT several years ago, Sara, 13, was brought to a crisis center, an occurrence which happens in only the most serious cases in which a child is in immediate danger and must be removed from his or her home without delay. That morning she had arrived in school and informed her homeroom teacher that her father had been sexually abusing her. The teacher took her to her own home after school, and after consulting with a social worker, brought her to the crisis center. Sara had attempted to hint to her mother about what was going on, but she dismissed her claims, either because she did not believe her or because she refused to confront the truth. Sara was placed in a terrible situation: If she opted not to report what was occurring, she would continue to be molested, maybe becoming pregnant. If she opted to report what was happening, she would very likely lose her family. Somehow she made the courageous decision to talk to her teacher. "Sara came filled with hatred and anger, and at one point tried to kill her herself," recalls a staff member at the crisis center. During her nine-month stay, during which a proper framework for her was being sought, her mother came to visit only a few times, "because she felt that Sara had ruined the family." In addition, she would not allow Sara's younger brother, her only sibling, to visit, "which shattered her. She lost her mother, her father, her brother, her friends, her whole world. Since then, her father has gone to jail, and her family has moved out of the house. I remember she once said to me 'I bet they threw everything out of my room.' What did she do wrong?" Sara was recently placed in a youth village and is reportedly on her way to recovery. Levene stresses the tough situation that youth village workers are placed in when dealing with children like Sara "[The psychologists] have to explain to them that they didn't do anything wrong," she says. "Children often think that they're being punished. 'Daddy did something bad to me. I told my teacher, and they took me to this place and now my mommy doesn't want to see me anymore and says that she hates me. I guess I did something terrible.'" Krothamer also speaks of the difficulty of explaining reality to children, using the example of Haim, a teenager who was brought to Ben Yakir two years ago after his mother decided that she did not want him anymore. "His parents split when he was two in a very hard divorce," Krothamer says. "His father is an alcoholic and, after having his driver's license revoked, was in a terrorist attack while on a bus and is now confined to a wheelchair. For some reason, his mother doesn't like him and so the boy can't live at home. He tells me, 'Yossi, but we have eight rooms at home!' How to you explain to a kid that his mother doesn't want him?" One youth village worker mentions several horrifying stories. "What do you do when you get a phone call saying, 'In 40 minutes we're bringing five little children to you; the youngest isn't even four, the oldest is around 10. We don't know their names, but their father brutally murdered the mother, and they can't go home to get any clothes because the whole house is filled with blood. You stop everything, that's what you do… [you put together] two rooms, one for the little boys and one for the little girls, and by the time they arrive there are toys there and nice linens on the bed." She recalls another horrific story of incest at a young age, a phenomenon which she claims has been increasing over the last few years. "We recently had a six-year-old girl who was brought to us because her father was sexually molesting her... One of the ways she protects herself is by smearing her body with feces and urine because that way people who do bad things won't go near her. Thank God she has stopped doing that." "The day comes when each of these children asks, 'What did I do wrong? How come you were born to nice parents? How come you were born to parents who buy you shoes on time and make your teeth look nice and want you to learn in school and want you to be clean and happy, and I was born to someone who wants to do bad things to me?'" Levene says. "There was a boy who was taken out of his home because his parents were found murdered in their room, and here he is decades later, married to a wonderful woman with wonderful children, owns a house, has a great job. But he still calls me now and then crying because he definitely didn't get a fair deal in life." THERE ARE an estimated 350,000 children at risk, according to Tzvi Hoyzlich, vice director of the Service for Children and Youth of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, out of the estimated 2,481,200 children under 18 reported in 2006 by the Central Bureau of Statistics. Some 240,000 cases are known to the various government departments, while only an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 receive treatment. Until three years ago, the ministry removed close to double the current number of children from their homes, but under a new policy the ministry gives more resources to communities to prevent the formation of situations in which children are at risk. Local authorities are encouraged to take several children with slightly less severe backgrounds and, instead of placing them into residential care institutions, put the money that had been allotted for them toward creating more resources to treat children at risk. According to Yael Dori, the ministry's national supervisor of the residential care institutions, "If we invest in the child at six or seven, then at eight he will not have to be removed from his home." She explains that another result of the policy is that each facility knows that the child will go home after four years (except in extreme cases). During this time the local authorities work with the family, attempting to "correct" any problems. However, not everyone agrees with this new policy. David Frydman, director of Neveh Michael, claims that the community does not have enough tools to treat the children presently in residential care. "There are many kids who will deteriorate because they didn't go to residential care institutions," he says. "The community isn't strong enough deal with the kids sufficiently. They cannot watch the kids 24 hours a day. Time will tell whether it's a good policy, but I don't think it is." Grupper agrees, adding that a large number of children have been left in their communities over the last three to four years, "and we still don't see real success." Dori, however, remains confident that the policy will bear fruit in the near future. But a National Council for the Child worker insists, "As soon as a committee decides that a child should be removed from his or her home, he should be removed that same day. It is unacceptable that there is often not enough room for him anywhere. Sometimes children need to wait six months because their local authorities did not have enough quotas for them." She recalls being forced to decide which children would receive a space in a youth village. "When they give me one space for a young woman, how can I choose between all of the young women who are waiting? Who am I to choose? Once, with the help of the media, we were able to move one child to the top of the waiting list. But, while it looked like a victory, I knew that there was another kid who got pushed down because of it. When a child has appendicitis, no parent would agree to wait a month before treatment. A girl who hangs out with a drug addict and sells her body, in a month she will deteriorate even more." Both Hoyzlich and Dori, however, claim there are enough places in residential care institutions for all the children who require them. Dori says that the process of placing a child following the final decision of the committee can take anywhere from two to six months, because it is necessary to find the exact framework that fits the child, and if there is a child who must be removed immediately, he is sent to one of the 10 emergency centers around the country. WHEN AVI completed fifth grade, his parents decided that it would be best for him to go to a youth village. "His parents did not know how to be parents," says Yossi, one of Avi's counselors. "They came to us and said, 'We want you to help our child, we don't know how to take care of him." Avi consistently refused to attend school, instead roaming the streets of his crime-filled neighborhood with older youths who were involved in crime. Since he was not yet 12, he had no police record, giving him a chance for a fresh start. When Avi arrived at the youth village, "he came with the mind of a criminal," Yossi recalls. "He was violent and he was a negative leader. I remember questioning myself as to whether we made the right choice accepting him, instead of referring him to a youth village for children with more serious problems." Avi, too, recalls how hard it was for him. "When I came here, I was in a really bad situation," he says. "The first month I didn't do anything... School was really hard. But they helped me and slowly, slowly I progressed... Throughout the year there were ups and down, but as the end of the year approached I progressed a lot and I even got a certificate of excellence at the end of the year and a present." In cases like Avi's, removing a child from his or her problematic neighborhood is often very helpful. Ze'ev Toito, the director of the WIZO Hadassim youth village for many years, states that if not for the option, "in the best-case scenario, we would find these kids on the periphery of society, barely holding themselves afloat. In the worst case, [we would find them] in all kinds of institutions, and raising second, third and fourth generations just like them." He says that when a child is brought to a youth village and is able to actualize his or her potential, not only the child benefits, but society as a whole. "They will be able to contribute to themselves, to the community, and we'll have generations of productive individuals," he says. However, many organizations and youth village complain of a lack of funding. While Dori says that the Welfare and Social Services Ministry gives approximately NIS 5,000 a month per child to the youth village, about $14,000 a year, Frydman claims that it costs $24,000 a year on average to support a child. "I would like the State of Israel to give more money to support the kids," says one youth village director. "It's not healthy to start off the year not knowing whether or not you will succeed in raising enough funding to be able to pay all of the staff." Levene emphasizes this point. "There are thousands and thousands of children in the country who need a lot of care and treatment, and the ministry isn't able to give them enough. I'm sure they want to, [but] we have a war, we have security, we have members of the government who need their cars, their giant staffs. It hurts me that Israel, a proud Jewish country, isn't taking enough care of the child at risk."