Welfare ministry to adopt groundbreaking 'culturally sensitive' approach to treating immigrants

The Ministry of Welfare and Social Services approved Wednesday a series of ground-breaking recommendations aimed at encouraging social workers and other ministry professionals to be more "culturally sensitive" towards immigrant populations, especially those of Russian-speaking origin. "Social workers should not approach clients from the angle of their own folklore," said Marina Zamsky, director of the non-profit Forum for Immigrant Families in the North, who participated in a specially appointed ministry committee and presented the findings to Director-General Nahum Itzkovich on Wednesday. "Rather they should be sensitive and accepting of different cultural norms and values." In a statement following the meeting, Itzkovich said that his office had agreed in principle to the recommendations and was waiting for a working plan to emerge in the near future. Among the recommendations made by the committee, which brought together representatives of immigrant NGOs and government professionals, are plans to provide training to social workers in identifying cultural differences and understanding how to work with them, and to run a media campaign to change perceptions and restore trust in the social services among FSU immigrants. "I believe this is an important step forward in improving the integration and absorption of all immigrants, not just those from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) but also from Ethiopia, France and the English-speaking countries," commented Zamsky, adding that a pilot program would likely be initiated in 10 locations sometime next month. She said she hoped the changes would push social workers and other professionals to maintain a pluralistic and holistic approach to the treatment of needy immigrant families and individuals. The Forum for Immigrant Families in the North was among some 15 NGOs that approached the ministry late last summer urging it to completely revise its approach to the way it worked with immigrant families, especially Russian-speakers. The move was prompted by a spate of extreme child abuse cases among immigrants, including the horrific murder of 4-year-old French girl Rose Pizem. At the time, Zamsky's organization published statistics showing that the level of distrust among Russian-speakers of the social welfare services was unacceptably high. A study conducted by the Forum found that only 40 percent of FSU immigrants were willing to seek out any kind of professional assistance, even when they felt they were under extreme stress. It also noted that there was the perception that the goal of the social welfare services was to "snatch" children away from their parents. "We contacted the ministry in October and have been surprised at how receptive the director-general has been to the whole issue," said Zamsky. "We were not sure that he would take our claims seriously but he told us in the initial meeting that he was aware of all the problems and that his office had not been able to cope with the issue." Itzkovich went on to establish the steering committee, stipulating that it present its findings by March. A report commission by the steering committee and prepared by the Meyers-JDC-Brookdale Institute found that only 7% of the Russian-speaking community currently receives assistance from the social services, among them 38,818 elderly people, 14,467 families with children and 13,291 individuals aged 16-25. Close to half of those being treated by social workers exist on very low incomes or have no household breadwinner, and a large percentage are considered high-risk clients.