Social Burn-out (Extract)

They are the unsung heroines helping a growing number of Israelis, but social workers get little reward for their efforts

08netty (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. An unidentified five-month-old baby girl was taken from the car seconds before a heavy earthmover plowed into the vehicle and crushed her mother, who was in the driver's seat. It happened in Jerusalem in early July, when a Palestinian ran amok in the construction vehicle, overturning buses and smashing into cars and pedestrians, killing three and injuring more than 40 people. The baby was rushed to the hospital where physicians pronounced her unharmed. But in the grim chaos following the rampage, the link between her and dead woman in the car had been lost, and nobody knew who she was or who her parents were. Enter the unsung city-employed social workers, whose role in tending to the complex needs of the distraught families of the victims is part of the aftermath of every terror attack. The fact that this attack came at a time when the country's municipal social workers were in the midst of a prolonged work slow down, to back up demands for better work conditions, made no difference. The first thing the woman who dealt with the case did, was place the baby with an emergency foster family trained just for such an occasion, until a positive ID could be made. Only hours later, after the dead woman in the car was identified as 33-year old Batsheva Nehama Unterman, a Jerusalem kindergarten teacher, and the link with the baby, Efrat, was established, she was reunited with her father, Ido, a bank analyst and grandson of Israel's second Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isser Yehuda Unterman. Terror attacks have become less frequent in recent years, but the demands on social workers are heavier than they have ever been. They began their work action in April, demanding the appointment of additional personnel to reduce the excessive work load and measures to protect them, after several assaults by clients driven to angry despair by the worsening economic situation. On July 3, the 83-day work slowdown came to an end, after the government gave in to some of the demands. London-born Nicky Cregor, 44, a geriatric social worker who shares an office with the woman who handled baby Efrat Unterman (as a matter of policy names of social workers tasked with handling specific cases involving minors are not released), points out that despite the work sanctions, the response to the emergency was characterized by swift professionalism. Neither "the police, army or hospital knew what to do with the baby," she told The Report. "We did." The problem, Cregor goes on, is that social workers are only in the limelight in times of trouble and the public is largely unaware of the taxing grind of their daily routine. It's a mistake to think that social workers "just help the poor" and the weaker elements of society, Cregor says, though those strata do provide the bulk of their workload. Israel is a country with a strong historic social welfare commitment and even most of its middle class residents, who can afford many services, will require professional assistance "at some point in their lifetimes" with, perhaps, a rebellious teen; a disabled family member; custody dispute in a divorce case; or arranging home care for elderly parents. "But social work has become one of the least understood and appreciated professions," Cregor adds. Taking part in the slowdown were some 7,000 social workers - 5,500 employed by local municipalities and, 1,500 who work in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Welfare, mainly in administrative jobs. (Not participating were the some 4,500 members of the profession who have jobs in the private sector such as hospitals, boarding schools and private nursing homes.) The striking personnel refused to write the professional reports or assessments that judges rely upon to make rulings in a variety of cases; to take on new clients or, towards the end, to answer the phones. They refrained from launching a full-scale strike, something which allowed them to receive their salaries but also weakened their bargaining power. Among those affected were youths at risk, the elderly, adoption agencies, and prisoners awaiting parole. The workers did not demand an increase in their pitiful salaries, which start at below minimum wage of 3,300 shekels per month (about $1,000) for a beginner social worker with a bachelor's degree and rise to 6,500 shekels ($1,969) before taxes, for someone with an advanced academic degree and years of experience - 40 percent of social workers have Master's degrees. What they wanted was simply saner working conditions. As it now stands, the average municipal social worker handles between 200 to 500 cases, a load that "does not allow us to do what we are trained to do, which is to listen and help people," says Cregor, and instead "just turns us into rubber stamps and paper pushers." The longest-ever social worker labor dispute ended when Minister of Social Affairs and Services Isaac Herzog, who supported the sanctions, (see box, page 15) together with the Ministry of Finance, jointly agreed to subsidize the creation of 221 new social work positions - 170 immediately and the rest at the beginning of 2009. Herzog's ministry will fund 75 percent of the 28 million shekels (about $8.5 million) required to finance the new appointments, and local municipalities the remaining 25 percent. In addition, 14 million shekels was set aside to pay for additional guards and screening devices to protect social workers. Annually, some 150 are subject to violence on the part of disgruntled clients. Herzog also announced that a special committee of professionals and academics which was established in June and was tasked with reforming his ministry will also define duties of social workers. They complain that they are spread too thin and have become a dumping ground for various assignments. Social Workers Union leader Yitzhak Peri gives an example: By law, a social worker must accompany a police officer to inform family members of a fatality in the event of a car accident. "Why can't a psychologist from [municipal] Psychological Services go instead? How did this become our bailiwick?" On the whole, Peri is pleased with the results of the work slowdown. He points out that though far fewer jobs than the 1,000 new positions demanded by the union were gained, it was the first time in which a labor dispute actually produced a commitment to add any positions. Previous protests "only produced lip service." He said he was also heartened that the minister's proposed report "will clearly set boundaries" as to what social workers are required to do. Peri feels that the media and the public supported the work slowdown. "We settled for far less than we asked for but we got our message out. It was a turning point for us." Israel used to pride itself on its social welfare system which was influenced by the founding father's socialist ethos and traditional Jewish values of charity and compassion. The Foreign Ministry website explaining how Israel's social services work is emblazoned with a utopian biblical verse from the Old Testament. "They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4). A wide range of social legislation and an extensive network of programs address the needs of the general population as well as the weaker elements of society. Herzog tells The Jerusalem Report that Jewish communal responsibility has been long admired by non-Jews, and notes that among others, a young Winston Churchill wrote favorably about it when he got started in politics in the early 20th century. Israel's basic commitment to social welfare has not changed since early state days, he asserts. But, he goes on, in addition to having "problems which every society has," such as a growing elderly population (some 700,000), 20 percent of whom are poor, the "Israeli factor", he says, uniquely burdens Israel's social services. He ticks off a list of special complications: the plethora of Holocaust survivors and World War II refugees; terror victims; alienation of new immigrants; the Jewish-Arab divide and its attendant security concerns; and problems caused (mostly for women) by the lack of separation of religion and state in personal status laws. And though, he says, there are still plenty of idealists, he laments the development of a new, selfish "individualism" which reflects Israel's gap between rich and poor, and found particular expression in 2003 when then Treasury Minister Benjamin Netanyahu degraded welfare payments. Not surprisingly, says Herzog, the state's commitment to provide services has ballooned but falls short of what most Western countries spend on social services. Israel spends 17 percent of its annual 330 billion shekel budget on the latter, a classification which includes health and social security payments. Most Western countries, earmark 25 percent of the annual budget for non-health social services. The Social Affairs and Services Ministry (it was thus renamed in 2007 when Herzog assumed the post) has a 4 billion shekel budget (around $1 billion at 2006 prices), although the National Insurance Institute, which is also under the ministry, and is responsible for paying out a myriad of pensions, has a separate budget of 45 billion shekels. (Akin to American Social Security, the NII pays various pensions to individuals who are retired, indigent or unable to collect child support from an ex-spouse, and oversees caring for citizens who are disabled as a result of traffic accidents and terror attacks; the Ministry of Defense intervenes here too.) Other than health benefits, the Social Affairs ministry provides citizens with "personal" services, for example, it provides assistance for seniors; children and teens at risk; those with physical or mental disabilities as a result of organic defects; families in crisis (including single-parent and immigrant households), alcoholics; battered women; and drug addicts, and the homeless. Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.