Retiring juvenile court judge Abraham Schoenfeld has leveled blistering criticism at the state over its treatment of youth at risk. "I had to send youth at risk to prison due to the lack of space in treatment centers," he told Tomer Zarchin (Haaretz, July 1 ). The long-time juvenile court judge added that the waiting period for youths at diagnostic and care facilities is a recipe for social catastrophe. "Israeli society," the judge stated, "ignores the most difficult cases of youth at risk."
Schoenfeld has reiterated precisely the same warnings he issued a few years ago, and which colleagues have issued since the 1990s, a time when a grave shortage of treatment centers for youths became manifest. It appears that this shortage has become much more troubling. Just 10 percent of youth at risk receive treatment in an appropriate facility; the remainder serve time in prison, and are institutionalized in closed psychiatric wards, due to a lack of other options.
This is wanton neglect, and juvenile court judges, social workers, public defenders, and at least three reports issued by the state comptroller's office, have warned about the problem for years. While the Ofek prison is an impressive framework that offers study and treatment options and provides skills needed for integration in society, it is nonetheless a jail - and not a treatment center. It is designated for juvenile delinquents who have been tried for serious offenses, and is not able to, or is not supposed to, attend to youths who need treatment and supervision. The same applies even more pointedly to psychiatric wards; and, in any event, both these options, the prison and the psychiatric wards, are crippled by over-crowding. At a 2010 Be'er Sheva conference on children at risk Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein held that "when it came to services for minors, the hand of privatization was trigger happy."
Indeed, budget reductions and wide-scale privatization of youth-oriented institutions, in a period when the state absorbed two mass immigrations from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, brought about a steep rise in the number of youth at risk who are sent to jail, closed psychiatric wards, or to the street.
Moshe Kahlon, the new social affairs minister, proved that he has an ability to stand up to pressure and act on the public's behalf in the communications sphere. He now faces a difficult and far more important challenge: to correct the ongoing mistreatment of youth at risk for the benefit of young people and the society as a whole.
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