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Some 25 teenage crime suspects yesterday refused to vacate the Hadera shelter where they are staying in lieu of jail, despite the Welfare Ministry's order that they be moved due to the shelter's miserable conditions, including a lack of food.

When ministry officials came to the Nofit shelter yesterday to bring the teens to court for a hearing on where they should be moved, they refused to leave. The judges therefore agreed to postpone the hearing for a few days to give social workers time to persuade the teens and prevent their forcible removal.

Last week, chief public defender Inbal Rubinstein, whose office represents most of the teens, presented Welfare Ministry officials with testimony about the shelter's conditions from three Nofit counselors and three of the teen suspects - who, inter alia, complained about being hungry. The ministry consequently conducted a surprise inspection, which found that "the site was filthy to the point of endangering the teens; there were rotten vegetables in the kitchens... the doors of the showers and toilets had no handles; the toilets' flush didn't work and they had to be flushed with a mug; there were exposed and dangerous electric outlets."

Shelter director Gil Bar invited journalists to Nofit yesterday to try to refute the ministry's findings. Outside, parents of some of the teens distributed a letter praising the shelter and asking that it not be closed down. They have also sent the letter to the judges.

"My son returned to me, returned to life," said one mother. "My son was a criminal, a robber, and violent. Today, he is working and taking his matriculation exams... The people here are giving him what his father and I didn't give him - warmth, love and education. If he had been hungry and neglected here, would I let him remain?"

According to Rubinstein, most of the staff are caring and devoted, which is apparently one reason the teens refused to leave.

During yesterday's tour, the shelter looked beautifully tended and appointed, with a library, gym equipment, even a Jacuzzi. It was hard to reconcile with the counselors' reports of "a house full of cockroaches, with no hot water," of shortages of basic foodstuffs such as produce, bread and milk, of teens who were not even given prescribed medications. Apparently, massive cleaning and repair work was carried out over the weekend.

Nofit is the only alternative to prison available to Jewish teens who have been denied bail before or during their trial, and for the last year, it has been run by a non-profit organization under Welfare Ministry supervision. The ministry said yesterday that it plans to seek a new operator for the shelter.