Gov't Slashes Funding to School for At-risk Youth

Dozens of children at a boarding school for youth at risk may finds their lives in danger, or at the very least be at risk of neglect while wards of the state, due to the economic crisis.

The Ashelim residential school in Be'er Sheva, which has 75 students, is the only institution of its kind in the south that takes in high-risk children following psychiatric hospitalization.

Last week, the school management informed its counselors that in light of fund-raising difficulties and a lack of response by the welfare authorities, it would have to stop psychological treatment for the children. The school's directors said the Social Affairs ministry had approved the move.

According to one psychologist at the school, the withholding of psychological treatment to children could cause psychiatric illnesses to develop or worsen. "The children could find themselves in prison or in psychiatric hospitals in the near future. There are no words to describe how cruel this is for them."

The school's management said that tutoring would also be curtailed, as well as all enrichment classes, and the number of counselors per shift would be reduced - which could mean a single counselor for a group of 12 children who are known to repeatedly self-inflict injury.

Most of the children at Ashelim have been removed from their homes by court order or the request of the welfare authorities as victims of sexual abuse, violence or neglect. Ashelim is considered a place of high-quality treatment after which most of the children return to the community, and some are even inducted into the Israel Defense Forces.

Guy Rimon, who is leading the counselors' fight against the cutbacks, said "first and foremost we ask the welfare authorities to stop pretending. These children have gone through the worst experiences imaginable. Without psychological treatment and tutoring, without watching over them, they have no future. Our conscience will not let us sleep in peace. We will fight until the children get the treatment they deserve. We will not let the state neglect them."

The head of the non-profit association that runs the school, Rafi Sheetrit, said the association operates on funding from the Social Affairs Ministry and until the economic crisis, it received contributions from private bodies. "Now everything has dried up suddenly and the only help we're getting is from the [Sacta-] Rashi Foundation. We give the children a warm home, studies, medication, treatment and food. With the present Social Affairs Ministry budget it is clear that our choice is either to cut across the board or close the school."

Ashelim's counseling staff is planning a protest march to the Social Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem this week.