Coronavirus Pandemic Needs Overwhelm Israel's Social Services

Social workers given wrong or missing information and wasting valuable time distributing resources, warn heads of municipal social service departments

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A homeless person in Jerusalem, March 2020.
A homeless person in Jerusalem, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Municipal social service departments are on the verge of collapse beneath the weight of a desperate caseload of the coronavirus crisis, which is overwhelming its already overburdened social workers. More and more people are turning to these departments for assistance, and the long-term effects of the emergency will be particularly detrimental to poor and at-risk groups.

Social workers are having difficulty providing services to those in need because they find themselves working with wrong or missing information and wasting valuable time distributing resources, department heads say.

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An official position paper obtained by Haaretz, written this week by the organization representing 260 heads of municipal social service departments, says: “The coronavirus crisis could lead to the collapse of welfare and social service bureaus in local authorities due to the anticipated pressure on personnel, and their inability to carry out the many tasks and duties in a professional manner.”

The directors said data about the people they are meant to serve is missing or faulty: “Major gaps have been found in information about senior citizens and data is missing about people with special needs.”

The officials proposed unifying the data systems of the National Insurance Institute, the Home Front Command, the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, the Holocaust Survivors’ Rights Authority and other agencies to ensure that updated information is readily available to social workers.

“In light of a lack of coordination among the various agencies and information provided by various sources, an apparatus should be created that unifies all the information into one coordinated, synchronized database that would be at the disposal of decision makers and service providers in real time.” The position paper states that since the outbreak of the pandemic in Israel, welfare services have been “flooded with information and directives from various sources, which have created incoherence, a lack of standardization and an additional burden.”

Welfare officials say local social service bureaus have also been tasked with the distribution of food to the needy, which takes up precious time they could be using to help at-risk groups. The nutritional needs of weaker groups must be met, the paper said, but “this need must be met as a service on a national level.”

The local authorities “should also be part of the effort but not lead it,” the directors wrote.

“Even before the coronavirus crisis the welfare services suffered from understaffing and great pressure in case numbers per social worker. In an emergency this is felt to a greater extent.”

The paper suggests adopting previous recommendations to assign each full-time social worker a maximum of 60 families, or up to 13 families with complex needs. The officials called for hiring more social workers “who were needed even before the coronavirus crisis, and all the more in light of the new situation, in which tasks have increased.”

Preparations to distribute food for the needy in Tel Aviv, April 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

According to the social workers’ union, each worker has a case load of 100 to 400 families.

The social services directors called on the government “to build an emergency plan to deal with specific groups severely hurt by the situation,” and to create a system and funding that flexibly meets the economic and employment needs of diverse groups of people.

Due to fears of a second wave outbreak of the virus, the officials called for the government to allocate funding for every social services department in every municipality to deal with emergencies. The social workers themselves need to receive support at the beginning of the event, “realizing that an ongoing emergency of this type requires professional support for the teams both on a personal level as well as regarding professional issues and services to clients and community officials,” the paper said.

Tami Barsheshet, chairwoman of the organization of social service bureaus, told Haaretz that not only should new procedures and directives be issued but they ought to be attentive to the people in the field – the directors of welfare bureaus throughout the country, who meet the groups in need.

“If they do not listen to these voices and correct the faults we have pointed out in light of accumulated experience, the second wave of the coronavirus could cause much greater damage and a social catastrophe,” she said.

Department directors say more people are turning to social services bureaus due to domestic violence, issues affecting at-risk teens, substance abuse and economic problems. Barsheshet said that “the impact of the crisis, which is also an economic, familial and psychological crisis, will manifest itself for a long time to come. The more time that passes, the more the stresses will grow on every aspect of our lives.”

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