Israeli Children From Problem Homes Complain of Abuse at Boarding Schools

Beatings, poor food and being called ‘whore’ are just part of the problem, according to a ministry report

A workshop at a northern Israeli boarding school for children from problem homes.
Rami Shllush

Children from problem homes at boarding schools have been abused at the schools as well, suffering beatings, verbal abuse, poor nutrition and untreated ailments, the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry said in a report.

According to the document, obtained by Haaretz, young children and teens at the schools have also sometimes been abandoned by their counselors.

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The report is based on 110 complaints this year to Israel’s ombudsman’s office for children and teens; 70 percent of them were found justified. The office was set up only this year.

Some 9,000 minors live in such boarding schools and foster homes – two-thirds of them in boarding schools. According to the report, 40 percent of the complaints were about mistreatment by counselors.

Students wrote to the ombudsman that counselors called them “whore” – in whichever language the employee deemed necessary. Other insults were “you’re not worth anything” and “nobody loves you.”

Students said counselors punished them by taking them out of their rooms at night, locking them up in an area with no adult supervision, preventing them from leaving on weekends or sending them home – even if no family member was waiting.

In some cases counselors demanded that students clean urine-soaked mattresses or denied them pocket money, contrary to regulations. In some cases counselors ignored students’ requests for hygiene products, clothing or a referral to a doctor or speech therapist.

“The institutions’ managers report that they are aware of the needs of the minors,” the report says. “They say they run the boarding school in an ‘open door’ method (conversations with students without appointments in advance)” – a method the report said led to an inundation of complaints, thus many children “fell between the cracks.”

The ombudsman said that in many cases the complaints had been passed on by social workers or counselors themselves.

Possible solutions

The office recommended requiring boarding school management to hold talks with groups of students without a staff member present, and to ensure that the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry supervised this.

The ombudsman also recommended minimum requirements for counseling positions, efforts to keep employees with the schools longer, random inspections of students’ files, and talks with young people whose cases were being examined.

The ministry said the employees who transgressed were immediately removed from any work with children, and in some cases these employees were required to sit through a hearing.

Employees also were “given guidance and ways to deal with cases of verbal or physical violence by a staff member toward students.”

According to the report, many counselors were not trained to work with young people. But there were also complaints against social workers; students wrote that social workers treated them with contempt, did not believe their complaints or violated their privacy.

The ombudsman office's employee for addressing complaints, social worker Simona Steinmetz, said it was hard to find professional boarding school workers; one reason was low wages.

Other problems were “a large turnover, a lack of training and experience, and a lack of a definition of basic requirements,” she wrote in the report, adding that some schools might not be properly vetting applicants.

With it so difficult to find good people, many managers fire counselors only in extreme cases.

The basic conditions for counseling are 12 years of education and counseling experience, while applicants may not have a criminal record. In the first six months on the job, counselors are required to take courses and training sessions.

One example of violence by staff was “holding” – a hold permitted only in unusual cases by staff members with special training in conjunction with the Justice Ministry. “Holding” is permitted only when a student might endanger himself or others.

According to the report, counselors have told students they would be “held” if they did not do as asked.

“The social workers and counselors are the closest figures to parental alternatives,” the ombudsman wrote. “The instability damages the development of trust, confidence and personal relations, and it is feared the students’ stay will not include the required rehabilitation.”

Problems with food

A full 23 percent of the complaints were about food and nutrition. Students complained about a lack of food diversity, including alternatives for children who do not eat certain items. There were complaints about fatty, burned or uncooked food, as well as three complaints about a shortage of food or unfresh food, with children subsequently complaining of hunger.

“For boarding school children, food isn’t only nutrition. Food is a source of comfort for satisfying emotional and physical needs,” the report says. “Food is a product conveying a homey feeling, satisfaction and warmth, as well as satiety. Boarding school children have no alternative source of nutrition, so it is extremely important to make sure the food is high-quality, tasty and filling.”

The methods for preparing food differ among boarding schools. Some use catering services while others use their own kitchen. Some boarding schools prepare food separately for different age groups. The ombudsman said all boarding schools must provide a menu crafted by a nutritionist at the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry.

“In these cases several measures have been taken like closing down kitchens and referring the operator to an external catering service, sending a nutritionist to oversee the cooking, and monitoring to ensure that the flaws are corrected,” the ministry said.

Other complaints include a shortage of clothing, inaccessibility to medical care, the ignoring of students’ requests to move to another institution, displeasure with the courses and the ban on mobile phones.