Locked Out of the Dorm and No Food: Watchdog Reports on Teen Group Homes

More complaints were reported this year than last to the ministerial office in charge of young people in foster homes and facilities, but there are some bright spots

Out-of-home placement for youths in Netanya.
Moti Milrod

Being locked out of the dorm, being forbidden to come to meals, dealing with counselors who are untrained or simply disappear during shifts, feeling distressed and unprotected – these are just some of the phenomena described in an annual Social Affairs Ministry report on out-of-home placement of children and teenagers.

This is the second year the ministry’s ombudsman’s office is functioning, after years in which young people removed from their homes by the welfare authorities had no one to turn to if they had complaints. This year there were more of those than last year, but there were also significant improvements on some issues like nutrition, offensive comments and overly tough punishments – the subjects of the most grievances last year.

The ombudsman’s office, headed by social worker Simona Steinmetz, is today the “address” for some 14,500 young people, two-thirds of them in institutions with dormitory facilities and the rest in foster homes. Of these, 2,900 are recognized as having disabilities.

As opposed to 110 complaints received last year, 188 were noted in this year’s report. Eighty-six percent of them came from youths aged 14 to 18, 11 percent from children aged 7 to 13, and 3 percent from young adults aged 18 to 21. Of the complaints, 52 percent were found to be justified, by the office; 25 percent were not justified; and 13 percent were “subjective” – that is, “the complaint or the feelings of the minor were justified, but the framework in which they were involved responded properly.”

Nine percent of the correspondence received by the ministerial office were not complaints, but were aimed at clarifying the rights of the children and teenagers; 1 percent were queries concerning procedures.

One-third of the complaints dealt with problems involving counselors and social workers, including charges of a lack of professionalism (staff members without training, an inability to get help with homework, deficient manpower); of feelings of general insecurity (due to counselors who disappeared during their shifts) and of being unprotected in the dorm (in light of physical and verbal aggression from other residents); and of insufficient care in meal preparation (also neglect in distribution of food on time).

Eight percent of the complaints related to insufficient clothing. Six percent related to a lack of medical treatment or therapy, and 12 percent concerned the withholding of allowances.

Steinmetz wrote in her report, “The counselors and social workers are those whom the children look to, when dealing with their distress. Particularly in a situation of high dependency, complaints that are found to be justified are very significant. Directors of these facilities must make sure to implement the changes required to correct the deficiencies.”

The report notes that due to a shortage of qualified staff, many of the institutions offering out-of-home care use young women and men who are performing national service (as opposed to going into the army) as counselors.

“The appointment of service-year [volunteers] isn’t just unprofessional, because they don’t have the requisite knowledge or training, but the young people don’t feel secure when the responsible adult is only a year or two older than they are,” according to Steinmetz.

“A lack of manpower or availability of staff also undermines their feeling of being protected. Complaints that reached the ombudsman about aggression among the children and youths showed that this aggression takes place primarily when the counselors are unavailable. The feeling of being safe is also undermined when there are thefts of the residents’ personal property.”

Only nine complaints came from children living with foster families, and a few came from hostels and emergency centers dealing with youngsters who have been removed from their homes. The Social Affairs Ministry noted in the report that the extremely small number of complaints from foster children may be attributed to the fact that such youngsters may be reluctant to report their distress, and “that raises many questions about the explanations given to the children about their right to appeal to the ombudsman.”

Statistics show that the amount of correspondence sent to Steinmetz’s office goes up after institutions are visited by her staff, and the report thus calls for such visits to take place more frequently.

The report also notes that, “Aside from lacking knowledge of their right to make contact [with the office], even minors who are aware of this right will have a hard time mustering the courage to file a complaint against a person who is raising them and giving them a home, when their biological parents cannot do this for them.”

Another issue raised by report is that children and youths in out-of-home settings miss school regularly because once every two weeks they are permitted to leave to visit their families.

There seemed to be improvements this year in areas that were the object of the most complaints last year. For example, 40 percent of the complaints received by the ministry last year related to insulting attitudes or comments and overly harsh punishment, while this year they constituted only 8 percent of such grievances.

Despite the improvement, under the category of “Disproportionate punishment and offensive attitudes,” the report says, “This year as well we found justified complaints in the realm of the attitude of the facilities’ staff toward the residents. Complaints like being locked out, being forbidden to come to meals, and insults from the housemother were found to be justified and even led the ombudsman to recommend that employees be fired if they did not correct or change their behavior toward the children in question. Added to this are reports of punishment that violates the regulations, the withholding or reduction of allowances, or punishing by keeping [a child] in the institution on his free Shabbat.”

There was also a significant drop this year in the number of complaints about the quality of the food at the institutions in question. Last year 23 percent of the complaints were about the food, this year they constituted on 16.6. percent.