Judge: Lack of Care for At-risk Youth Is 'Recipe for Catastrophe'

Schoenfeld recalls how he occasionally sent children to juvenile detention facilities instead of a treatment center because no space was available.

The delays in treating youth at risk is "a recipe for social catastrophe," said long-time juvenile court Judge Abraham Schoenfeld this week.

Schoenfeld, who retired after 31 years on the bench, took the system to task this week for not properly serving the country's youth at risk. Children wait too long to receive proper diagnosis and treatment, said the judge.

He would occasionally send children to juvenile detention facilities instead of a treatment center because no space was available at an appropriate institution, he recalled.

The problems with treatment facilities were reflected in reports by two state comptrollers over the past decade. A 2009 report noted that as of August last year, 570 teenagers were waiting six to eight months for placement in residential government institutions. Meanwhile, the report also noted that these facilities were at less than capacity due to a shortage of professional staff.

Knesset committees have tried to address the problem, but this has not improved things. Meanwhile, the institutions' waiting list keeps growing.

The Social Affairs Ministry said yesterday that the average waiting time at locked institutions has halved in recent years, and that shortcomings noted in state comptrollers' reports have been addressed.

This week, the Health Ministry circulated a report on an internal investigation into the 2008 death of a 15-year-old girl. The girl who fled a closed ward at the Geha Psychiatric Hospital in Petah Tikva with an adult and another minor. She fell to her death, presumably from a roof, and her body was found two hours later. Investigators found empty bottles of vodka on the roof of a nearby building.

The report indicates that the justice, social welfare and medical systems are in a sorry state.

The girl, S., had been hospitalized several times at Geha due to depression and suicidal tendencies. The staff there then decided she needed a residential treatment program to address her behavioral issues so that she could eventually return home to her parents. The hospital approached one such program several times but was told there was no space. The Geha staff warned that keeping S. hospitalized was damaging her recovery prospects and putting other patients at risk.

Several weeks before S. died, a social welfare worker appeared before Schoenfeld to seek an order extending the girl's hospital stay because no other option was available. Schoenfeld wrote an opinion expressing despair over the lack of a proper treatment facilities.

The investigative committee in S.'s case absolved Geha Hospital of responsibility for her death, calling it the result of a "societal failure" and underlining the need for placement facilities for teenagers discharged from psychiatric hospitals. S.'s family has filed a negligence suit against Geha.

Teens from rough socio-economic backgrounds may be admitted to psychiatric hospitals for conditions such as depression, and they receive proper treatment there, but afterward there is a lack of institutions that can take them in, said Geha director Zvi Semishlany this week. The experience has made his hospital more selective about the cases it takes, he said.

In another case involving a 13-year-old boy, a juvenile court judge in Ashdod, Robin Lavi, found the teen could not be legally arrested but that there was no appropriate closed facility for him, said Yitzhak Kadman of the National Council for the Child, who received a copy of the judge's opinion. The boy was ultimately sent to an open facility.

New residential treatment facilities will be opened in Israel later this year, but a juvenile defender with the Be'er Sheva public defender's office, Maria Mazzawi Marchi, estimated that only 10 percent of the juveniles whose cases she has seen with receive treatment in appropriate facilities. Some of them are placed in inappropriate institutions while others end up on the streets. Others are convicted of crimes and imprisoned.

"The State of Israel has to decide to invest in children in distress instead of pushing them into the margins of society," Kadman said.