Sunday, October 15, 2006

Gil-Am Hostel: Awareness Is The First Step - As A People We Must Demand Change!

'You are alone. You and God.'
By Esti Ahronovitz and Niv Hachlili
October 11, 2006

"At Gil-Am they never say 'Good morning.' At 6 A.M. they open the door with a bang and shout 'Out of bed!' If you don't get up right away, they turn over the bed or pour water on you. Sometimes, straight off in the morning, I would be booted into 'solitary,' especially if the counselor was irritable" - A ward from Gil-Am

The pastoral landscape on the way to the Gil-Am Hostel, which is located in a forested area between Kiryat Ata and Shfaram, not far from Haifa, is misleading. Living behind the high walls are youths who were sent there by court order after dropping out of other educational institutions. According to the Internet site of the hostel's operator, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the goal of the facility is to provide treatment for these youngsters: to help them advance in the professional, therapeutic and educational realms and to reintegrate them into the society.

The reality, however, is a bit different.

In January of this year, S., a student of education who works with Gal-Am's inmates, arrived for her weekly meeting with D., who is 16 and a half years old. At the start of the session, an educational counselor asked D. to come see him. The boy replied that he was already in a meeting with S. From here the descent into violence was swift.

"The counselor took D. forcibly into his cabin," S. related this week, "and from there we heard shouting and cursing. He then took D. out, holding his hands behind his back, and led him into solitary, the whole way screaming at him to be quiet. Then, on the way to solitary, he just threw D. onto the ground and smashed his head against the sidewalk. D. started to scream, 'My head, my head.' The counselor charged at D. as though he were an armed terrorist and started beating him savagely. There was another counselor there who observed what was happening and a teacher from an enrichment group. Neither of them did anything. The next morning I came to visit D. He was bruised all over, his face was covered with blue marks, and he had a wound with dried blood from his cheek to his chin."

Three months later, Binyamin Fisher, the northern district inspector of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs' Youth Protection Authority (YPA), recommended that the counselor's employment be terminated. The reason: use of unwarranted violence against wards in the hostel. Half a year later, the staffer was still on the job. A few weeks ago, another youth filed a complaint against him with the police, claiming the counselor choked him as he dragged him to solitary confinement. But this counselor, it turns out, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Several months ago, senior personnel from the YPA sent a frank and blunt letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who holds the social affairs portfolio, warning that the authority would sustain a severe blow because of a struggle being waged by the workers committee, led by Moshe Deri, at the expense of hostels' residents. "We are witnessing a situation in which the chairman of the workers committee is effectively running the Social Affairs Ministry and dictating its agenda," the letter said.

Only now has Olmert decided to take action as social affairs minister and to establish a committee to examine the situation in the YPA, the only unit in the ministry which is authorized to absorb at-risk children and to provide them with care in a boarding-school setting.

The latest chapter in the protracted battle in the ministry began a few months ago, when Deri instructed the YPA's workers to "sever all contact" with Fisher. Since then, the authority's personnel, who under the law are responsible for supervising these institutions, have found it difficult to do their job at the Gil-Am, Ahvah and other institutions.

"These are rough places," says a Social Affairs Ministry source. "The children in them are violent and dangerous, and the staff often loses control and finds itself embroiled in violent situations. There is now no contact with these institutions. We have no way to inspect them, and this is a dangerous situation for the children."

The broomstick syndrome
"The showers were wide open. I remember it was always cold there ... There were incidents in the showers ... Children were stripped and doused with cold water. At night the counselor would prefer to sleep, so we were locked in our rooms. About 12 to 20 kids were locked into a cabin. At night you don't sleep. The fear is intense. Fear of kids who will hurt you - there were cases of stabbings with knives or other sharp objects. I often thought of escaping, but was afraid of getting into even more trouble." - A., a former ward at Gil-Am

Yaakov Reuven, who is in charge of the hostels for the Social Affairs Ministry, is responsible for 12 inspectors from the state and the ministry, whose job is to ensure that the ministry's policy is implemented in the 57 YPA hostels. These facilities house some 2,000 boys and girls around the country.

To do their job, the inspectors have to visit the hostels continuously, and speak with the staff and the wards. The inspectors recently sent agitated letters to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, to Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander and to the director general of the Social Affairs Ministry, Moshe Shion, describing the intolerable situation that has arisen in the wake of Deri's order to hostel staffs to break off ties with the main ministry inspector in the north.

"The supervision by the official in charge of the hostels is supposed to be carried out as a dialogue," explains a senior official in the Social Affairs Ministry. "The inspectors are supposed to sit down with the staff of the hostels and resolve problems, but today that doesn't exist. We are not being allowed to engage in systemic thinking and to provide these children with a horizon. What is shocking is that the professional forum of the Social Affairs Ministry - the director general and deputy director general - who are aware of the situation, are not taking responsibility. We are living in anarchy. Violent incidents are only increasing, but no one is responding. I don't know what they're waiting for."

The Social Affairs Ministry rejects these allegations. "The ministry's directorate views the ministry's role as being, above all, to protect the wards," the spokesperson explains. "The physical construction of the facilities and their operation by a large staff of caregivers is intended to prevent, to whatever extent possible, abuse of any kind. When abnormal events occur, we react with great severity and on the basis of the law against abuse of helpless individuals. We carry out many educational activities among the employees to prevent abuse and implement close supervision of hostel directors and ministry inspectors."

But the case of the counselor at Gil-Am reflects the inability of the inspection staff to intervene at the institutions. S., the student who worked at Gil-Am, was appalled by the counselor's outburst of violence and spoke to the director about it. "He told me that things like that happen and that there was no need to file a complaint against the counselor, because he was liable to lose his job," she recalled this week. "At the end of that day I met with the counselor and asked him to go see the incarcerated youth. The counselor shouted at me."

S. asked Gil-Am's management to investigate the event, and when she concluded that nothing was being done, she approached Fisher, the Social Affairs Ministry inspector in the North. "There is an atmosphere of fear there," S. says. "Some of the youths are afraid of every step they take. There are counselors who walk around carrying broomsticks. One day, when I was sitting with one of the kids, a counselor came in and asked to speak with me in private. The boy asked why and the counselor brandished a broomstick. The boy ran away, shouting, 'No more blows.' On my last day there, at the end of June, I saw that one of the boys from my class had a red and blue bruise on his face. I asked him what happened and he told me that one of the counselors had slapped him hard on the face and kicked him in the ribs. Then he said, 'You know, something else happened to us, too.' He told me that this counselor had stripped him and two other boys, lined them up in a row and played with their genitals using a broomstick."

That very day S. and two other students went to the director of Gil-Am, Yaakov Cohen, to discuss the violence in the institution. S.: "He told us, 'There is nothing to be done. There are 'wild weeds' everywhere. You yourself will get used to it in time.'"

Afterward she wrote to Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, the director of the National Council for the Child, seeking his intervention. In June Kadman asked Reuven, the ministerial official in charge of the hostels, to examine the complaints. The story about the Gil-Am counselor was already known, as Fisher had recommended that he be dismissed back in March, following S.'s first appeal to him.

Armed with testimonies about the counselor's behavior, Fisher and Reuven asked the Social Affairs Ministry to dismiss him, but encountered the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy. They understood that there was no intention of letting the counselor go before the termination of his contract in August of this year. The counselor, for his part, asked Moshe Deri, the ministerial workers committee chair, for his assistance.

"He called me," Deri said this week, "and I tried to intervene. I spoke to relevant people in the ministry who are responsible for human resources, but they told me that nothing could be done, because he wasn't a tenured employee."

Yet even after his period of employment ended, the saga of the counselor continued. About a week after the official date of his contract's expiry, it turned out that he was still working at Gil-Am and that another complaint had been filed against him for using violence.

According to the testimony of one of the wards, on the evening of September 3, the counselor entered the youths' television room and ordered them to turn off the set. They said they wanted to watch the film until the end, but the counselor told them to go to their rooms immediately. One of the youths asked the counselor to let him finish smoking his cigarette. According to the boy's testimony, the counselor pushed him, grabbed his neck and thrust him into solitary confinement forcibly. He says the counselor told him to lower his pants so he could conduct a search, but he refused, and the counselor went into a rage, struck the boy, and then smashed his head against the wall. Another counselor on the scene tried to calm the assailant.

The boy said he was kept in solitary until after midnight. Two days later he filed a complaint with the police against the counselor. Gil-Am did not report the event; it was discovered only after a Social Affairs Ministry inspector visited the institution, saw that the boy was wounded and spoke with him. Fisher contacted the hostel's directorate but did not receive a substantive reply.

"This situation is intolerable," Fisher wrote in desperation to senior officials in the welfare system. "The safety of these boys is being compromised day after day, and we have no way of helping the population for which we exist in the first place."

The Social Affairs Ministry stated in response: "The police are conducting the investigation; the counselor has concluded his work in the hostel."

The Social Affairs Ministry's spokesman says that "the police are conducting the investigation; the counselor has concluded his work in the hostel." Also, he added, the manager did report the case and it was decided "that the counselor in question was not suitable for work at the hostel because he gave the impression of being a bit too tough and verbally violent ... The matter eventually reached the Labor Court."

The manager vehemently denies everything that was said by S. about their conversations, as the comments attributed to him are against his "worldview."

Walls of silence

"I arrived at Gil-Am when I was 14 and spent two years there. I was involved in a great many violent incidents - violence between the youths and also violence by the counselors against the youths. Attempts to deal with this by speaking with social workers or counselors were like grinding water. And no one wanted to go to the police, either, because at the end of the day the counselors are still there. The counselors would threaten us. Their style was 'We will send you to prison,' 'We will open a file on you.' I also remember Y.A., a counselor who was known to be violent. There were some counselors it was best not to mess with. The most violent event I went through? One of the counselors took a martial arts weapon and took me to solitary, stripped me and beat me viciously. This was in the winter and I stayed there all night, naked. I was a boy of 14." - A former Gil-Am ward

Three months ago, Fisher visited Gil-Am, following an article in a local Haifa weekly about alleged physical and
sexual abuse inflicted by three boys on another resident. Neither Fisher nor his superiors had received a report about the event. At Gil-Am he encountered walls of silence.

"It was a shocking incident," says a senior official in the welfare system. "Three boys rammed a rod into the anus of another boy, and we were not allowed to investigate. Fisher came to the hostel. The director, Yaakov Cohen, didn't even hide the situation. He said he had been instructed by the workers committee not to cooperate. The director told Fisher, 'We have known each other for years. I can have a cup of coffee with you, but I can't talk to you about that event. That is the directive I received.' Fisher was absolutely stunned."

In a report to his superiors, Fisher wrote that he "fears for the safety of the youths ... I want to caution that I do not have any possibility of maintaining supervision of the hostel."

One event followed another. During the recent war in Lebanon a group of 10 youths escaped from Acre's Ahvah hostel, a long-time YPA facility that deals with youths from the Arab sector. Another group from there, which was staying at a hostel in Jerusalem, left the place in a shambles: The youths relieved themselves everywhere and stole equipment.

Fisher planned to meet with the director of Ahvah, Moshe Zafrir, in August, to discuss the situation in the institution, but not surprisingly their meeting never took place. In a letter Fisher sent to his superiors, he informed them that Zafrir had broken off communication with him and was not responding to phone calls.

A month ago, ignoring the boycott that was declared against him, Fisher paid a surprise visit to Gil-Am. The place was in an uproar: One of the youths had tried to hang himself. "Fisher asked to speak with the education coordinator, Rami Amsalem," says a person who was present at the time. "But the coordinator refused to talk to him, explaining that he had received a directive to that effect from the workers committee. Fisher wanted to find out what happened. He understood that this was part of an ongoing story. The boy had received punishment and the coordinator had apparently been involved in a confrontation with him - but no one let Fisher examine the situation. That was already too much."

That evening Fisher went to the nearest police station and filed a complaint against Amsalem for interfering with the work of a civil servant. "It's a state within a state," a senior Social Affairs Ministry official said this week. "It's a closed bubble, and there is no one to subject it to professional review."

Why bring in the police?

Moshe Deri, the workers' committee head, who can disrupt the activity of youth hostel inspectors by uttering a single word, is considered a militant and tough trade unionist who will go through fire and water to protect the workers' rights. In the past, he has organized several highly publicized strikes. In his battle against the Finance Ministry, for example, he went so far as to delay the transfer of funds to foster families and to institutions that care for autistic individuals, and also blocked the admission of new wards to facilities for youth and the disabled.

"The ministry is well aware of his strength," says one of Deri's acquaintances. "If he so desires, the whole system can be shut down. He is in control of his people - one word from him and everyone walks off the job."

Deri has been in the system for 40 years. He started out as a YPA counselor and rose through the ranks. He is now an inspector of professional training in YPA.

Deri has three renovated offices. One, on Hassan Suderi Street in Haifa, is for his work as an inspector. A second, which serves him as chairman of the workers committee, is in the Social Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem. "In the ministry's legal department in Jerusalem two lawyers have to share one desk, but he enjoys offices everywhere," says a senior official there. The third office is at the Ahvah hostel, in Acre, the city in which Deri lived until a few months ago. This is a spacious place with new equipment, including a small refrigerator, and a private bathroom.

"We in the Social Affairs Ministry are a poor unit that deals with a poor population," says a senior official. "There are schools with asbestos roofs which aren't replaced because there isn't enough money, and there is no money to buy food for institutions. But Deri renovates freely, and that of course is extravagant and outrageous."

"Moshe Deri does not have a 'bureau' in the hostel," the Social Affairs Ministry says in response. "In the storage area which houses all material relating to professional training of the YPA - an area for which Deri is responsible - there is a room that serves him and also other employees who visit the hostel. The room in Jerusalem belongs to the workers committee and serves the district and national committees for meetings, to distribute gifts and so forth."

For some time Deri has been conducting a struggle against the government plan to privatize the institutions for the mentally retarded that are run by the Social Affairs Ministry and fire 1,200 civil servants. Most of the YPA hostels have already been privatized in the past 15 years, and of the 800 employees in them fewer than 100 are civil servants. The jobs of about half of those - people who physically work in the hostels - are the subject of the battle.

"Benny Fisher started to visit the northern district hostels and started to target the employees," Deri says, explaining his decision to break off contact with the inspector. "Workers came to me and said that he was trying to find proof that they were not doing their jobs. We held a discussion on the subject and we sent him a letter so he could come and respond to the complaints against him. He didn't show up. The ministry's labor council met and decided to break off contact with Fisher until the matter was clarified with senior officials in the ministry. To this day we are not talking to him. All the workers are cooperating and carrying out my directives."

But it's the children who are paying the price.

Deri: "The workers are being hurt. And if they do not carry out the directives of the workers committee, they will be hurt even more. At Gil-Am, Fisher threatened that he would place workers who followed our orders on disciplinary trial. Two weeks ago he filed a complaint with the police against a hostel employee who is not talking to him. The employee told him, 'Don't place me in an unpleasant situation, because I am not allowed to talk to you.'"

Fisher has encountered employees who are not cooperating with him in matters relating to the protection of children? Aren't you concerned about putting your workers in a position where they have to break the law?

"So what? If the complaint is not justified, what is there to be afraid of? This is a complaint that the worker interfered with the performance of Fisher's duty. I have called out the ministry on strike many times and I interfered with many employees in the performance of their duty, but did anyone file a complaint against me? Why bring in the police? You know what - he can complain all he wants, and I am certain that the police will do nothing with it. He's only hurting himself. If there was once a chance of creating a bridging between him and the workers, now there is no chance of that, either. They don't want to see him."

Personnel of the Social Affairs Ministry said this week that the ministry's director general and his deputies are ignoring the dispute between Deri and the YPA staff, even though they are aware of the problematic situation. "They don't want to get involved with Deri," say officials in the ministry. "If he wants, he can bring the ministry to a halt."

Indeed, everyone in the ministry remembers the last time Deri decided to go all the way. That was four years ago, when Yaakov Reuven, the official in charge of the hostels, together with the minister at the time, Shlomo Benizri, decided to shut down Mechora Hostel."

Scissor treatment

"At the age of 14 I arrived in Mechora and got the shock of my life. It's living in pens. Sometimes you go out a little, but most of the time you're in a closed cabin ... As a 14 year-old, it was the most frightening place that ever existed ... I especially remember the 'scissors.' At night they wrap the soles of your feet in toilet paper and set it on fire. During the day there were fights. You were beaten for every little thing. You were ordered to do something and you got confused or you made a face - and right away they let you have it. The counselors were violent, too, slapping, pushing and other stuff. But mainly there was just no one to talk to. There was nowhere to turn to. Every day was a challenge for me - to navigate between the drops, to survive. And at night you go to sleep, but you don't sleep, because you don't know how you will get through the night. The door is shut. The counselor no longer cares. You're afraid? We'll talk tomorrow. You are alone. You and God." - A former ward at Mechora

The previous round in the struggle between Deri and Reuven was over the Mechora hostel. Despite recommendations by experts to shut down the failed institution and disperse the residents, Deri backed the struggle by the hostel's workers, including 12 civil servants, to keep it open.

Mechora was a hostel for at-risk youths who suffered from harassment and for juvenile delinquents who were sent there by the court after having been convicted of criminal acts. The facility was rundown and not fit for human habitation, and brutal violence among the wards themselves was commonplace. The counselors did almost nothing to stop the violence and rehabilitate the youths. Reuven hd tried to close Mechora from 2000. A committee appointed by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry director general at the time, Avraham Ben Sasson, submitted a series of recommendations - none of which were implemented. The committee expressed its shock at the situation in the hostel; in its opinion, allegedly criminal acts were perpetrated there, including failure to report cases of violence against wards, failure to protect children against other wards, and threats of physical violence.

"We were convinced, on the eve of the children's dispersal, as had been the case for a long time beforehand, that a situation had long prevailed at Mechora in which the youths there were exposed to concrete risk to their physical safety," the committee stated in its report. "A permanent pattern existed at the hostel, in which the weaker youths were subjected to the rule of the stronger ones. And even more serious, the weaker youths did not always receive the protection of the hostel's directorate or of some of the educational counselors, even though that was their duty."

One of the children told the committee, in passing, that he "showers in his underpants, because he is afraid of being
assaulted sexually." The weaker youths "would place a bed against the door of their room to protect themselves during their sleep from others" - a routine practice which no one questioned. "Nor is there any dispute of the fact that as of 10 P.M. there is no orderly supervision of the children. There are no nighttime counselors at Mechora, as there are in other hostels. Moreover, some of their counselors, who are in their rooms, do not intervene even if they are summoned."

Summing up the physical description of the hostel, the committee noted, "In our opinion, a hostel with this scope of neglect is not worthy of human habitation ... It is doubtful that referring youths to a hostel in this condition is consistent with the state's duty to protect the right to dignity which is enshrined in the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom."

Why did this situation go on uninterrupted for years? "We formed the unequivocal impression that the heart of the problem of the Mechora facility lies in a tremendous power struggle that has been conducted for years between the ministry's labor council and the ministry's directorate," the report concluded. "We are of the opinion that, with all due understanding of the professional struggle of the workers, who fear for their livelihoods, there is no justification for parallel management or for the neutralization of the director ... Furthermore, the workers certainly must not assume professional authority which they do not have."

Attempts to rehabilitate the hostel by adding new employees and appointing a new director were unsuccessful. At the end of 2002, when the scale of the neglect became known, Yaakov Reuven asked then minister Benizri to shut down the hostel and he ordered its temporary closure.

"It was done to save the children," says a senior welfare official. "Within two hours, Reuven recruited a few directors of other institutions and each of them took one child under his protection." There were only six youths at Mechora at the time, as YPA offices did all they could to prevent children from being sent there.

"The action was done secretly, so that Deri and the workers at the hostel would not shut the gates," a Social Affairs Ministry employee explains. "It was done to fight for the children's lives. These children were removed from their homes by court order so they could be rehabilitated and looked after, and where were they sent? To hell."

After the hostel was shut down and the youths dispersed, Deri flexed his muscles. On November 3, 2002, a message to the employees was posted in the ministry's offices. Under the headline "Serious harm to the workers," the ministry's labor council called on the employees to launch work sanctions.

"This is an act of unprecedented gravity," the message stated. "The dispersal of the wards from the hostel under a pretext of 'risk' was done at the recommendation of the official in charge of the hostels. By doing so he created an opening for the privatization that threatens every aspect of our ministry ... It will never happen. The labor council has launched an uncompromising struggle against this tendency and against the person who is leading it, Reuven."

The labor council statement went on to list the sanctions the employees were launching: They would shut down the central computer, stop receiving the public, cancel meetings with the ministry's directorate, and more. In addition, "All the ministry's employees will break off contact with Reuven."

The message was very clear: Anyone who messed with the workers committee risked generating a strike of the whole system. Not a word appeared about the real reason that the Reuven had apparently "harassed" the hostel. Years of abuse of the youths became a "pretext." More than 50 senior employees issued a letter of support for Reuven. However, the minister and the ministry's directorate caved in, and a month after the report was issued, the hostel was reopened - if only "for the sake of appearance." Reuven did all he could to remove wards from there and send them elsewhere, until the hostel died a natural death and the staff left for other employment.

The report's final chapter recommends that the ministry official in charge of discipline examine suspicions of criminal activity which arose at Mechora. Despite all the testimonies of violence,
sexual assaults and criminal acts, no one was tried and some of those involved continue to hold various posts in the welfare services. Three other counselors from Mechora were transferred to nearby Gil-Am. Only 50 meters separated the two hostels. Four years have passed, but nothing seems to have changed.

"There was no reason to file a complaint with the police," the Social Affairs Ministry said in response. "No employee was given a hearing. The temporary workers were fired. The permanent workers were transferred to other positions as part of an agreement between the ministry's directorate and the workers committee. Civil servants cannot be fired unless there are clear proofs of breach of trust, extraordinarily substandard performance, disciplinary infractions, criminal acts and the like."

"Gil-Am is the replay of the Mechora story," says a senior official, "and the kids are again the victims."W


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