Illustrative photo (Myers-JDC0Brookdale Institute)

Initiative for Forgotten Coronavirus Population – Youth at Risk

#hardestathome campaign demands reopening of help centers during pandemic as ministries push back against criticism

Israeli activists launched the #hardestathome campaign on Wednesday to pressure the government to reopen all centers for youth at risk despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The move came two days after the Social Welfare and Social Services Ministry loosened restrictions on government-led at-risk youth services and on NGOs that provide such services under government contract.

The activists called the ministry’s steps insufficient, as the relaxed measures apply only to a small number of service providers. The government, however, pushed back against the accusation that it was not doing enough to help children and young adults who were at risk for physical, emotional and sexual abuse at home.

While most residential centers and boarding schools have remained open – for example the Atnachta shelter for at-risk youth in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s Beit Dror, which serves LGBT youth, advocates said that most day facilities remained shuttered or open only on a very limited scale.

These include NGOs such as IGY-Israel Gay Youth, which told The Media Line: “We are following the government’s instructions. As of now, all of our activity is online and we’re not yet allowed to carry out physical activities.”

For the activists, this is unacceptable.

“We’re calling on the government to reactivate all the centers for youth at risk. We think it’s irresponsible that for the last five weeks, the Social Welfare Ministry has not addressed this issue,” Ashira Yahav, a human rights activist who works at a center promoting youth welfare, told The Media Line.

“We want them to draft instructions along with the Health Ministry that enable the centers to reopen safely, and to order them to open immediately,” she said.

Various Israeli celebrities, including Betoolot actress Maggie Azarzar and award-winning songstress Miri Mesika, have embraced the activists’ cause. Organizers hope this will increase awareness of the issue.

“Public attention is drawn away from the topic of troubled youth even in normal times,” activist Maya Regev told The Media Line.

“Underage teenagers from weak parts of society don’t have a voice or publicists, or a lot of power in the media, so you can just look away. I watch the news every day, and even with 24/7 news coverage on the corona, they don’t bring this subject up – and it’s an emergency,” she stated.

“I want social media to bring awareness to the subject,” she added, “because even though everyone is in a problematic situation, there are families that are suffering much more [than others] from this pandemic.”

Under the hashtag #hardestathome, the celebrities will share what they have found most difficult about their experience under quarantine. At-risk youth will then do the same, discussing the much greater challenges they face while stuck at home.

“It shows the privileged [people] problems we all have [in contrast to troubled youth] – for example, not seeing family or doing yoga,” Regev said.

Yahav said that there had already been problems as a result of the lockdown, problems she feared would only get worse.

“We already see some of the consequences,” she said. “There is a 750% increase in domestic violence complaints. There are reports by some centers that help victims of sexual assault of as much as a 41% increase in complaints of attacks in the home.”

Yahav said the closures of the centers had brought to a halt the progress made by young people, many of whom come from homes that led them to become at-risk in the first place. Many cases are serious, but not enough for welfare services to remove the youngsters from parental custody – all of which could increase the risk to the public’s health from coronavirus.

“If kids are not safe in their home, [if they are] suffering or distressed, they will not stay home. They will go out and meet friends in the neighborhood,” she explained.

Many of these youngsters come from poor families and depend on the centers for help.

“Many of these centers also provide basic things, like meals,” Yahav explained. “Social services referred them to these centers so they would spend less time at home and get more of the basics for survival, which they might not otherwise get.”

Regev says the financial ills caused by coronavirus could push people to return to bad home situations.

“Sometimes, due to financial reasons, sexual assault victims have to go back to homes where the perpetrators live,” she told The Media Line.

Nediva Ferziger, one of the #stayathome activists, said that most social workers not affiliated with the ministry were on unpaid leave, leaving many children without counselors to talk to or check up on them.

The government rejects the criticism.

“More than 95% of all services to youth at-risk given by ministry are open, and they were open during the entire [lockdown period],” Gil Horev, a spokesperson for the Social Welfare Ministry, told The Media Line.

“The 5% that are not open are closed in line with the instructions of the Health Ministry. For example, group activities,” he stated.

“All our hostels for youth at risk are open; all the boarding schools are open and social workers are working…. We have special cars that drive to neighborhoods that look for youth at risk. They are operating. They are doing this in small groups,” he said.

Much is up to the Health Ministry, Horev said, and its limits “on what can or cannot be done; on how many people can gather together; where they can be; how much distance they should keep from each other – and we are translating this to our services…. But it’s all coordinated with the Health Ministry. We don’t make decisions [on our own].”

A source within the Health Ministry told The Media Line: “Our plans are subject to the spread of the disease and the cabinet’s decisions as to what level of risk is acceptable. We can’t yet say when specific restrictions will be rolled back.”

To which Ferziger responded: “The centers were not all open for the past five weeks. A few places are running as they regularly do. Most places [that are open] are only allowed to run [activities] one-on-one or in very small groups. It’s the role of the Social Welfare Ministry to make sure that NGOs know if they can open, and ensure that they do so.”

For now, youth advocates are hoping the campaign will get enough signatures on a petition to persuade the government to open the rest of the centers, and to have the Knesset’s Special Committee on Welfare and Labor Affairs accept their request to hold a meeting to discuss the issue.

“We demand answers from the ministries. If we don’t get answers within the next week, [we will have a larger] response,” Yahav said.

This poster, calling on people to sign a petition demanding the reopening of facilities for youth at risk, starts with: “It’s difficult for all of us.” After this is crossed out, it continues: “But Gal has gone back to self-harm. He usually can talk to his counselor. Now he has no one to talk to.” (Courtesy #hardestathome)

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