'The dark side of the land of milk and honey'

Israel, like Britain, has plenty of disturbed children, but a pioneering organisation is making a difference

By Sharon Maxwell-Magnus, September 1, 2011

Nine-year-old Ezra giggles bashfully as he ponders what he likes about his children's home in Jerusalem. The food, he replies. That is not surprising. The food at the Reut home for boys, an intensive therapeutic centre for boys with major emotional and behavioural problems, arrives three times a day. Ezra, an active, muscular child, was found by police scavenging desperately for scraps from the bins in Tel Aviv. Home was a pavement slab near the bus station. His mother, a refugee, was too traumatised to be able to care for herself, let alone her child. When Ezra arrived at the home, he had no idea how to socialise, could barely string a sentence together and was feral and mistrustful.

His friend Ariel, watching TV listlessly in the next room, also mistrusts adults. Roni Siboni, the director of the home, sits with a paternal, protective arm around him. Ariel is painfully thin. He has cherubic features, but his right eye tics nervously. He arrived at the home after it emerged that the reason he behaved like a one -year-old in school, crawling around on all fours and refusing to speak, was because he was abused by family members and boys in the neighbourhood. He thinks hard before replying as to what he likes about the home. "Everything," he says finally.

"We call this the dark side of the land of milk and honey," says Debbie Faier, the Southport-born deputy director of the development department and community outreach for Orr Shalom, the charity that runs the home and is responsible for children in care in central Israel. "People are often shocked that this happens in Israel but I have worked for Orr Shalom for 10 years and the problem has got worse."

Often the children come to the attention of the authorities because of their destructive, angry behaviour at school or at play - the sort of anger Britain was engulfed in a couple of weeks ago - and has also focused our own attention on the price society pays for severely dysfunctional families. Pablo Grosz, a psychologist and social worker who works with the charity, believes that most of the rioters will have come from dysfunctional families. He sees it as part of his job to help the children understand justice, right and wrong and to have a degree of belief in the state, all of which have been missing from their former lives .

In Israel, children "at risk" from all denominations, orthodox, secular, Arab and Jew, are taken into care by the Welfare Ministry and then handed over to charities such as Orr Shalom. In 2009, there were over 44,000 reports to the Welfare Ministry of child neglect or abuse with 97 per cent substantiated. Of those, around 10,000 a year are taken into long-term care, although, like Britain, the country has a policy of trying to keep families together, only using care as a last resort. If a child is judged to be up to it, attempts are made to place them in a long term foster home.

The Reut home for boys in Jerusalem, where traumatised, neglected and abused children are given a second chance

The Reut home for boys in Jerusalem, where traumatised, neglected and abused children are given a second chance

For older children or those with more intense difficulties, Orr Shalom has group family homes. These are run by a devoted house mother and father, often with their own children, and no more than 11 kids.

Some children are too damaged to be considered for any type of foster care. These children end up in last chance saloon - the Reut home for boys age seven to 14, (or the female equivalent Beit Goldschmidt.) At Reut, the 24 boys are cared for by a dedicated staff with two children per adult. "What these children need most is consistency of care," says Siboni. "Our first job is to get them to trust us and we do that by making sure they always have the same routine."

The furniture in Reut is basic and for good reason. In every room we go, there are marks on the walls and rips down the sofa. Once the children start to comprehend what has happened to them, they become angry and that anger turns against what is nearest - the wardrobe, the sofa, the social worker.

The Israeli government pays a stipend for each child, but it rarely covers the basics, let alone intensive therapy and new furniture. Faier has an additional headache. The home at Reut is becoming dilapidated and the Ministry of Welfare is threatening to close it down and disperse the boys to psychiatric hospitals, unless £300,000 can be raised for renovations.

But the success stories keep her motivated. Take eight-year-old Yoni, foster mother Miriam and foster father Alon. Yoni came into care when his mother, who has severe bi-polar disorder, disappeared, leaving him entirely alone. Yoni's behaviour was atrocious. He spat, he hit his foster parents and fought with other children. Miriam was at her wits end. "It was falling apart. My children wanted me to send him back."

But with the support of Grosz, things improved. Eventually, Yoni stopped pushing against the boundaries. "Things are better for me here because there are rules. When I follow them, I make more friends and school educates me better. " he explains disarmingly.

Miriam agrees. "Now the whole family love him," she says. "There are still bad days, but there are many more good days."

For Sidoni, it is such successes that keep him going. "The other day I was at the pool. And the lifeguard yells, 'Hey Roni, remember me?' And I see it is one of my boys from years ago. He was skinny then but now he is well fed and handsome. He tells me he enjoys the job, he is happy. And I look at the boys I care for now and I think that maybe these boys will become a man like that.

"That is what makes it worthwhile."

Sharon Maxwell-Magnus is a member of the British Friends of Orr Shalom. The organisation wants to start more fundraising groups in the UK - contact tamarl@orr-shalom.co.il or visit www.orr-shalom.org.il. The names of children have been changed

Last updated: 9:42am, September 1 2011