No Safe Haven

(This article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of SSA Magazine. This is a review of a paper published in Social Service Review.)

A study in Israel shows a quarter of children in residential foster homes have been maltreated

Concern about the abuse of children in state care has been growing. One study in Great Britain found that children in foster care are seven to eight times more likely than other children to be reported or assessed as maltreated, and children in residential care six times more likely. A study in the United States found that a third of foster children were maltreated.

Now, a new study from Israel finds additional “worrisome” evidence across national contexts regarding the level of maltreatment by the staff of group homes and other kinds of residential care as reported by the children themselves.

In an article published in the December 2011 Social Service Review, Shalhevet Attar-Schwartz, a lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, reports that more than a quarter of Israeli adolescents in residential foster care have suffered either verbal or physical maltreatment. “It seems that some of society’s most vulnerable young people, who often experience maltreatment in the parental homes they are removed from, are let down by the system created to protect and nurture them,” she writes in “Maltreatment by Staff in Residential Care Facilities: the Adolescents’ Perspectives.”

Attar-Schwartz surveyed 1,324 Israeli youths living in 32 residential settings, including large residential institutions, homes in which a couple with its own children cares for a small group of at-risk youths, and hybrid arrangements. About 25 percent of these youths reported some form of physical maltreatment, including slapping, pinching and kicking, within the previous month. About 29 percent said they had been verbally insulted, humiliated, ridiculed or cursed.

There were differences among groups. Boys and girls reported verbal abuse about equally, but boys reported significantly more physical abuse. Adolescents with more emotional and behavior difficulties, such as depressive symptoms and hyperactive behaviors, had a greater risk of maltreatment. So did adolescents who considered their caregivers stricter and less supportive.

The place mattered, as well. Institutions with high concentrations of vulnerable adolescents showed higher rates of maltreatment. So did institutions that lacked clear policies about violence. Arab institutions had a higher rate than Jewish ones. Attar-Schwartz says that this difference may reflect the more traditional and authoritarian values of Arab society, which shows greater tolerance of corporal punishment. But the difference could also be due to fewer resources available to Arab institutions.

Attar-Schwartz’s study was unusual not only because it looked at the maltreatment of adolescents in residential settings but because it viewed the problem from the perspective of the adolescents themselves. Studies based on reports by officials and other adults, such as pediatricians, are prone to under-reporting, she says. Adolescents are reluctant to report mistreatment, and when they do, they are often ignored or their complaints are suppressed.

Attar-Schwartz says her findings cast doubt on the state’s ability to provide consistently high quality care and to make sure that welfare agencies meet their obligation to provide a safe environment. She hopes the study will inspire greater efforts to monitor residential institutions and to prevent maltreatment, including better training for staff. 

Shalhevet Attar-Schwartz. 2011. “Maltreatment by Staff in Residential Care Facilities: The Adolescents’ Perspectives.” Social Service Review 85 (4): 635-64.