“During the war, we had a list of people who need special attention in cases of emergency,” says Brian Auslander, director of international relations at the social services department in Jerusalem.
“The directive was that in the event of a missile attack you had 90 seconds to reach a shelter, so we contacted all of those people to see if they could or not. For those who could not, social workers helped them to identify the safest place to be in their home.”
While high caseloads, low pay and the dilemmas around promoting choice and control for service users are just as challenging for social workers in Jerusalem as they are in the UK, they face one unique difference in their working lives – the constant threat of mass casualty events.
These could be caused by natural disasters, war or terror attacks – but in any of these cases Israeli social workers have very specific roles to play, says Auslander. In both hospitals and the community, there is an emergency plan in place for social services, which includes central administration procedures and on-the-scene centres for field staff.
In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, community social workers will attend to bystanders at the scene who may be suffering from shock or a severe reaction. “In terms of the intifada and bus bombings, we would actually send social work teams into the apartment buildings, door-to-door, to make sure nobody was hiding under a bed,” says Auslander.
Social workers will also work closely with the police to support families of people who have been killed. This includes accompanying them to the morgue and providing transportation.
“We really walk them through this process, which you can imagine as being extremely traumatic – this morning you kissed goodbye, this afternoon you have the possibility of identifying a dead person.”
Good assessment skills are vital in the days that follow, as the social workers need to identify the individual strengths of families and the strongest members who are most able to provide support to the others.
“It’s really about being very empathic, listening to the family and identifying their needs,” says Auslander. “We try to respond to the immediate needs of the families both on the emotional and the practical level.”
He recalls one situation where a teenage daughter of divorced parents was killed in a bus bombing. Her father had been out of the picture and had provided no financial support, but suddenly turned up at the mother’s house.
“He said ‘she’s my daughter, I need to mourn her also’ and we more or less had to physically separate the two of them. But that’s all part of the social work skills you talk about – of negotiating, intervening and finding a solution that was appropriate for both of them.”
For the families of people injured at the scene, support is provided by hospital social workers like Lamis Shibli Gadir, who has worked on the paediatric wing at Hadassa Hospital in Jerusalem for the last 15 years.
“I worked in Hadassa during the second intifada and it is very important to keep calm for every emergency call you have,” she says. “Even when you’re called in at 2am.”
Social workers will usually be based in the family room of the hospital and are assigned to the case management of families, which includes helping them to locate their relatives. “We have lists at Hadassa, in the other hospitals in Jerusalem and from the city, of the people who have been injured and we connect the family with the patient.”
“If we can talk to the patient then we can take their name, but if not then we look for other signs of identification like distinctive marks, tattoos or what they were wearing.”
Helping the helpers
In Hadassa, social workers are encouraged to keep talking as a way of supporting one another. “We have group support once a week and we talk about how can we cope, how we can leave and go home with all the stress and we keep hugging each other,” says Gadir.
“I’m Arabic and for me it is very difficult to come into the office the day after a terror attack. I feel that I do this, it is my side,” she adds. “But my team support me, we talk about it and we cry together, it’s not easy you know.”
Social workers in the community are also supported with debriefing sessions and the social services department has recently increased the number of supervisors based in each of its 24 neighbourhood offices. “We came to the conclusion that one’s not enough, so we’ve actually put in a second for a team of social workers,” says Auslander.
“One of the things we’ve found in emergency situations is that the social workers get very involved and say ‘I know the family, I don’t want to leave,’” he says. “Part of the supervisor’s role is to set limits on the workers to make sure they go home and get some sleep.”
But Auslander also points out that the only way the social work community in Israel is able to function, particularly in the face of high caseloads and low pay, is because they are so invested in the people they support.
“Granted overall we have to prepare how we respond to terrorist attacks, how we respond to war,” he says. “But what happens in the hospital and what happens in the community is very similar to the UK – we see individuals, we see people.”
“From the meetings we’ve had with UK social workers, we know we are facing the same dilemmas, the same issues and the skillsets are very similar.”