Engelberg Center for Children and Youth: 20 Years of Impact on National Policy

In the early 1990s, Israel was shocked by a series of high profile cases of severe child neglect and abuse.  Voices from many different sectors called on the government to do something.

At the time, the JDC-Brookdale Institute was entering its third decade as an applied research center on social policy and services.  For twenty years, the Institute had contributed extensively to major reforms in the service systems for the elderly and national health care.

As the need for better information and policy evaluation came to the fore, a discussion began in various circles that Israel needed a “Brookdale for children.” Coincidentally, the Irish-based Atlantic Philanthropies was looking to establish applied research centers on children and youth in countries with complex social and cultural challenges.  It had commissioned the University of Chicago’s Prof. Harold Richman to examine the feasibility of creating such a center in Israel.

Prof. Joel Fleishman, now at Duke University, was with Atlantic at the time, and recalled that Prof. Richman “made two unequivocal recommendations: Israel desperately needed an evidence base to promote the well-being of its children,  and the JDC-Brookdale Institute was the most appropriate home for that center.”

Following discussions between Atlantic, JDC, and the government, the Institute created the Center for Children and Youth.

The newly established center soon developed a comprehensive research program that focused, among other things, on strengthening community-based services, enhancing educational opportunities, and expanding opportunities for minority children and youth.

Strengthening Community-Based Services

MJB’s studies showed that Israel’s child protection services were almost exclusively focused on out-of-home care with very few resources left for community services: 65% of the social service budget for children and youth at risk were being used for out-of-home placements for only 5% of the children referred—leaving the huge majority of children without services at all.

This research helped set in motion three national processes: (1) to assess the true extent of children at risk and their needs, (2) to develop effective models of community services for children and families with different needs, and (3) to shift the allocation of resources from out-of-home care to the community.

First national estimates: The Center for Children and Youth began to work with municipalities to systematically map the number of children at risk and their needs so as to better plan local services. On the basis of this innovative work at the local level, the Center produced Israel’s first-ever national estimates of the number of children and youth at risk nationally and their service needs.

Models of community services: The Ministry of Social Affairs, together with the newly established JDC-Ashalim, began a process of developing new service models, such as Parent-Child Centers, Comprehensive Multi-Purpose Daycare Centers, and Emergency Centers. The Institute’s extensive evaluations of these new services helped to ensure their effectiveness and later contributed to Ministry decisions to disseminate them widely.

Shift of allocation of resources from out-of-home care to the community : This change was initiated by the Ministry through “Community 2000,” a large-scale demonstration project to give local social service departments the flexibility to shift funds from out-of-home placement to community services based on local priorities. The Institute was involved in all aspects of Community 2000—from planning to evaluation of the implementation.

Even as the pilot was still underway, the Ministry implemented the program nationally through the Towards the Community Reform in 2004.   MJB helped to develop the national database for the reform, and assessed its impact.

360o National Program for Children and Youth at Risk
The Center’s work in its first decade created the broad understanding that taking these efforts to the next level required a broad inter-ministerial framework and structural change in the way services were planned, developed, and delivered.

This led to the formation of a national committee that, in 2006, recommended and outlined the parameters for this additional step.  In 2008, after an intensive planning process, the government formally approved the establishment of the National Program for Children and Youth at Risk (now known as 360o), with the full participation of the ministries of Social Affairs, Education, Health, Immigrant Absorption, and Public Security. As noted by Prof. Hillel Schmid, chair of the national committee, it was the applied nature of MJB’s research, and the “collaboration between the researchers and government policy makers” in particular, that “played a major role in transforming the committee’s recommendations into an operative plan.”

One of 360o’s strengths is its introduction of data-based program planning and implementation.  MJB developed the instruments for local service providers to identify and assess the needs of children at risk and to use this information to develop multi-year plans.  As 360o grew nationally, the information system expanded to include new services tailored to that the children received and the individual progress of each child.  The implementation of this system required a major training effort to create the motivation and capacity to implement it effectively among local program planners and implementers.  MJB played a key role in this training process.  The Institute regularly publishes national and local reports on the needs of children at risk and the efforts to assist them.

Enhancing Educational Opportunities
The Center has also focused its efforts on developing effective models for enhancing educational opportunities for children and youth at risk.  This work began in the 1990s through cooperation with JDC-Ashalim on evaluating new models to strengthen school capacity to address the many needs of these children.  Many of the principles on which these models were based have since become integrated into the policies of the Ministry of Education, including the need to pay attention to children’s emotional and social needs, to systematically map children’s needs and progress over time, and to work more collaboratively.

Efforts were also made to identify the extent and nature of the difficulties of children at risk in integrating into the education system, and to monitor the system’s efforts to address these needs.  In doing so, MJB carried out pioneering work in identifying not only the extent of youth who drop out of school but to define and measure the additional concept of hidden dropouts, students who are formally enrolled in school, yet are essentially disengaged from their education.

Working with Minority Populations

From the beginning, the Engelberg Center for Children and Youth had a unique commitment to promoting opportunities for minority groups.

Arab Children and youth. Soon after it opened its doors, the Center convened the professional leadership of the Arab community and leading non-Arab experts on children and youth to develop the first comprehensive agenda for addressing the needs of Arab children.  The conference proceedings, published in 1998, became the basis for multiple discussions and initiatives.  Simultaneously, the Institute began its program of research, with a two-pronged strategy—conducting studies that focus exclusively on the unique needs and issues of the Arab population and including Arabs as a special population within national studies.

Important milestones included the first national study of Arab-Israeli children with disabilities in 1998, the first comprehensive study of Bedouin families with children in 2005, and the first national study of Druze youth in 2006.  In addition, studies were conducted in individual communities to address key issues in-depth.  For example, there was an effort with the city of Nazareth to develop a master plan for Arab youth, with a focus on informal education and after-school programs.  These efforts were accompanied by efforts to put the concerns of Arab children and youth on the national agenda.

In recent years, MJB has provided an in-depth understanding of the Arab education system and of the progress in closing the gaps between Arab students and the broader population.  A newer focus today is on promoting access and successful integration into higher education, with MJB’s evaluation of the Council for Higher Education’s 5-Year Plan.

MJB recently held a widely attended national seminar to present our work on strategies for ensuring that interventions are culturally sensitive to the needs of Arab children and the professionals working with them.

Immigrant Children and Youth. The establishment of the Center in 1995 coincided with a major wave of immigration of Ethiopian Jews and the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union.

From the start, MJB initiated an on-going research program focusing on the integration of the Ethiopian community as a whole and of Ethiopian children and youth in particular.

The Institute’s studies not only documented the magnitude of the challenges facing immigrant children, but also objectively documented the effectiveness of the major interventions. This work has served as the basis for policy and service development.

Thus, an examination of the educational integration of Ethiopian children led to intensive cultural preparation by the school system.  Similarly, the first national study on the integration of Ethiopian youth in 1998 impacted decisions to extend educational assistance to Ethiopians immigrants and to the second generation.

In parallel, MJB carried out a series of evaluations on major national initiatives for immigrant children and youth.  These included the 10-year evaluation of the landmark PACT program for early childhood, and the on-going multi-year evaluation of the Ethiopian National Project for youth.

The integration of Russian immigrant youth has also been an important focus with special attention to groups with greater challenges, such as those from southern Russia.

Recently, MJB conducted a national study of the integration of immigrant youth from all countries, including second generation immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, with a comparison to youth from the broader population.  The findings are serving as a major cornerstone for improving policy and services on behalf of immigrant youth.