On International Social Workers Day – Our Social Workers Brace for Yet Another Surge in Support Needs Amidst First Return to Southern Communities

Adi Marcus
Mar 19, 2024

On March 1st, residents displaced from southern communities located at least 4 kilometers from the Gaza border were finally allowed to return home. While many remain displaced, social workers anticipate a significant rise in support needs as more people return and rebuild their lives.

Efrat Rotem, National Division Director of the Union of Social Workers, predicts another wave of social distress based on past experiences, including the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We saw that when people feel that it is time to rebuild their life, this is when more people decide to seek help for dealing with trauma.”  Since October 7th, there’s been a notable increase in demand for social workers’ support. Of course, social workers have been at the front of support provision for the displaced people now living in temporary accommodation settings, survivors of the attacks, and returned hostages. But in particular, the Union of Social Workers notes that referrals related to sexual abuse trauma have increased exponentially since October 7.

Efrat says that in addition to referrals of survivors who experienced horrifying sexual abuse acts by Hamas terrorists, the graphic images and stories of those survivors have triggered many with past experiences. At the beginning of the year, the Union of Social Workers estimated that the national service is now dealing with a staggering 33% increase in referrals for sexual abuse trauma support alone.

Social workers in an energency call centre on the 17th of October in Ashkelon | Credit: Histadrut’s Union of Social Workers

The national social welfare services were already struggling to meet existing needs before this latest crisis. Recent trauma is, unfortunately, pushing the workforce close to a breaking point. In May 2022, union data revealed social workers had a mere 9 minutes and 50 seconds per week to dedicate to women experiencing or recovering from sexual abuse. This number is undoubtedly even lower now due to the war’s impact, encompassing both new sexual abuse trauma cases and the support needs of displaced people and attack survivors.

The low wages offered by the Ministry of Social Welfare are a significant reason for the social worker shortage. As the service is comprised of 90% female workers and is socially conceived as a service provided only to the poor, the government hasn’t found sufficient incentive to provide it with funding appropriate to the demanding care-based roles. As of May 22, 1,500 out of 21,500 jobs in the field were unfilled. Efrat emphasizes that rehabilitating this overburdened service requires offering competitive salaries. In 2020, the Histadrut facilitated a collective agreement with gradual salary increases for social workers. Efrat suggests accelerating the next salary raise to attract new workers and retain existing ones under immense pressure.

Late last year, Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David sent an urgent letter to Welfare and Social Security Minister Yaakov Margi, urging immediate intervention to rebuild and expand the social work system in the wake of “Operation Iron Swords.” The letter highlighted the pre-existing critical shortage of social workers, further exacerbated by the war’s toll. It detailed social workers’ tireless efforts, providing therapeutic care to those traumatized by “images and stories that the human eye and soul cannot bear.” Despite the severe staffing shortage, social workers have continued offering ongoing care for existing issues – further complicated by the war – with “amazing dedication, endless creativity, and superhuman efforts.”

The letter also outlined the war’s devastating impact on the psycho-social well-being of Israeli society, including increased substance abuse, a rise in at-risk youth, economic hardship, heightened family conflict, and worsened situations for people with disabilities, the elderly, and those with mental health issues. All are being cared for by social workers.

The Histadrut and its Union of Social Workers stand ready to work with the government to ensure our social workers have the resources they need to heal our communities. Competitive salaries, immediate reinforcements, and long-term investment in the social work system are crucial to address this crisis. The well-being of our people depends on it.

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