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Argentine Meltdown Takes a Toll on the Most Defenseless — Children

February 4, 2002
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An alarming number of at-risk children are among the Jewish victims of Argentina’s economic collapse.

Even in the most stable families, children have been hit by the fallout from the collapse. For unstable parents, desperate conditions like those in crisis-ridden Argentina only make matters worse — and often it is their children who pay the price.

What money still comes in may go to feed the parents, rather than their children. That deprivation, along with the social stress of an economic crisis, is leading to a rise in child abuse, according to social service workers in the Jewish community, which numbers approximately 200,000.

With community resources already overstretched, at-risk Jewish children face abuse and neglect from their parents on the one hand, and the prospect of being turned over to the state’s Catholic institutions on the other.

That was the message spelled out by Buenos Aires’ municipal justice authority in a letter to Ieladeinu — Hebrew for “Our Children” — an Argentine Jewish organization dedicated to rebuilding dysfunctional families.

The letter urged the organization to increase its capacity because of a marked rise in the number of Jewish children in distress.

In dire straits from Argentina’s economic meltdown, however, Ieladeinu hasn’t even been able to pay staff salaries since November.

“In Argentina, we are living like in a war,” Ieladeinu director Karina Pincever said.

The “floor is moving,” she said, seeking an analogy to express the instability in the country.

Children are an easy target for frustrated parents.

“The kid is the first thing that they have in front of” them, Pincever said.

Ieladeinu opened three years ago when Pincever learned of a Jewish boy in one of the state institutions, which she described as deplorable places where older children often sexually abuse younger ones.

Stoned by the other children for being Jewish, the boy was rescued by Pincever and, eventually, reunited with his family.

The experience showed Pincever how sorely children’s services were lacking in the Jewish community.

AMIA, the main social service institution in the community, has been providing social workers to families since 1994, when the AMIA building was destroyed in a terrorist bombing.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began offering volunteer psychological services to Jewish families in 1996. Today it offers such help in 38 centers across Argentina.

Melina Fiszerman, a JDC staffer in Buenos Aires, confirmed that the economic crisis has put more children at risk and led to increased domestic violence. But that’s not the only emotional consequence of the crisis, she said.

“Uncertainty for survival brings emotional problems,” Fiszerman said. Many families also are struggling with depression and stressful home environments, as several generations move in together to make ends meet.

However, Jewish leaders in Argentina reject a rumor that hundreds of Jewish children have been dropped off at state-run orphanages by parents who can no longer afford them. The real story, they say, is a growing risk of child abuse.

The community continues to hand out cash assistance and food packages each month to poorer Jews, but that doesn’t solve the problems, according to one Ieladeinu volunteer.

In one case, she said, a third-generation welfare recipient had six children — ranging in age from six months to 13 years old — who had been severely neglected.

Six months ago, after a court sentenced each child to a different state institution, Ieladeinu took them in and opened its first foster home for Jewish children.

The organization now works with 70 children who live with their families and has 25 children in foster care who receive room, board, medical care, education, work opportunities and psychological treatment.

As Ieladeinu has grown, the state and the Jewish community have learned to alert it to new cases of abuse. Ieladeinu also has begun an investigation to determine how many Jewish children are suffering in state institutions, in abusive homes or on the street.

To date they have found more than 200 — including the children already in Ieladeinu’s care — but the number is always changing as the crisis continues and as Ieladeinu staff speak with more social workers and institutions.

Just last week, for example, they learned of 30 more children, Pincever said.

“We are working like the Mossad,” she said of Ieladeinu’s intelligence gathering.

But the revelations bring new problems.

Eager to scrimp on expenses, the government is happy to tell Ieladeinu about Jewish children in state-subsidized institutions. But getting those institutions to give up their charges is another matter: Each child in its care brings an institution $400 a month in government subsidies, Pincever said.

Government red tape also slows down the process of moving Jewish children to Ieladeinu’s care.

In any case, Ieladeinu staff know they don’t have the resources to help all the Jewish children in danger.

Learning of the high number of cases last month, Jews in Punta Del Este, Uruguay — a vacation spot for wealthy South American Jews — pledged to raise some $750,000 for Ieladeinu.

In addition, Ari Bergmann, a New York businessman from Brazil, said he is starting a campaign to raise $20 million to help victims of the Argentine crisis, much of which will go toward Ieladeinu.

Two weeks ago, Bergmann helped bring Rabbi Avraham Seruya, of Argentina’s Syrian community, and Rabbi Isaac Saka, of its Turkish community, to New York, where they raised $1.2 million.

However, Ieladeinu has yet to see the money raised in Uruguay, and says it is not aware of Bergmann’s activities.

Ieladeinu’s president, Chabad Rabbi Zvi Grunblatt, confirmed that Seruya and Saka recently offered their assistance to reach Sephardic donors, but said he hadn’t been informed about the result of the pair’s recent trip to New York.

Ieladeinu is continuing to look for outside funds, something the self-sustaining Argentinian Jewish community hasn’t had to do until recently.

In the meantime, Ieladeinu is making progress, with staffers who continue to work with just the promise of payment.

The adolescent children in Ieladeinu’s care arrange Shabbat flower bouquets every Friday morning — which they sell for a few pesos at the market to the Jewish friends or family of Ieladeinu staff.

For now, Ieladeinu is offering what volunteer Deborah Shayo Hazan called “handmade” solutions for each child. Ultimately, however, “We want to rebuild the family so they can live with the parents again,” Hazan said.

And the six children Ieladeinu took in from the third-generation welfare recipient are enjoying a summer vacation program with Ieladeinu’s other foster kids and other Argentine children, Pincever said.

Their counselors report that the six siblings are playing with the other children and exhibiting no problems.

For those children — kicked out of school six months ago for their poor hygiene — it’s nothing short of “a miracle,” Pincever said.

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