Removing a child from his home should be done only as a last resort, Welfare Minister Meir Cohen said on Monday.
He made the remark during a press conference in Tel Aviv where he released the findings and recommendations of the Silman Committee, headed by Yossi Silman, director-general of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.
The committee that Cohen appointed in 2013 was tasked with examining the ministry’s policy towards removing children from troubled homes and placing them in external frameworks, as well as its policy on providing visitation rights. The committee additionally reviewed the working environment of social workers dealing with these issues, in an attempt to develop an actionable plan to improve their conditions.
Cohen said at the opening of the press conference that since the establishment of the committee “no less than five children were murdered by their parents, which emphasizes the importance of this committee.”
The welfare minister emphasized that the most important issue was first and foremost the safety and wellbeing of the child.
“The last resort as a state is to take a child away from his home and place him in an external framework. This is the final option and will be done only when the child and his needs are in imminent danger,” added Cohen.
The committee conducted its examinations while adhering to the guiding principle of “the best interest of the child,” he said. This principle also serves as the backbone of the Youth (Care and Supervision) Law in 1960, which states that a child has the right to both grow up with his family and to maintain ties with his/her parents under normative circumstances.
The Welfare Ministry is obligated by this law to intervene when a conflict occurs between these two fundamental principles and act to ensure the child’s needs, rights and interests are met once the decision is taken to remove the child from his or her home. To this effect, the ministry has planning and evaluation committees, comprised of welfare professionals, that examine whether or not to invoke the Youth Law and remove a child from his or her home.
The committee report uncovered a number of problems with the existing policies and committees in this area – most notably, a “blurring” of the criteria in distinguishing between “a minor in need” and children and youth at risk who must be removed from their homes.
In addition, the report revealed a lack of permanency in the representation of government officials and health and education professionals in the makeup of the committees.
Finally, the findings revealed that parents with high socioeconomic status had brought legal representation to the committees, a privilege that was not extended to lower-income families.
“We stood before an inherent conflict of the Welfare Ministry: the responsibility we have to save a child and remove him in time from a dysfunctional family, and on the other hand, a child is supposed to grow up in a family framework,” Silman said.
Despite the numerous problems uncovered by the report, Silman added that “the work social workers are doing is very important, and the best interest of the child is always in front of their eyes.”
According to the report, there are currently 85,000 children living in external frameworks, 10 percent of whom were removed from their troubled homes by the Welfare Ministry.
The main recommendation of the Silman committee called for the establishment of two separate committees in deciding the fate of children at risk.
The first committee, the planning and evaluation committee, would remain in place for complex cases requiring a forum of professionals to develop an actionable plan for the treatment and care of a child and his family. This committee would not invoke the Youth Law and would not require legal representation.
The second committee would only convene when there is concern that the Youth Law could be invoked. The Welfare Ministry would grant free legal representation to all lower socioeconomic families required to appear before this committee.
Another recommendation of the report was to strengthen the standing and independence of social workers in dealing with families. The recommendations also called for the establishment of an overseer position, which would be filled by a judge, to deal with public complaints and concerns, in an effort to increase transparency in dealing with this delicate issue. In addition, the report called for the establishment of a regional appeals committee; currently, parents who want to appeal a decision are unable to do so.
The report also recommended further training for social workers with regards to multiculturalism and dealing with migrants and minorities such as the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors.
The committee also recommended that the Welfare Ministry and the state invest money in the development of community programs for children at risk, including rehabilitation and emergency programs.
The committee found that social workers are viewed in a negative light and are regularly subjected to threats, violence and hostile work environments.
As such, the Silman committee recommended the implementation of a “basket” of defense services funded by the Welfare Ministry to protect social workers.
In addition, it called for an awareness campaign to promote the positive standing of the social worker’s image.
“There were committees prior to this one who discussed these issues, and the success of the report will only be measured by its implementation on the ground,” Silman said.
The Welfare Minister said that in the coming weeks the Silman committee would meet with representatives of the finance ministry to budget the recommendations, estimated at NIS 150 million.
“These are the recommendations, they are revolutionary and they cost a lot of money but we need to adopt them; it will take some time but it will lead to a better society,” Cohen said.