Childcare concerns: Creating a safer space for Israel’s babies

"Anyone can open a daycare center, and there is no supervision or enforcement."

A DAYCARE CENTER in Jerusalem. [Illustrative photo] (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A DAYCARE CENTER in Jerusalem. [Illustrative photo]
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
"You need a license to open a falafel stand or a pizzeria but not to open a daycare center,” laments Liat Glantz, coordinator of the Coalition for Education from Birth.
The coalition works to advance legislation to establish oversight of private daycare centers for ages 0 to three, legislation that was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in December, and then unanimously passed the preliminary vote by the Knesset, but has not yet progressed from there.
To date, there is no oversight over private daycare centers, meaning that anyone who wants to open a center can do so without a license, without any regulated standards of safety, or any form of supervision.
In contrast, public daycare centers are under the authority of the Labor and Social Services Ministry, which provides oversight and enforcement.
Today, only 23% of all Israeli children between the ages of 0 and three, the total of which amounts to some 600,000 children, are in supervised frameworks. The rest of the children just “vanish,” says Carmit Polak-Cohen, legal adviser of the Israel National Council for the Child, which is a member of the coalition. “We just don’t know where they are.”
Children from the haredi and Arab sectors make up only 2.5% and 0.5%, respectively, of the 23% who are in supervised frameworks.
Various concerned parents, educators, politicians and NGOs have been trying to change the current situation for years. In December 2015, the coalition was founded, comprising educators, daycare center managers and staff, parents, activists, NGOs, academics and other partners from all over Israel, who together worked on a comprehensive plan.
Their three core aims are: government regulation of the frameworks available to children between 0 and three; a vast increase of the number of daycare centers for children of that age; and the transfer of authority for the daycare centers from the Labor and Social Services Ministry to the Education Ministry.
The Education Ministry is responsible for frameworks for all children over the age of three, and thus the coalition believes it would be beneficial, for the sake of continuity and consistency, for the same ministry to be responsible for the younger children, too.
Polak-Cohen notes, however, that since the matter was transferred from the Finance Ministry to the Labor and Social Services Ministry in 2016, the latter has been cooperative and has shown willingness, and taken action, to advance legislation.
The ministry has accelerated the construction of daycare centers, providing subsidized and supervised frameworks for some 12,000 babies and toddlers in the past year and has allocated millions of shekels to build more.
Polak-Cohen stresses the importance of the 0-to-three age group from the educational and developmental perspective.
“In the early ages, studies show the brain is developing, and we can make an impact on the child’s development – and the state does nothing. Children go to places that don’t even need a license to open them. Anyone can open a daycare center, and there is no supervision or enforcement.
“We are creating an absurd situation where children come to educational institutions at the age of three, and we need to fix all that was done or wasn’t done beforehand,” she says. By then, she believes, it is “too little, too late.”
IN ADDITION to the educational and developmental impact, there are even more serious concerns regarding the safety of the children.
“Someone who wants to open a business needs a permit, but someone who want to look after children doesn’t need to produce any document or request any permit. It’s not logical,” she remarks.
This relates to the safety of the space in which the children are being kept, with regard to potential hazards, as well as the reliability of the very people with whom parents are entrusting their children. Far too often, there are reports of neglect of children and, worse, violence against children at preschools.
In recent weeks alone police have opened criminal investigations into two separate incidents and preschools in Petah Tikva: one incident concerning the death of a baby, and another that resulted in a baby with a broken arm winding up in the hospital.
On Wednesday police revealed disturbing details regarding the former investigation, after having watched security tape showing a kindergarten assistant dragging the baby, throwing her on the floor and lying on her, seemingly smothering her to death with a blanket. From watching security videos, investigators discovered more than 10 incidents in which that suspect, in addition to another preschool assistant, used force against babies under their care.
The one-year-old baby who was smothered to death with a blanket (Courtesy)The one-year-old baby who was smothered to death with a blanket (Courtesy)
It’s impossible to know how many such incidents there are of this kind, since there is no supervisory body overseeing all of the daycare centers.
“Of course, also at supervised places there can be disasters, but we must do the maximum to protect all the children of Israel. And why not?” asks Polak-Cohen. “Because it costs money?”
MK YIFAT Shasha-Biton (Kulanu), chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Rights of the Child, who initiated the bill together with Knesset Education, Sports and Culture Committee chairman MK Ya’acov Margi (Shas), is certain that it will significantly decrease incidents of this kind.
The legislation will establish conditions for the granting of licenses to operate daycare centers and will further bring the private centers under the authority of the Labor and Social Services Ministry.
The new bill would authorize the Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz to establish regulations regarding the requirements of education, training and experience for staff members. The proposal also details the conditions for the physical environment required in the daycare center in terms of safety and sanitation, and deals with the standardization of personnel and programs of care and education in these institutions.
Bills of this kind have been advanced in previous governments, but never went through, which Shasha-Biton blames on the organizations that operate daycare centers.
“They are comfortable with the situation they have today,” she explained.
The resistance, she noted, comes not only from the organizations that operate the private daycares but also from some of the organizations that operate the supervised centers, she noted, because the bill demands standards that don’t exist today.
“Even the supervised daycares work according to standards set in the 1960s, and it’s clear to us all that we are no longer there,” says Shasha-Biton. “We need oversight with an educational orientation – to understand that these are educational frameworks – and we build our criteria and standards in accordance with that, alongside security requirements and all the other important elements.”
“But we are not working for the interests of the organizations; we are working for the interests of the children, and the interest of the children is to take care of their safety,” Shasha-Biton tells The Jerusalem Post.
Historically, daycare centers in Israel were established in order to encourage women to join the workforce, notes Glantz, explaining that this is no longer their purpose, as most women work today, and the standards must be adapted accordingly. “That concept has to change.... All children have the right to a supervised framework, regardless of whether their mother or father or both work,” she states.
All members of the political system, Shasha-Biton says, are in agreement on the need for the legislation.
At the moment they are waiting for the Labor and Social Services Ministry to bring a government bill in order to propel the legislation forward.
“There are a few gaps between us,” she explains, saying that, at the moment, she, Margi and MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) are working to hammer out details with the ministry.
For example, the MKs have asked that the day schools take a minimum of five children each, but the ministry is arguing that they take a minimum of 12 children each.
“This would uproot all the small private daycare centers that exist today, and that´s not what we want. I imagine we will compromise on a minimum of about seven children,” Shasha-Biton says.
It’s clear that the law cannot be implemented all at once, she adds, saying that the technical process will take time, and they are looking at a work plan of at least five years.
Some parents have expressed concern that the law would make daycare centers even more expensive than they are today, but Shasha- Biton says it should do the opposite.
“At the end of the process, more preschools will be subsidized,” she asserts.
“But this isn’t the point. When we put children in a framework, we must ensure that these children are in a setting that is safe. Today we are not there. Anyone can open a preschool in a warehouse or wherever they want. You don’t know who is looking after the children. The minimal issues don’t cost money. To check that a pedophile isn’t taking care of children does not cost money,” she continues, adding that this bill would create a law to check that – which doesn’t exist today.
But Shasha-Biton is determined that in this government, the bill will pass.
“I feel it is our responsibility and duty to do it; and instead of resisting, I hope everyone will help to find together the best way to bring it to the finish line,” she says.
“It passed the preliminary reading with one voice – it crosses political parties.”
Lidar Gravé-Lazi contributed to this article.