Child Welfare reform plans spark debate

Dispute revolves around power of state-appointed officers to forcibly remove kids from parents' custody.

children in school 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
children in school 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The debate over the power of state-appointed child welfare officers to forcibly remove children from their parents' custody has been reignited in recent weeks by a proposed reform to the Child Welfare Law, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar, who heads the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, has called for the establishment of an official appeals committee - to be headed by a lawyer with connections to the judicial system - to hear complaints from parents over the actions of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry's child welfare officers. Backed by a body of families who believe their children were wrongly taken away from them by social services, Sa'ar told the Post this week that such a committee would give a voice to all families who had been mistreated or misjudged. The move comes in time for this year's International Children's Day, which is marked worldwide on Tuesday. "I believe that in certain basic issues in life, a person should have the opportunity to make themselves heard and appeal even those decisions made by an official government body," Sa'ar said. "This subject needs to be debated in a public forum and the whole process needs to be updated." Sa'ar has already succeeded in having the reform approved by Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and by the Knesset plenum, which passed the bill's first reading two weeks ago. The proposed legislation is currently awaiting a reading in the Knesset Committee for Labor, Welfare and Health. One such parent who feels that the current system severely let her down is Ramit Bar-Eitan, whose children were forcibly removed from her home seven years ago and were placed in the state's care by child welfare officers for more than three months. According to Bar-Eitan, who went on to establish a nongovernmental organization to help other parents who believe their children were taken without justification, the incident started after she physically reprimanded her seven-year-old son following a violent incident at school. "I only slapped him on the wrists as a punishment for hurting another child at school," Bar-Eitan said this week. "The next day the teacher asked him if he'd been punished for what he'd done. When he told them that I had hit him, all hell broke loose." Bar-Eitan recalled that seven police officers and an assortment of social workers and child welfare officers showed up at the family home, accused the parents of abusing their three children and loaded them all into waiting police vans. Her children were in the state's custody for 90 days, she said, during which time she claimed they were used as negotiating pawns until she admitted that she'd been abusing them. "I still shudder when I think about what happened," said Bar-Eitan. "I was always brought up to believe in the law and the legal system, but not now; now I no longer believe in the State of Israel." In the end, Bar-Eitan brought her fight with social services to the public domain when she placed her children's photographs on national billboards with the slogan "Legally Kidnapped" and her phone number. "I was shocked to receive hundreds of calls from other parents who had gone through a similar experience," she said, adding that she now sees it as her mission to warn other families of the absolute power of child welfare officers. Nahum Ido, spokesman for the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, recalled Bar-Eitan's story this week. He discounted the mother's innocence in the scandal, which back then led to the establishment of a committee of inquiry looking into the power of child welfare officers. He told the Post that the family had already been known to social services and that the children were taken only when child welfare officers had no other options left. In most cases, said Ido, the procedure of removing children from their parents involves a court hearing where child welfare officers request their removal. The establishment of an appeals committee in this regard is "pointless," he said. "Child welfare officers do not make the final decision to remove a child from their family; that is made by the courts and such an appeal[s] committee will not be able to overturn the decision of a court." According to official figures from the ministry, 6,500 children are removed from their homes each year and put into institutions or into foster care. Of that number, roughly 400 are taken without their parents' permission. Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, director of the National Council for the Child, backed up the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, saying child welfare officers in fact did not do enough to protect children at risk. "There are more children left in dangerous situations by mistake than taken away from their homes by mistake," he said. "The number of children wrongfully taken away is very, very small." But Sa'ar said: "Even if the figure is small, that does not justify taking a child away from its parents for no good reason. Israel has one of the highest rates of children being removed from their homes, and it's about time we discussed this issue properly."