In the Name of the Mother, the Child, and the Ministry of Welfare

Daniela is one of the first people I met when I returned to Israel in November, 2015. Daniela was camped, outside the security gate of Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, near my family. She was there days and nights, heat waves, rain storms, and snow. She is protesting, demanding to get her 12-year-old child back, who according to her, was forcibly taken from her two years ago by child protective services, illegally, by using a false psychiatric report.

I am guessing your instinct thought is similar to the one I had. “She must have abused the child”; “there is something we don’t know”. There are many things we don’t know, except it appears many are not about Daniela, rather about the system that separated her from her son.

Daniela was a single working mother, living comfortably in Tel Aviv. She had a good job, a nice apartment and a child she loved; life was good. She is not accused of abusing the child; she does not drink or use drugs. Daniela’s initial fault was removing her child from school. She did; she wished to enroll him in a better school and with the support of her son’s principal, she withdrew him. The child was not accepted to the desired school and her requests to enroll him elsewhere led nowhere, despite extensive correspondence with the Tel Aviv municipality. In the meantime, as documented, she hired tutors and sent her child to extra curricula activities to ensure his education and social life. Social services got involved.

I think it is good there is a system to ensure the well-being of families and understand the concern of a social worker regarding a child out of school for a long period of time. What is beyond me is how or why things escalated into what followed.

The child was violently taken from her by a police squad in the street, and sent to a post traumatic unit at a welfare institute. She was accused of child neglect. To her amazement, Daniela discovered a psychiatric report written about her and her son, claiming she is bizarre, an unfit mother and a danger to the child. I say “to her amazement” because neither Daniela nor her son had met the psychiatrist. This link is a recorded conversation between Daniela and the psychiatrist after the report was written. This recording reveals that he does not know who she or her son are. It also hints that Daniela’s case is not unique. He refuses to write a new report and explains how “this works”. She is instructed to go to another psychiatrist for a different report that will overturn his. The fact that he wrote the report without ever seeing Daniela is her blessing; it exposes this distorted system.

Aside from the fact that it was fraudulently written, I find its context to be disturbing. For example, the psychiatrist’s evaluation is based entirely on hearsay (e.g. “there are many descriptions of the mother…”), basically admitting to not conducting his own evaluation. How is that accepted by the judge? Why require a psychiatric evaluation if the power remains solely in the hands of the social workers? Additionally, all of Daniela’s “problematic aspects” are described in vague terminology; there is nothing concrete. She reportedly has strange behavior and distorted value systems and rules; her son is described as lacking regular habits. A concern is raised that the child prays to objects and has mystical and superstitious beliefs. Strange behavior? Has anyone walked into a shul on Hoshana Rabba?

Are we okay giving this much power to psychiatrists and social workers?

Daniela protested day and night, and slept by the guard post, outside Netanyahu's house. The city confiscated her tent, on the coldest night of the year, before the snow storm.
Daniela protested day and night, and slept by the security post, outside Netanyahu’s house. The city confiscated her tent, on the coldest night of the year, before the snow storm.

So, what is the incentive?

Amnon Levi’s investigative TV program summed it up well. Since the Ministry of Welfare services are disfranchised, the welfare boarding schools are in private hands, similar to the prison system in the US, and the system needs to supply “customers”. For every child placed in such a facility, (~10,000 a year) the institute receives ~17,000 NIS a month. Once the child is in the institute, all the evaluations are conducted by their staff, whose livelihood depends on the child being there. According to Levi, the Ministry annually budgets 1.3 billion NIS for boarding programs as compared to 50 million NIS to support families in the community. This is not a pure “child’s best interest” system; this is a business and many people are making money off it.

Daniela’s lawyer requested 30,000 NIS just to obtain a new psychiatric report, not to mention the rest of the fees. The government takes your child and essentially you need to buy the child back.

I agree with, Prof. Ben Arye (Hebrew U. School of Social Work and Social Welfare), who says mistakes happen. This is not a rant against social workers, most of whom I believe are doing their best in these challenging situations. I am also not talking about clear cases of abuse. But is this a mistake or a system? Can we afford making such mistakes? These are people’s lives. Physicians risk their licenses when making mistakes; social workers are immune to investigations.

Levi attests that for years he dismissed the stream of parents’ testimonies as he wanted to believe in the righteousness of the system. I think we all do; the consequences of it being so flawed are unbearable.

Not surprisingly, this mostly happens to low income families, single parents, parents with disabilities, and immigrants, who rather than receive support from the welfare system live in fear of their children being taken away from them for child neglect, a highly subjective term with no clear legal definition, and having to prove they are worthy parents. Do only wealthy, healthy, “normal” parents hold the right to raise their children without fear of the government? Are these men and women sperm donors and surrogate mothers for Israel’s welfare industry?

For a year and a half Daniela fought the system in conventional ways. She was invisible. In August 2015, Daniela came to Netanyahu’s door step. She demands her son back.

During this time, neither Bibi, nor any official representative approached her. She was regularly harassed by municipality workers, the police and security guards despite the fact there is no law against protesting there. The press has remained silent. What does this say about our society?

Early on in her protest, Daniela met Arik, a social activist who came to support her. They soon after got married, on the street, outside Bibi’s house. The authorities did not permit the child to attend.

Daniela and Arik at their wedding, outside Bibi's house. The authorities did not permit the child to attend
Daniela and Arik at their wedding, outside Bibi’s house. The authorities did not permit the child to attend

On Passover Eve, Daniela and Arik were forced to leave Jerusalem. I suppose their presence there, fighting to free her child, and her freedom to raise him, was too much for Bibi to have this close to his Passover table.

The Ministry of Welfare’s statement of purpose is to support the family within the community. It is time they walk their talk.

*For more information, and to reach Daniela, visit here.

About the Author
Shikma Zaarur, Ph.D., completed her academic training at MIT and Yale University in Earth sciences. She recently returned to Israel and resides in Jerusalem.
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