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The authorities have known for some time of the neglect, physical harm and safety hazards experienced by children of foreign workers at unauthorized day cares in Tel Aviv, but until now the issue has been virtually unaddressed.

The Mesila center, created by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality to assist foreign workers, is now coordinating the filing of complaints on the matter to police and the ministries of welfare and industry, trade and labor.

The group's director, Tamar Schwartz, says, "All the bodies we have turned to for assistance have shirked responsibility, directing us to another institution. Nobody is willing to take responsibility for these kids."

About 40 unauthorized day care centers in Tel Aviv cater for some 1,000 children of foreign workers, from birth to the age of 3. Some older children (aged 3-6) arrive at the centers in the afternoon after spending the morning hours in municipally-funded care facilities.

Parents pay the facilities about $100 a month to take care of their children. Caretakers there generally have no background in childcare, but through the help of Mesila and other organizations, they are now receiving pedagogical instruction and volunteer help.

A number of complaints lodged in recent years refered to two nurseries in south Tel Aviv, which together care for about 50 children. Aid groups describe violent outbursts toward children on the part of caretakers, including beatings with belts and canes, yelling and punishments such as long periods of isolation in bathrooms.

The complaints also cite safety hazards such as exposed electrical wires, an absence of safety rails in staircases and children being left without adult supervision.

On visiting one of the day cares, which consists of two small rooms, safety hazards are apparent. Unsafe electrical sockets are located throughout the house, and there are improvised gas tanks at its entrance. Peeling walls bear drawings scribbled by the children.

Some playpens hold two or three babies just a few months old. Aid agencies claim the babies are often kept for several hours without the presence of a caretaker.

Pat, a Nigerian woman who works at one of the nurseries, is aware the situation has become dire. "I need help," she says. "I buy the kids food and cook for them, but the money isn't enough." Schwartz says it is the children who suffer most. "Children aged 0 to 3 fall between the cracks, as it's unclear whose responsibility it is to supervise these centers - the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry or the Welfare Ministry. Every government employee shirks responsibility and says the problem isn't theirs, but someone else's."

"The state of Israel treats the children of foreign workers as if they didn't exist," adds Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, who heads the National Council for the Child. "Aside from the Education Ministry, the various government bodies ignore these kids, even when they're in awful situations. Nobody cares about their health or wellbeing. This is a blatant violation of basic human rights."

Tel Aviv district police said in response, "All the complaints filed with police have been dealt with, and in one of the cases a caretaker was detained and brought before a judge. The ensuing investigation did not indicate there had been neglect or violence toward the children."

The Welfare Ministry stated, "By law, authority over supervising day care centers lies with the Education Ministry and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. The Welfare Ministry may intervene only in situations of explicit reports of a child being in danger."

The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry said, "The day care centers in question are not under the ministry's supervision. In addition, we are working to assist these operations to improve their standards."