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A 20-month-old toddler was found yesterday afternoon wandering the busy streets of the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad, near Rosh Ha'ayin.

The baby girl, who was suffering from dehydration, was taken to a hospital, where her condition was described as stable.

A driver alerted police after nearly knocking the child down. The child's mother told police she had sent her daughter earlier in the day to a makeshift summer camp run by local high school students, who inadvertently allowed the girl to wander the streets unattended.

Police are treating the mother's claim with some skepticism, however, and intend to investigate her story carefully.

The summer camp was being operated by two 11-year-old girls from the town, who were assisted by the local council's social director. Parents paid NIS 20 for each child they left in the girls' care.

According to the head of the Elad council, who was interviewed by police about the incident, council officials were not aware of the unauthorized summer camp.

Police have opened a criminal investigation into the social director and the parents of the toddler, on suspicion of negligence.

About one hour after the child was found, police managed to track down the mother, who has three other children.

Chief Superintendent Benny Teyer, who is commander of the Rosh Ha'ayin station, was not surprised by yesterday's incident.

Due to the insular nature of the town, police have been unable to properly tackle growing crime in the town. Recently, another phenomenon has begun to worry local officials: child neglect.

Several cases of neglect

Over the last few months, there have been at least seven cases of neglect, including one in which a woman got off a local bus with her shopping bags but forgot her three-year-old son.

Two months ago, an 8-year-old boy was found sleeping on the steps of the local health maintenance organization; his mother, who could not understand the uproar, told police she had just gone to a mikveh (ritual bath) for a few hours.

Another mother, unable to pick up her 3-year-old daughter from kindergarten, told her teachers to send the girl home - a distance of three kilometers - by foot.

"It's a heavy burden on the police," Teyer said yesterday.

"As soon as I get a report of a child that young wandering the streets, I send every available officer to deal with it, including, if necessary, a helicopter. We try to educate people using community policing via the local media and welfare services. The problem is that not everyone from this community knows the police."

The population of Elad, which is located close to the affluent community of Shoham, has grown fourfold in the past four years, now stands at 25,000. Close to 75 percent are under the age of 14, while half are under the age of six.