Education Min. Sending Detectives to Verify Aid Requests

The Education Ministry is employing private detective agencies to investigate parents who apply for state assistance in kindergarten tuition, a move that has aroused opposition.

The private detectives visit the parents' homes and examine families' housing, furniture and living standards, verify their payslips with their employers and even track down their children in kindergarten.

"It is improper to grant private companies such broad authorities for such intrusive inquiries," attorneys at the Association for Human Rights in Israel (ACRI) say.

Low-income families are eligible for assistance in kindergarten fees. The investigation is meant to verify the families' circumstances as described in their assistance applications.

The Education Ministry has been checking up on parents for years, and has been conducting annual inquiries into some 500 families whose applications appear dubious or suspicious.

The ministry recently issued a new tender to conduct these investigations. The tender requires a "personal visit" to the parents' home and a thorough check that includes "both parents' income sources and place of employment," "additional income sources and assets," "the family's housing situation and ownership of property," "standard of living - according to housing, furniture, etc.," "the family's means of transportation (note kind of vehicle, year of model and ownership)."

The detectives are required to provide "clarifications, comments and general impressions of [the parents] standard of living."

In the case of kindergartens in "project renewal" neighborhoods, where children are entitled to free education from age 3, the detectives must examine the kindergartens and have the teacher verify the child's enrollment.

The investigators must also get the parents' employers to authenticate the payslips they submit and visit the respective local authorities' offices and kindergarten owners' offices.

"The Education Ministry gives the impression that its basic assumption is that everyone is a thief, until proven otherwise," says Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, director of the National Council for the Child (NCC).

"In other places, when it is necessary to ascertain data, they usually make do with checking the last payslips or obtaining confirmation from income tax and National Insurance. But here we're dealing with personal surveillance of families involving unacceptable invasion of privacy," he says.

"If the parents decide to buy new furniture, or God forbid buy a fake leather couch, will the Education Ministry label them as crooks? Will only a torn couch gain a tuition reduction? There is no reason to visit homes and conduct these investigations," he says.

ACRI Attorney Oded Feller says, "This is an exceptionally intrusive inquiry. It is improper for a private body to receive such a broad mandate to conduct such intrusive probes, and the ministry cannot restrict itself to a mere supervisory role."

The Education Ministry commented that these examinations have been conducted for many years "to ascertain that the public funds and benefits go to people who are entitled to them. When a citizen asks for a benefit, the ministry must make sure that he fulfills the required conditions."