Asylum Seekers' Children in Real Danger in Tel Aviv Unlicensed Day Cares, Study Finds

Five children of asylum seekers died in daycare centers last year, study notes; in one center, children napped on the bare floor, with no mattresses.

Illustrative: Children wake up from a nap at the Unitaf daycare center in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood.
Ariel David

Asylum seekers’ children are risking their lives every day by attending unlicensed day-care centers in south Tel Aviv, a new study has found.

Five children died last year because of the poor conditions at these centers, the study noted.

The study, conducted last year, surveyed 47 unlicensed day-care centers in south Tel Aviv, though not all cooperated with the researchers. These centers care for some 1,500 children from birth until age 7.

The centers are located mainly in private houses or apartments, but a few are in commercial buildings and three are in cellars. Two-thirds of the centers said the children stay inside all day, and almost 60 percent don’t even have a yard.

In 45 percent of the centers, the kitchen was filthy. Two centers even lacked running water.

Three centers had no toilets at all, while about half of them lacked toilets of a suitable height for children. In addition, 62 percent had either no furniture at all or furniture inappropriate for children. In one center, children napped on the bare floor, with no mattresses. And more than half the centers had no toys.

There were also numerous safety problems, including playpens where babies were given bottles without supervision, which can lead to choking – the cause of several of last year’s deaths. Other safety problems included poor ventilation, exposed electrical outlets, unsafe heaters, and poisonous cleaning materials or bug repellents that were within the children’s reach.

More than half the centers had no diaper-changing area, so diapers were simply changed on the floor.

In some cases, the observers saw babies cry for a long time without any staffer coming to check, because there simply wasn’t enough staff. Each center had an average of 30 children and two staffers, and 58 percent of the latter said they had no experience caring for children. Ten of the centers said they had special-needs children.

In about a third of the centers, the staff never went over to the children in playpens while they were awake, and in almost all the centers, staffers rarely had physical contact with the children while they ate.

In 78 percent of the centers, observers said the staff never played with the children or engaged them in any educational activity, while in 91 percent, the main activity was watching television. Moreover, in some centers, the television shows were inappropriate for children – for instance, because of violent content.

Most of the children are Eritrean. But most of the staffers are from western Africa, with the rest from the Philippines, Sudan and Eritrea.

Parents pay the centers up to 600 shekels ($154) per month, and most centers work six days a week (Sunday through Friday). In 17 centers, the children remain until late at night, and six centers said some of the children sleep there overnight. Nine staffers said they weren’t always able to reach the parents if the children were sick.

The staffers reported significant gaps between their own educational views and those of the parents, saying they observed “a great lack of knowledge among the parents about caring for young children.”

“Sometimes I feel bad; the parents don’t respect me,” one staffer said. “They sometimes yell, even in front of the children. Sometimes they bring sick children to the center and don’t answer the phone. There are communication problems, and not all of them speak English.”

Some centers complained that the parents don’t supply their children with necessary equipment like diapers, food or a change of clothes, so they have to make up the shortfall themselves. Sometimes parents don’t change their children’s clothes for a week, one staffer complained, so she has to bathe and change them.

The staffers said many parents are very late picking up their children and insist on bringing the children even when they’re sick. They added that parents needed to be taught such basic matters as bathing their children and brushing their teeth or the importance of spending time with their children.

The researchers, Dr. Yael Meir and Prof. Michelle Slone of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences, said they expected the centers to be bad, but the situation was even worse than they had expected.

“The conditions we discovered in these centers constitute a real danger to life,” they wrote. “Moreover, in these conditions, the children’s future is being stolen from them. In children who grow up without enough contact and attention, something essential to their ability to give trust, to create connections and to develop cognitively, emotionally and socially is damaged. And this is [happening] at a very sensitive age, when the developmental infrastructure for the rest of their lives is being built. The question that must be asked is whether we as a society are willing to allow hundreds or thousands of children to continue growing up in conditions of danger, neglect and want.”

The study was funded by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Israeli Fund for UNICEF and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.