The Knesset passed a law Tuesday that for the first time details the rights of foster families and foster children and regulates their relationship with their biological parents.
But the new law provides no mechanism for implementing one of its key provisions – a clause stating that foster care should be strictly temporary, because “it is a child’s natural right to grow up in his parents’ house, and if he was taken from it, to return to it.” Unless steps are taken to rehabilitate the parents, the conditions that led to the child’s removal will presumably remain unchanged, precluding any possibility of his return. Nevertheless, the law does not mandate any effort to rehabilitate the parents while the child is in foster care, nor does it allocate any funding for this purpose.
The Social Affairs Ministry estimates that a parental rehabilitation program would cost about 200 million shekels ($51 million) a year. That high cost is why parental rehabilitation was left out of the law, sponsored by MK Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid), despite the ministry’s urging that it be included.
Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz has therefore ordered his ministry to draft another bill that will mandate efforts to rehabilitate parents whose children have been removed from their care and placed either with foster families or in institutions.
“The law merely states vaguely that efforts should be made to rehabilitate the parents, but there’s no budgetary or operative clause,” complained attorney Maskit Bendel of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “What good are statements about the child’s welfare if you don’t rehabilitate his family?”
But Rinat Wagner, deputy legal advisor of the Social Affairs Ministry, said the law nevertheless “constitutes significant progress on this issue,” because a child’s right to be returned to his parents’ home as soon as possible has for the first time been set down in legislation. The next step, she continued, is legislation governing the rehabilitation of parents whose children are deemed at risk or have already been removed, “to strengthen the family unit and prevent their being sent to fosterage or enable their return.”
Until now, the rights of foster parents and children have been addressed solely through regulations governing social workers, and those rights were fairly limited.
The new law is meant to make foster families’ daily lives significantly easier by giving foster parents much more decision-making authority. Foster parents can now decide everything from where their foster children go to school to how their hair is cut, whether they can go on trips or get a driver’s license, and whether they need to see a medical specialist. Until now, all these actions needed approval from the biological parents.
The law also creates an ombudsman to handle children’s complaints. The ombudsman’s office will be part of the Social Affairs Ministry, but will be completely independent.
Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, head of the Israel National Council for the Child, said this was needed because children in residential facilities or foster care sometimes suffer mistreatment, ranging from physical or sexual abuse through neglect to verbal violence or deprivation of rights, yet they are reluctant to complain to anyone “inside the system.”
Another provision of the law requires foster parents to be licensed by the Social Affairs Ministry. To obtain a license, foster parents will have to undergo a training program.
There are currently some 10,000 children in Israel who have been removed from their parents’ care. About 8,000 are in residential facilities (boarding schools or youth villages) while the remainder are in foster care. This is the opposite of the situation in other Western countries, where about 80 percent of such children are in foster care and only about 20 percent are in institutions.