Israel's Daycare Nightmare: Staff Describes Routine Child Abuse and Humiliation

Childcare aides describe harrowing accounts of toddlers suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of poorly supervised care givers

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
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Parents demonstrate to demand legislation for tighter supervision at day care centers after the death of a toddler in Petah Tikvah.
Parents demonstrate to demand legislation for tighter supervision at day care centers after the death of a toddler in Petah Tikvah.Credit: Moti Milrod
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

Hila Peretz, 30, of Tel Aviv, has been working as a preschool aide for five years in the central region. She has worked in as many as five day care centers and says that “in all the centers I worked at – there has been child abuse, sometimes violence as well.”

Peretz said she once asked the nursery school teacher for another food helping for a child who was still hungry.

“The teacher said ‘excuse me, there is no third meal here,’ and although I insisted the boy was still hungry it did no good. She said there were rules and that the mealtime was over anyway and we must start cleaning up. Then she grasped the boy’s shoulder, lifted him forcibly out of his chair and hurled him on a mattress. I left the room and it stuck in my throat,” Peretz said.

Peretz reported the incident to the manager, but “she treated me with contempt and said ‘you don’t have to make an incident out of everything, nothing happened.’”

Heli Pinshev, 29: 'My dream is to open a nursery school of my own, which will be with cameras and open to parents'Credit: Moti Milrod

When she returned to the nursery school room, she says, she saw the boy under the table, crying and eating leftovers. This wasn’t the only case, she says, but whenever she spoke out about irregular incidents she witnessed, she encountered hostile reactions from the staff.

Since the death of 14-month-old Yasmin Vineta in a Petah Tikva day care center last month, public demands have risen for government regulation of day care centers for toddlers under three and to tighten supervision over those creches where there is some oversight.

Inna Schevenko, a preschool assistant caregiver, was charged this week with killing Vineta and with “regularly abusing babies.”

Two years ago a complaint was filed against her for being violent with a toddler, but the case was closed for lack of evidence and she continued working at the nursery school.

Vineta's death has highlighted the extent to which day care for babies and toddlers is under-regulated and under-supervised. In a Facebook group called “Fighting for our Children,” set up in the aftermath of the toddler's death, more than 30,000 people discuss ways to prevent a recurrence of such tragedy.

Preschool assistants interviewed by Haaretz this week described a routine dark spectacle of abuse and violence at their workplaces, on the part of nursery school teachers and aides.

In one of the posts, Nina Chovenko, 29, who had worked as a preschool aide, said that even in a Na'amat day care center.

“I heard everyday how they speak to the toddlers: Are you crying? Cry! I also want my mother but my mother’s in the grave,” Chovenko said she heard a caregiver say.

In a private preschool center in Givat Shmuel she saw the nursery school teacher perform psychological abuse when she asked a three-year-old if she was going to be the ‘Shabbat mom’. When the girl said yes, excitedly, the teacher retorted: “so now you won’t be.”

In a private toddler’s center she saw an aide strike a seven-month-old baby. “They had a filthy blanket on the floor, which they never changed and I have no idea how the parents didn’t see such a thing,” Chovenko said.

She said police opened an investigation when she told parents about that incident and some of the assistants were fired.

Heli Pinshev, 29, of Petah Tikva, left her last position two weeks ago. She worked for five years as a preschool assistant in a nursery school supervised by the Labor Ministry and in two private establishments. Like many other aides, she was inexperienced in caring for toddlers and received no professional training beforehand.

In one private center, she said, “we were three assistants and a teacher in charge of 35 children. There was one boy who liked to act wild – a very energetic boy. They told us simply to take him by the hand and sit him on a chair outside and if he cries, let him cry outside and not disturb anyone.”

But what she saw in a supervised nursery school in Petah Tikva was worse. “On the day I started working, during lunch, a girl asked for another meatball. Since I was feeding another child, I told her simply to take another meatball from the bowl on the table. When the girl reached out for the bowl, another assistant near us hit her on the hand and said ‘stop eating, pig.’” Pinchev reported the incident and the aide was dismissed, but she, too, left the place four months later.

Pinchev left a job at the last nursery school where she worked after just a week after seeing an aide picking up a seated girl who by her shirt.

“When I started working, I wasn’t a mother yet, so you don’t really know if what they do is right or not, you’re new so you have a feeling everyone understands, everyone knows, except you. So everything can look legitimate, even when they throw a child into a corner because he didn’t behave himself,” she said.

In all the years she worked in nursery schools she never encountered supervision or inspection of any kind, Pinchev said.

“My dream is to open a nursery school of my own, which will be with cameras and open to parents, who could come and go whenever they want,” she added.

Peretz rarely encountered any supervisors in the municipal nursery schools where she worked, including those supervised by the Labor Ministry. She says a supervisor would show up once a month, “but we knew in advance and would prepare for it. ‘Let’s get ready,’ they’d say and everyone would act hypocritically when she came, like they do around the parents.”

Part of the problem is that almost anyone can open a day care center and look after toddlers and infants. There is no required training. Only 23 percent of children under three years of age are in supervised day care.

Legislation proposed by the cabinet to tighten supervision over preschool centers has been delayed for months as ministers argue, mainly over funding. The bill calls for setting regulations to require day care centers to obtain licenses, for the staff to receive professional training, ceilings on numbers of children receiving care, and requiring tight, continuous supervision of all these establishments.

Hodaya Peretz, 23, has four years’ experience as an aide. The first nursery school she worked in was in a kibbutz in the Jerusalem area, which she left after three months. She says children were not beaten there, but the senior teacher treated the children rudely and exercised force when they didn’t obey her. She says “If I’d approach a child who was crying a lot because she punished him, she would get annoyed with me. ‘You have no right to take him, I’m the one who put him aside’ and things like that.”

Peretz says she reported this to the school’s manager, who responded by firing her rather than the teacher. “I knew the reason was that I had opened my mouth,” she says.

After her dismissal she worked in an ultra-Orthodox nursery school in Beit Shemesh. “The care givers were amazing, but the manager was an abuser,” she says. “She didn’t agree to let the babies out into the yard, they were in the room all day.”

The manager used to curse near the children, she says. “Once she started shouting ‘what’s this here? A brothel?’ There were religious children there and near them she would say about their parents that ‘all they cared about was making more children, what stinking children.’ Once she came to a gathering with us and the children made a noise, so she said, ‘believe me, children are the devil.’”

One especially serious case she remembers involved an ultra-Orthodox three-year-old with psychological problems. “His sister, two years old, was also in the school and his mother was pregnant. He kept hitting his sister and the other children,” she says.

One day the manager got annoyed because the child made a noise while the other children were sleeping. “She told one of the caretakers to grab him. The caretaker grabbed him and put him on the mattress, and then she told the caretaker, ‘sit on him, sit on him so he doesn’t move.’ The caretaker said to her ‘what, are you serious?’”

She believes security cameras should be placed in every nursery school and that “the moment a parent suspects something, he should take it immediately to the police.” If cameras are installed, complaints may help. Without cameras it is very hard to verify a suspicion if there is no direct testimony.

A 36-year-old aide from Be’er Sheva worked a year and a half ago in a preschool center run in a private apartment in the city. She says she only lasted two months in the job because she couldn’t take the behavior there, especially at mealtime and when the toddlers’ were being laid down to nap. Those were the tense moments at the center and the nursery school teacher acted impatiently and violently. “There was a boy she used to eat forcibly, and he used to look at me because he knew I was gentler with him. So she used to shout at him ‘what are you looking at her for, you thing she can help you? You think anyone can help you?”

She believes these things took place because there was no supervision, and the teacher made sure everything looked good when the parents came to take the children home from the school. “The parent sees the child happy and thinks he’s having a good time in the nursery school. He doesn’t understand the child is happy to be going away from it,” she says.

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