Israel Is Failing Kids in Psychiatric Wards, Justice Ministry Says

The state must increase oversight of psychiatric institutions, a ministry official tells Israeli parliament, after a nurse at a ward was arrested on charges of killing a 17-year-old who was once hospitalized there

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Seventeen-year-old Lital Yael Melnik
Seventeen-year-old Lital Yael Melnik Credit: Courtesy of family
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The state does not supervise the juvenile wards of psychiatric hospitals, a Justice Ministry official told a Knesset committee on Tuesday.

The Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee was discussing the murder Saturday of a 17-year-old-girl near Haifa. A 49-year-old male nurse at an area psychiatric hospital in which Lital Yael Melnik had previously been an inpatient was arrested as the prime suspect. Police have said they believe the suspect, whose name has not been released for publication, buried Melnik alive at the building site where her body was found.

Lidia Rabinovich, head of child representation in the ministry’s legal aid department, said her department had called for an investigation into the conduct of Tirat Carmel Mental Health Center in the wake of the murder. “An inquiry committee should have been set up yesterday,” she said.

Moreover, she said, the state must increase oversight of these institutions. There hasn’t been a single directive by any Justice Ministry director general about psychiatric hospitals’ juvenile wards, and legal aid can only represent teens over age 15, she added.

“They aren’t allowed to meet with our lawyers in the psychiatric wards, and children aren’t brought to court,” Rabinovich said, adding that her department has complained about this more than once.

Lital Yael Melnik's funeral, Monday. Credit: Rami Shllush

The legal aid department represented Melnik when she was first hospitalized, but later, “she agreed to the hospitalization, so we couldn’t represent her,” Rabinovich said. “Another legal case was recently opened for her, but unfortunately, she ran away, so we didn’t manage to meet with her.”

Rabinovich cited two court rulings that criticized Tirat Carmel and claimed that this was why she was denied legal representation. “The picture painted by the minor’s lawyer is worrisome,” one ruling said.

The Knesset’s Committee for the Rights of the Child also discussed Melnik’s case on Tuesday. Dr. Tal Bergman, who heads the Health Ministry’s mental health department, told the panel that the ministry doesn’t always know if employees of psychiatric hospitals who work with minors have been indicted or convicted.

“This was a tragic incident, and if there were failures, the system will draw conclusions,” she added.

The ministry conducts licensing inspections of psychiatric hospitals every three years on average, Bergman said, including inspections of the wards. “But there are things we’ll never be able to discover, like what an employee does outside work hours,” she added.

Guy David, a lawyer representing the Civil Service Commission at the meeting, said Tirat Carmel didn’t know the suspect in her murder had been served with a restraining order requiring him to stay away from her. “The restraining order was discovered only during the investigation,” he said.

Vered Windman, executive director of the National Council for the Child, said her organization had previously asked for an inquiry committee for a recent incident at Tirat Carmel in which a security guard was charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

“Policy, regulations and procedures are being written in children’s blood,” Windman said. “This has to stop. ... We can’t save this poor girl, but maybe the next ones.”

Rakefet Ben-Gai of the Social Affairs Ministry said the ministry’s ability to protect 17-year-olds requires rethinking. “Our teens run away, use drugs,” she said. “They’re under our responsibility, but the tools we can use with at-risk teens are limited.” The ministry can’t even put a child in a closed room, she said.

Currently, around 6,500 children are in residential ministry facilities, and there have been 1,481 incidents defined as “irregular,” she added.

Simona Steinmetz, the ministry’s ombudsman for complaints from children in residential facilities and foster families, said that last year, 600 of the 17,000 children in these programs filed complaints. “Many were about their treatment by counselors,” she added.

This year, she said, there have been complaints “that were found justified but nevertheless not dealt with.” That problem has been far more common this year than in previous years, she said.

Inbal Hermoni, head of the social workers’ union, accused the government of “deliberately drying out the system. There’s a lack of funding, and that has many implications. The programs are understaffed and sometimes work in subpar conditions – both inpatient programs and programs in the community.”

MK Michal Shir Segman (New Hope), who chairs the children’s rights committee, said the government isn’t adequately protecting the children in its facilities. “This isn’t how a properly run country functions,” she said.

The government should “create a single address that will protect minors’ welfare, establish an ombudsman’s office that can penetrate closed facilities and meet with the minors sheltered there, and periodically inspect the criminal records and qualifications of all employees of institutions where minors live,” she added.

Police concluded that Melnik and the nurse were involved romantically, which is why Melnik’s family obtained a restraining order against him. Yet he was still working in the ward the day she was killed.

The Health Ministry said that “to the extent that it later emerges that there were professional or managerial failures, the ministry will draw conclusions accordingly.”

Nevertheless, its statement continued, it can’t set up an inquiry committee while the police investigation is in process, for fear of obstructing the investigation. “The moment the criminal investigation ends, we’ll be able to make a decision on this issue,” it added.

Finally, while the ministry already tries to screen employees at psychiatric institutions that handle children and also to provide physical security, the mental health system “will continue to improve itself,” the statement said.

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