Israeli children removed from their homes and placed with foster parents are barely monitored by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, according to an internal review conducted by the agency.
The report – the findings of which are being published here for the first time – says ministry officials know about the lapses in the foster system, chief among them a severe lack of personnel. For instance, until 2020 there was only one foster-system inspector for the country's entire central region, which encompasses Tel Aviv and surrounding cities. That single inspector was responsible for more than 1,100 children placed in some 900 foster families.
“Under current conditions, inspectors can follow only a handful of cases. This is no true oversight,” says a source who is familiar with the details and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another source says, “There is a large gap between the attention the children need and proper profiling of foster families, and the manpower available in the ministry and the foster organizations” that manage the system. “We can’t go on like this.”
In a written response, the Social Services Ministry said it has added a few positions and is “doing all it can to increase the workforce.”
The report, submitted in early 2020, found that despite a directive to annually review 810 foster children cases, in practice that total came to just 42 cases in 2018 – 5 percent of the target, and 1.25 percent of all children in foster care for that year. In some districts, zero case files were examined. Among those 42 cases, says the report, the level of services was far from satisfactory. In about 60 percent of cases, either no treatment plan was set for the child or the plan was faulty; 60 percent saw no monthly home visit by the foster counselor, which has been designated as a mandatory step; and most cases examined also lacked documentation for a separate encounter with the child – also deemed mandatory.
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Similarly concerning results emerged from examination of an additional 105 case files at various foster organizations.
This state of affairs, the report says, “is contrary to law or the agreement with the organizations.” Many case files also contain no reference to oversight intended to detect risk situations and sexual assault of foster children. The discovery of “substantial failures in large scope” in a relatively narrow sample may indicate, says the report, “a similar picture in all case files.”
The report, released after a freedom-of-information request filed by Elad Mann, the legal adviser of government watchdog Hatzlacha, also examined the approval system for prospective foster families and the waiting time for children to be placed in families.
In 2021, some 5,200 children were placed in about 4,500 foster families throughout the country, and some 20 percent of foster children have special needs. Removing children from their birth families is considered one of the most drastic interventions the ministry can take, and is done in response to “difficulties in parental function,” as the ministry puts it, due to causes that can include illness, addiction or incarceration. The duration of the foster period can range from a few days or months to several years, and varies according to the type of fostering implemented (emergency, traditional or therapeutic) and how well the birth family manages to rehabilitate itself.
Israel's foster system is operated by five nonprofit organizations that won Social Services Ministry contracts several years ago. These organizations recruit foster families, prepare the families to host children and employ social workers and counselors who make home visits to the birth and foster families.
In response to the report the foster services' national inspector confirmed that, during the review period, “there was not enough labor force to conduct the required oversight of case files,” adding that there are still just five inspectors for the entire country.
The foster organizations also operate under workforce constraints. “The time required to execute assignments is double that of position hours,” one organization said. “We have raised the issue of this impossible and irresponsible workload imposed on our staff since passage of the Foster Law [in 2016] in all possible forums," it said, including with the ministry director general and regional inspectors.
According to a source familiar with the matter, the accepted standard is assigning around 30 children per foster counselor. “If you add up the work required from one full-time counselor, you get almost three full-time positions,” said the source.
According to data obtained by Haaretz, since passage of the law about six years ago, the number of foster children has increased by 75 percent and the number of foster families has doubled – and oversight resources have lagged far behind. The cumulative effect of an insufficient workforce dealing with ever-increasing workloads has been “compromised execution of important oversight actions,” according to the report. That heightens the risk for mismatches of children with foster families, and it can lead to incomplete examination of treatment plans, as well as a lack of oversight in terms of remedying failures within the system.
Maskit Bendel, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel who specializes in the field, says oversight of foster families and “the well-being of the children placed with them" has been de facto "privatized" given their shift, in large part, into the hands of foster organizations. As a result, he says, children stay in temporary environments for lengthy periods and foster families don't get the support and training they need.
"The Social Services Ministry boasts that it retains oversight, but in practice it is gravely neglecting its duty," adds Bendel. "It is unacceptable that the state has failed for decades to properly fund foster care oversight."
In a written response, the Social Services Ministry said that in the wake of the report, it decided on “a series of significant actions to improve the foster system, including adding positions and upgrading the computer system and the training framework." It added that, since 2012, all families holding foster licenses have completed a course, as required by law.
The ministry declined to disclose how long children must wait before placement with a foster family, but said a system has been in place since the beginning of the year to monitor service and wait times. As to the workload, the ministry said four and a half inspector positions and two lower positions have been added since the report was published.