New Immigrant Families Suffer as Special-needs Kids Wait for School Places

Israel's education system is not set up for the rapid admission of children with severe special needs in the middle of the school year.

A winding staircase in a Jerusalem apartment building leads to the crowded home of the Ouspensky family. Sasha, 5, sits on a blanket on the floor of the tiny living room. His mother, Lena, has just finished with the green pot that serves as his bedpan.

Sasha has muscular dystrophy, a group of genetic disorders that cause progressive wasting of the muscles. He requires round-the-clock care and cannot move on his own.

The Ouspensky family - Emil Salman
Emil Salman

The Ouspenskys recently celebrated their one-year immigration anniversary. But because Lena and her husband, Alexander, spend most of their time caring for their son and working - she cleans houses, he works as a geriatric home health aide - their attendance at Hebrew classes has been spotty, and they speak through an interpreter.

The Israeli authorities did not recognize the diagnosis of Sasha's condition, performed in Ukraine, despite the medical records his parents brought with them when they immigrated. Consequently, he was forced to remain at home for two months before having his diagnosis confirmed by a local doctor.

His parents say the Education Ministry's placement committee did not evaluate Sasha until last May. They were later told that because there were no openings at any suitable schools for the remainder of the 2010-2011 school year, Sasha could only begin school in September 2011.

"He simply sat at home all of the last [academic] year," Lena related. "He didn't go to school, didn't meet children, he couldn't learn Hebrew. He went to kindergarten for the first time three months ago."

To make matters worse, 20 percent of the National Insurance Institute disability allowance for children is paid only to children who are enrolled in school. The policy is meant to encourage parents with special-needs children to send them to school, but for the Ouspenskys it was yet another hardship.

It may sound like just a regrettable case of one new-immigrant family falling through the bureaucratic cracks, but speaking with the immigrant parents of other special-needs children, Haaretz heard versions of the same story again and again. The system is not set up for the rapid admission of children with severe special needs in the middle of the school year, and entire families suffer as a result.

Haaretz spoke with the families of Rita, 12, who has autism, and of Leonid, 3, who has severe brain damage. Both children stayed at home for months before finding school placements. And in Jerusalem, Upper Nazareth and Bat Yam, we found three very recently immigrated families with similar stories.

Diana Uhrich, 5, who has severe cerebral palsy and whose family moved into their new home in Pisgat Ze'ev on Tuesday, will have to wait until September 2012 to start school, explains Lana Eisenstadt. Eisenstadt is a consultant for Kesher, an advocacy organization for families with special-needs children.

The Education Ministry said it gives all special-needs children a "broad educational and emotional framework," and that the special education division had received no complaints about the failure to place immigrant children with special needs in educational institutions.

The NII said a reversal of the regulation on disability payments is in the works.