The other side of the Lori Shem-Tov scandal
However the criminal proceeding against the perpetrator will end, it still shine a spotlight for parents whose children were taken from them through a controversial procedure behind closed doors
Last week, the “HaMakor” (“The Source” in Hebrew) television program addressed the case of Lori Shem-Tov, who is being tried along with others for numerous written offenses and actions allegedly carried out in opposition to welfare and law enforcement officials. Did she act unlawfully? That will be determined by the court, but the public debate on the functioning of the welfare system cannot be delayed.
In recent years, I have delved into the depths of the world of caring for at-risk children as part of my position at ACRI. I cherish the work of social workers. They work to do good under impossible conditions – subpar regulations, with almost zero resources for the treatment of families facing hardships – and are exposed to harsh criticism and even violence. All this aside, I have no doubt that radical reform is needed.
The welfare system that addresses at-risk children operates in the absence of legislative regulation and on the basis of archaic directives. This regulation does not provide sufficient protection for human rights or a manner that suits the fate of decisions regarding at-risk children and the characteristics of their population – very poor, with minimal education, and various medical, cognitive, and mental challenges.
Even the procedure in juvenile courts is an "ex-territory" of sorts among the legal world. In most of the hearings, parents are not represented and cannot address the claims made against them through a severe violation of the right of access to the courts. All this takes place under the cloak of total secrecy, with no genuine possibility for monitoring and supervising what happens behind closed doors.
“HaMakor” indicated that Shem-Tov's actions caused a chilling effect on the work of social workers. Among other things, the chair of the Israel Association of Social Workers said that "they began to examine their decisions, whether they would be acceptable in accordance with court standards, or unacceptable by court standards. Is it possible to try to leave the kid at home a bit more, and search for another solution and another solution and another solution."
It seems that the implication is that Shem-Tov's actions caused excessive over-cautiousness, but this sentence should concern us, as it paints all of this proper social work conduct as the consequence of damage caused by Shem-Tov and her associates' actions.
This trial should concern us for two reasons: one is the expectation that this should be the norm for social workers as opposed to the the result of fear and intimidation imposed upon them. The norm, in fact, should be for such decisions to "uphold court standards," as from the outset upon appealing to the court there is a solid factual basis for the demand to remove children from home, and that all alternatives have been exhausted prior.
Yet the second reason is truly important in terms of criminal law: tearing children apart from their families and parents from their children. In such circumstances, the norm should indeed require double and triple caution.
ACRI has been working for years to regulate the operations of the welfare system in order to ensure that it conforms to the standards of all state authorities and will include substantial protections for due process and human rights. Unfortunately, progress is slow, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services places many restrictions on various reforms, even the most basic of a state of law. For example, that parents be represented in fateful procedures in juvenile court, and that they have representation before administrative committees in the welfare system that makes decisions regarding their children's care.
ACRI also demanded that there be orderly documentation of what was said in these committees, such that there would be no one-sided hearings in juvenile court, and parents would not undergo arbitrary psychological assessments whose scientific credibility is doubtful, and more.
It is time to talk about what is happening in our backyard: about hardship, poverty, harm to children, and children taken from their parents. Parents should be protected not only because we believe in the rule of law and human rights, but also in order to make more balanced and just decisions for the benefit of us all, including the child.
Maskit Bendel is a lawyer for ACRI