Experts have warned for years about dangerous conditions in the daycare centers that serve about 2,200 children in 80 locations in Tel Aviv alone, sometimes referring to them as "child warehouses". They say they are overcrowded, understaffed, and that the state is incompetent in dealing with the situation.
The economy and welfare ministries received reports by the state comptroller back in May 2013 – and again last year – warning that the authorities' policies were risking lives. In September 2014 then-welfare minister Meir Cohen ordered NIS 2 million to be earmarked for inspection of the centers. But eight months after the funds were pledged, and despite the ongoing child deaths, none of that sum has been provided.
"There are babies, toddlers, and sometimes also older kids who stay in these centers until late evening hours, in conditions of continuous neglect," wrote the comptroller in his report. "They spend most hours of the day in crowded playpens in a state of ongoing neglect and without activities to stimulate and enrich them.
"Their treatment, supervision, and the fulfillment of their developmental needs are subpar and delay their cognitive and motor development. Sometimes one adult watches over about 30 children, who therefore suffer from a severe lack of physical touching and attention."
The comptroller slammed the fact that his recommendations for significant inspection and licensing were not followed. "For eights months since the release of the report on minors, there has been only minimal progress in the economy and welfare ministries in dealing with the issue," he wrote.
The Economy Ministry said in a statement that it has attempted over the last decade to push a bill for inspection of the daycare centers, but that it failed "following various objections". The ministry stated that without such a bill, it only inspects centers that make a voluntary request and has no authority to inspect other centers or private homes without being accompanied by a welfare worker.
Yehiel Mahdon, he director of southern Tel Aviv's social welfare department said the municipality was familiar with the phenomenon. "The physical conditions are difficult and in some cases endanger the children," he said. "When we see that we inform those responsible in the Economy Ministry.
"The Prime Minister's Office, Welfare Minister, and outgoing Health Minister have toured centers, as has the committee for foreign workers. The municipality voluntarily went to centers that allowed it to enter and guided the staff." He added that the municipality has worked to bring volunteers and donations, and that it had suggested an alternative model it believes should be subsidized.
Both the Ministry of Economy and Tel Aviv Municipality noted that under the current laws, local administration has no responsibility for children until they reach the age of three.
Labor MK Merav Michaeli blasted indifference towards the children's fate. "Imagine a smiling baby's face inside a black frame on the front page with the headline 'Babysitter of Death'," she said. "But that front page isn't appearing even though this is the fifth baby to die within a month and a half, because these are toddlers who were unlucky and were born to asylum seekers in Tel Aviv. So they live and die in corrals called 'babysitters'.
"These babies are completely invisible. Their neglect is criminal. You can avert your eyes, but you cannot hide the responsibility and wash your hands of it."
Ilana Curiel and Gilad Morag contributed to this report.