C'tee: Child welfare officers need to show more transparency

Child welfare officers working on cases involving custody disputes must become more transparent and allow both parents to review their findings before court hearings, according to an internal Welfare and Social Services Ministry committee that published its findings this week. Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog said Tuesday that he would accept the majority of the committee's suggestions and begin implementing them as soon as possible. The committee was established three years ago to look into complaints from parents that Child Welfare Officers - essentially social workers with additional training - were manipulating the system. The committee found there were reasonable grounds to request that officers increase the transparency of their work, allow parents to read their recommendations before court hearings and change several other key practices and procedures that "will reduce feelings of discrimination and frustration." In recent years, the ministry has received an increasing number of complaints from fathers believing they lost out to social norms when it came to determining custody rights of their children, and mothers angry that they had to share supervision with fathers they perceived as physically violent. However, the committee, chaired by Prof. Vered Slonim Nevo of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, declared that it did not see any evidence of such manipulation from child welfare officers or witness distortions in their decisions based on ideological, gender or any other personal factors. Under the current system, couples that cannot agree on issues such as who will be their children's primary caretaker must turn to the courts. In such cases, the judge appoints a child welfare officer from the ministry to assess the situation and make a recommendation on whether there is a possibility for joint custody or whether one of the parents should become sole caretaker. Although these officers do not make the final judgment, their opinions are highly regarded by the courts. In many cases, the intricate evaluation process and the ongoing appeals process leaves thousands of children caught up in divorce battles. "Child welfare officers are an essential part of the social welfare services that we offer," said Herzog in a statement. "However, I believe that the findings of this committee are an important step to improving their work and determining new standards and professional tools in this field." Herzog also accepted the committee's recommendation that an appeals body, including members from outside of social welfare services, be established to investigate complaints of unfairness in certain cases. "We welcome these recommendations and the minister's approval of them," said a spokesman for the Social Workers Union. "However, the issue of manpower must still be addressed. There are many cases that are waiting to be dealt with but cannot be because of the shortages, and instead of increasing the number of child welfare officers, these recommendations only add to their workload." Yohanan Weininger, a Jerusalem-based father currently involved in a custody dispute over his nine-year-old daughter, welcomed Tuesday's announcement and the report, but said that social workers and child welfare officers were a self-serving guild. "In Canada and Britain, family court proceedings have been open to public oversight for a long time," he said. "But not here in Israel. Transparency and accountability should also be demanded of the family courts."