Herzog seeks stricter guidelines for child welfare officers

Fathers complain current system stacked against them.

child metro 88 224 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
child metro 88 224
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
The Welfare and Social Services Ministry is preparing stricter guidelines for child welfare officers to ensure more fair and balanced assessments in custody disputes, following complaints from fathers that the current system does not give equal consideration to men who want to parent their children actively, The Jerusalem Post has learned. A spokeswoman for Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog told the Post that the recent complaints from men about unfairness in the system had prompted him to push an internal ministry committee - headed by Prof. Vered Slonim-Nevo from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and established two years ago to look into the role of social workers in custody disputes - to present its findings as soon as possible. The committee is expected to complete its report within the next month, she said. On Monday, the ministry published figures indicating an 18-percent rise last year in the number of divorcing couples assigned by the family courts to welfare officers for evaluation. Of those evaluated in 2007, 2,867 women were granted sole custody of their children, compared to only 534 men. Only 167 couples were given joint custody. "I do believe that the current system is fair, balanced and professional," said Herzog in a statement. "However, individuals must be allowed the chance to challenge a welfare officer's recommendation." 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 welfare officer from the ministry to assess the situation and make a recommendation on whether joint custody is possible or whether custody should go to only one of the parents. While 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. Monday's report also noted that the time-consuming process and limited manpower have left 2,375 cases, involving thousands of children, unresolved. "The system needs to operate in an open and equal way in order to allow the best process for the children," said Herzog, adding that he had already proposed increased funds to improve welfare services. One Jerusalem father who is currently in a custody dispute over his nine-year-old daughter and is not allowed to see her said in an interview on Monday that the social worker assigned to his case had not even met with him. "I never realized until recently how biased this whole process is against men," he said. "Restraining orders are given far too quickly by judges." Also expected to present its conclusions within the next few months is the Justice Ministry's Schnitt Committee, which has been charged with reevaluating the controversial Tender Years Presumption Law, a 1967 law that presumes a mother should look after the child until the age of six unless the court is convinced she is incapable of doing so. Changes to this law could also have an impact on the role of welfare officers in determining custody battles. Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari - chairwoman of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, a member of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Law and Israel's representative on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women - told the Post on Monday that changes to that law could "increase the potential for legal battles" and weaken the position of women in divorce proceedings in general. She pointed out that the concept of gender equality presented in Western countries has no basis in Israel, where women's rights in life-cycle decisions are governed by the religious courts and Halacha, which clearly favor men. "In the Western world, where divorce is a legal regulation, it is gender-neutral," she said. "There is no question of whether the divorce will be granted - it will always be granted. The question is just when. However, in the case of Jewish law, which is the case in the State of Israel, there is an infrastructure of discrimination against women. In terms of divorce, men have control over the woman's ability to open a new phase in her life. He can move on and start a new family, but for a woman, there is the fear of her future children being considered mamzerim. All talk of gender equality is hollow here."