Beyond whose best interests?

Who should have the authority to remove children from allegedly abusive and neglectful parents?

ij cover 3-17 298.88 (photo credit: )
ij cover 3-17 298.88
(photo credit: )
When Haim Eliahu and Violet Havivi, accompanied by their 20-year-old daughter Odelia, threw firecrackers in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth earlier this month, media attention focused on the diplomatic implications and the tensions between Jews, Muslims and Christians. After all, it doesn't take much to topple Israel's delicate interreligious balances. But the Havivis, veteran Jerusalemites, claimed that they had nothing against Christians - Violet herself, they noted, is a Christian. And they have nothing against Muslims, either, they said, reminding the public that several years ago the Havivi family had fled to Ramallah and sought asylum from the Palestinian Authority. (The PA refused their request.) "All I want is my children, who were taken away from me by the state," Havivi told reporters. For years, the Havivi couple have mounted headline-grabbing demonstrations in an attempt to recover the three children who, they say, have been unfairly taken into state custody. Their first child was taken away from them over a decade ago. Their youngest child, now two years old, was taken into the state's care a few days before the attack. But a source close to the family put a slightly different spin on events, claiming that their 13-year-old son, who is in foster care, had called the Havivis and begged them to take him home. The Havivis have been unemployed for years, devoting their lives to fighting Jerusalem's social services systems. Most recently, they have been receiving financial help from a church in the Old City, where, apparently, they have been living. The Havivis, according to Nahum Ido, spokesman for the Social Affairs Ministry, have been monitored by the ministry's Jerusalem branch since 1994. On several occasions, Ido said, the Havivis have kidnapped their children out of social workers' care during unsupervised visits, and Haim Havivi even once threatened to set fire to himself and his children if welfare workers did not leave the family alone. Social workers familiar with the case reveal that even when they visited the family regularly, the children still did not attend school or receive appropriate clothing and food. "It is very difficult to give adults help if they refuse to take what is offered," Ido told In Jerusalem, adding that the Havivis continually refused psychological counseling and accommodation offered to them by the state. While it remains unclear why they chose to make their protest by carrying out an attack during a packed Lent prayer service at one of the holiest sites in Christendom, the Havivis have been able to point to one of the most heart-wrenching dilemmas facing the state and the city's social services, child welfare experts and parents: what are the best interests of the child, and who should decide? According to data provided by Ashalim, the institute founded by JDC-Israel to create and provide opportunities for at-risk children and their families, some 350,000 Israeli children are at risk of, or already face, abuse and/or neglect in their homes and live in an environment that threatens their ability to develop into secure and productive adults. The risks include physical, educational or emotional neglect and abuse; alienation from the educational system; living in a home that involves the children in borderline or overt criminal activity. Given adequate support and professional intervention, some of these families may be able to provide their children with a reasonably healthy and stable environment. But social services, especially in poor communities such as Jerusalem, are understaffed and overworked. And moreover, not all families are willing or able to cooperate with social service efforts. What then? Who has, or should have, the authority to remove a child from his or her home or, in an even more extreme decision, abrogate parental rights and free a child for adoption by strangers? Children can be removed from their families only by a high-level, court-appointed social worker who has been named as a "welfare officer." Paragraph 11 of the Law of Youth and their Care states that in case of immediate danger to a minor, a welfare officer may issue an emergency order and his duty is to take that child away from the custody of those who endanger him. In addition, in the event that a child needs immediate medical attention, the welfare officer can issue an emergency order to take him to a medical or psychiatric facility. In the first instance, the state is acting against the family. In the second case, the state is often acting instead of the family or even in cooperation with the family, such as in the case of youngsters who may harm themselves or commit suicide. Ruth Matot, director of the welfare officers in Jerusalem, says that she deals with fewer than a dozen cases a year in which the officers must act against the family in this emergency manner. According to her, in 2004, the social welfare department of the Jerusalem Municipality dealt with 4,342 cases of children and youth at risk - up from 3,765 in 2003. About 300 of the children were removed from their homes, most of them with parental agreement. "When you realize that Jerusalem has 275,000 children under the age of 18, you realize that we are not dealing with large numbers and we do it only in cases of real danger to the children." She talks about the process of urgently removing a child from his parents' home. "First, we take him or her to a shelter. We then have seven days before we must go to court and explain to a judge why and for how long we want to keep this child away from his parents. This means that within four days I have to bring the court all the background to the case." She continues, "Once we get the authorization from the judge, we begin therapy. Three months later, a team of experts and social workers meets again and decides what to do. Meanwhile, we start therapy with the parents, too. If we are convinced that the child can go back home and that the family will be able to function, we can offer them holistic help - work, housing, financial aid, health benefits. Usually, it takes time to reach this stage, but it is not impossible. Many cases that began when we took the child away concluded when we reached the point that we were able to bring the child back home." "No one wants to take a child away from his parents," says Niva, a social worker who has been a court-appointed welfare officer for nearly 10 years. "I have children, and I believe that even some of the most abusive parents do, at some level, love their children. When families function, parental rights and children's best interest don't conflict - they go together. But sometimes we have to decide between the good of the child and the rights of the parents. The law is clear and my conscience is clear - in those cases, we must consider only the child's best interests." Yitzhak Kadman, head of the Council for the Welfare of the Child, believes that social workers and court-appointed welfare officers provide the last defenses for children. "In too many cases, the home is the worst and most dangerous place for a child to be," he declares. But feminist activist Esther Herzog, a sociologist at the Beit Berl College, states, "It is wrong to take a child from his parents, from his mother, his family and his natural environment and put him into an institution because at home that child is beaten, molested, or sexually attacked. And what happens to that child in the Social Affairs Ministry's institutions?" Herzog challenges, then answers, "The same. And worse." Herzog claims that by removing children from their parents' home, the state is merely defending its own political, economic and personnel interests. "If a father is violent, why don't they send the father to prison instead of tearing the kid away? The state has created a large complex of institutions, and they need to be used. They are the only ones to receive the huge budgets that the state and the municipalities allocate, so they keep sending the children there, and all the system collaborates - the social workers, the court-appointed welfare workers, the judges, the counselors," she accuses. Herzog also mentions that most of the children are removed from families that are poor, deprived and underprivileged - and Mizrahi or new immigrants. "It's not that in rich families you don't have beaten and molested children - it's just that the social workers would never dare enter the homes of those strong families; they can only do their thing on the poorest," she contends. On November 30, the Gilat Commission presented its findings to a joint Knesset committee composed of the aliya and absorption committee and the committee on the status of children. The commission had been established, among other reasons, to resolve the controversy between the Social Affairs Ministry and the social workers, on one side, and advocates for new immigrants, academics and lawyers on the other side, who claimed that social workers were taking children away from immigrant homes in disproportionate numbers, based on the social workers' own biases and prejudices. According to Miriam Farber, Israel's head court-appointed welfare officer, the number of immigrant children taken from their families against their parents' wishes drops in correlation with the number of years the family has been in Israel. In July 2005, of 8,000 children who had been placed in institutions or foster families, only 183 were immigrant children. Yet in October 2004, nearly 25% of the children in emergency shelters came from immigrant families. According to Farber, even this figure reflects a dramatic decrease in the numbers of immigrant children removed from their homes. According to Tabaka, an advocacy and legal aid center created by immigrants from Ethiopia, most of these children come from Ethiopian families and in most cases the family does not oppose the social workers' and courts' decisions. In any case, Matot points out, the final decision is not the social workers' - it is the courts that decide, even if the parents do not contest the social workers' recommendations. "No judge," she says, "would agree to take a child away from a home simply because a social worker thinks differently from the child's parents." Niva provides a more complex answer. "Sure the judges decide, but we all have our prejudices. I feel relieved, sometimes, that a judge is behind me and that someone else makes the final decision. "But values always come into play," she continues. "What is the line between a slap and physical abuse? How many curses constitute emotional abuse? Is it neglect not to take a child to the dentist if you can't afford it? Not to provide food when you simply don't have enough money to pay the grocery? Shouldn't the state be guaranteeing that parents have the minimum resources necessary to provide for their children?" If the state does not provide for parents and families, Niva warns, "we are soon going to have to remove children simply because their families are poor. There are a lot of hungry children around." The system works in theory, Niva says. "And in theory, the state really does make every effort to provide every form of support imaginable. But budgets have been cut, social workers are overwhelmed, and there's just not the time or the money to do what we should be doing. In Jerusalem, we carry between 120 and 150 cases a month. In east Jerusalem, the numbers are even higher and the resources are even worse. We're only human; we make mistakes. I lie awake at night, thinking about that." Leah (not her real name) is a lawyer in the Social Affairs Ministry. "I often feel that I have no time to think. As a legal professional, I know that judges should refuse to remove a child if the social worker hasn't brought sufficient evidence to prove that the parent is incompetent. But sometimes the social workers can't make their case because they don't have the time or the resources. In that case, legally, the child should return to his or her parents. And yet I know it's wrong, because I know, in my heart and in my mind, that the child will suffer if he goes back home. We just don't have the ability to prove it." This, she says, "is the limitation of the legal system. I wish we had the time to sit down and think, to strategize, to work together, to see if we are all using our limited resources in the best way possible. But we are always running from one case to another." Hebrew University professor Marsha Kates, who has created several programs to help parents cope with their children, agrees with Niva and Leah and goes even further, contending that the lack of resources dictates de-facto, if not deliberate, policy. "The ultimate goal, which should be to get those kids back home as soon as possible, is not applied - and only because there isn't enough money. "Social workers do what they can afford to do according to the budgets they have. But all too often there are no budgets. And this way, the so-called solutions are only the seeds for the next problems. They cause a terrible sense of discrimination, anger and frustration, and nothing is done." Social workers are thus caught in the binds of conflicting policies, depleted funds and competing demands. But they are also caught between competing trends and movements in Israeli society. On the one hand, in recent years, Israeli society has taken greater responsibility for the detection and care of children exposed to abuse and neglect. Israel is one of few countries with a Mandatory Reporting Law that obligates every adult to alert the appropriate authorities in cases of known or suspected abuse or serious neglect. But on the other hand, as Israelis increasing speak in terms of "rights" and less in terms of "duty," concepts such as "parent rights" compete with the commitment to the "best interests of the child." Caught in this vise, social workers are often the scapegoats and targets for parents, advocates, professionals and experts alike. Frequently, parents and relatives threaten violence and retaliation if a child is removed from the family. Jerusalem's Matot often has to rely on police protection for her own personal safety. Says Kadman: "If we fail to put an end to this unfair persecution of the social workers and Welfare Officers, we will very soon see social workers who will avoid taking kids out of their dangerous families. The result will be more tortured and hurt children with no defense." Itzik Peri, head of the Social Workers' Union, is even more outspoken. "There was a time when I spoke about my profession with a feeling of pride, and public opinion held that we dealt with high moral values and issues, such as saving the lives of our children. Today, we are depicted as thieves, as if we were acting out of our own interests - it's insane!" According to the findings of the Gilat Commission, the court-appointed welfare officers do have too much authority. "Their hands are too quick when deciding to take children from their families and declare them fit for adoption," declared Shlomo Benizri, who was social affairs minister at the time the report was released. But spokesman Ido concludes, "Suppose we do not take away children from parents who molest and hurt them. These babies arrive at the hospital with major injuries - and then the public asks, why didn't we take the baby away? Why did we leave them in danger?" Israel's Mandatory Reporting Law obligates every adult to alert the appropriate authorities in cases of known or suspected abuse or serious neglect. The municipal hotline: 106, 531-4600/4 Ma'aneh - youth counseling and guidance: 624-1199 Israel Child Abuse Hotline: (04) 855-6611 Council for Abused and Abandoned Children: (03) 647-9075