Only Shared Ground on Child-custody Amendment: Everybody Hates It

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Divorced mothers would lose the automatic right to custody over children up to age 6, under an amendment proposed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni - which has aroused a rainbow coalition of opposition.

Livni's amendment would reduce the age for automatic custody to two. Award of custody to the mother would be automatic unless she agreed to a different arrangement with the father, that receives the court's imprimatur. But some feel the amendment is detrimental to both women and children - and some feel it doesn't go far enough, and all automatic custody should be abolished.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to vote next week on the proposed changes.

The amendment adopts most of the recommendations made by a government committee that was established in 2005, during Livni's first term as justice minister, to review the issue. The panel, known as the Shnit Committee because it was headed by Prof. Dan Shnit, submitted its final report in 2011.

The main recommendation was for child-custody decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis, guided by the principle of the best interests of the child. The committee called for replacing the automatic award of custody of very young children to the mother with the notion of shared responsibility.

It suggested that guidelines be drafted to assist the courts in determining custody when divorcing parents were unable to reach agreement on the issue.

At present, in the event that the parents cannot agree on custody arrangements, the court can award custody of children aged six or younger to the mother. In many cases, if there are older children they too will remain with the mother, in order to keep the siblings together.

Too far or not far enough?

Meretz chairwoman MK Zahava Gal-On criticized the bill, saying that Livni had "replaced the protection of women with an attack on the welfare and best interest of the children." She has submitted a bill that would retain the notion that very young children should generally remain with their mothers, while giving the courts more freedom in giving divorced fathers more time with their children.

MK Gila Gamliel (Likud) is also sponsoring a bill on the issue, one that adopts all the recommendations of the Shnit Committee. “I’m an outspoken feminist,” Gamliel said, “but I believe that the law granting mothers custody of preschoolers should be completely annulled." Her bill was cosponsored by six male MKs.

The chairwoman of Women’s International Zionist Organization Israel, Gila Oshrat, said that adopting the Shnit Committee's recommendations would hurt large numbers of children and put women at a disadvantage.

Guy Raveh, who heads a nonprofit organization called Shared Parenting that represents men in child custody cases, said Livni's decision to leave intact the principle of keeping young children with their mothers while only reducing the age to which it applies was a "political compromise that blocks the progress of social change to the benefit of the children of divorcing parents, and is therefore clearly regrettable."

Yet another bill is being sponsored by MK Adi Kol (Yesh Atid), who says it "reflects the concept that has slowly been accepted by the courts in recent years, that the children’s best interests come before the parents’ interests.” Kol says, adding that automatic maternal custody "often caused the courts to transfer children to the mother, even when it was established that she neglected them or was an alcoholic.”

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at the Knesset on October 28, 2013. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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