Israeli Welfare Services Are Pulling Children Away From Their Transgender Parents

Haaretz study of divorce cases in Israel shows discrimination against the transgender parent, denying them custody of and regular contact with their children

Erez Cohen (L) and Yael Rashlin (R). Discrimination against the LGBT community doesn’t end with denying them the right to adopt children or to marry
Tomer Appelbaum / Olivier Fitoussi

“The mother has undergone a sex-change operation and today she’s a man” — this is the opening of a social services’ paper listing the reasons for taking Erez Cohen’s son away from him. Cohen, 44, was raised as a girl and lived as a woman, but since he discovered that he was born an intersex person, he has been living as a man.

He says he couldn’t believe it when he was told his son was being taken from him for three months to a crisis center intended for child victims of domestic abuse, the step before they are placed in foster homes or boarding houses.

“I couldn’t understand why one of the reasons for taking my boy was that I made the change,” he says. “As a woman they said I was an exemplary mother, but as a man I’m not parent enough?”

Cohen has on file a number of opinions by social workers praising his parenting skills as a woman. “A devoted mother who sees to her son’s needs and acts for his welfare,” one report states.

Haaretz has learned of 10 cases in which the social services have restricted parents’ contacts with their children or prevented them altogether, after the parents had changed genders. The arguments for these measures were all based on the gender change, which the social-service officers deemed harmful to the children.

In two of these cases, the transgender parents are only allowed to see their children at the contact center of the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry. In one case the children were taken to a foster home. In five cases the parent who isn’t a transgender person received custody, and in another case the legal battle is still underway.

Any arbitrary excuse

LGBT activists and lawyers familiar with the issue believe that the problem is much more prevalent than suggested by the 10 cases. Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz discussed the issue two weeks ago with LGBT activists following the ministry’s decision not to let same-sex parents adopt children.

“Discrimination against the LGBT community doesn’t end with denying them the right to adopt children or to marry, it’s much deeper and more widespread,” says Oded Fried, director of the Israel National LGBT Task Force, also known as Aguda.

Some activists told Katz that the social services unjustly see homes with transgender parents as dangerous for children, and therefore “find any arbitrary excuse to take a child from a transgender parent.”

All the cases Haaretz looked into concern people who became transgender people after they had already become a parent and were in the process of a divorce.

In every case, a family court asks for a social worker’s evaluation regarding custody and visitation rights. Although there is no official policy, social workers often recommend placing the child with the parent who isn’t a transgender person.

“In most of the cases we’ve dealt with, the gender change was the reason the social worker gave for keeping the children away from the parent, at the other parent’s request, citing the child’s good,” says attorney Nimrod Gorenstein of the LGBT task force.

“Chances are that a transgender parent will lose his children in a divorce case. If he has no money, he has no chance at all,” adds attorney Michal Eden, chairwoman of the bar association’s LGBT committee.

Simona Steinmetz, the chief social worker for legal issues at the Social Affairs Ministry, says “a parent’s transgender identity and gender-change process don’t infringe on his full right to parenthood or harm his parenting skills. I call on every transgender parent who feels hurt by discrimination to approach us immediately.”

A panic attack at school

Yael Rashlin, 37, a religious transgender woman from the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, celebrated her daughter’s seventh birthday in January. To do so she was forced to go to the ministry’s contact center, where abused children hold supervised meetings with one of their parents. In Rashlin’s case, the reason for the supervised meeting was her status as a transgender person.

Until 2014, Rashlin lived in the settlement of Efrat settlement as a man named Eli who with his wife had three children. But Rashlin says that in her mid-30s she realized she couldn’t deny her identity as a woman and got divorced.

At first, her visitation arrangement consisted of having the children sleep over at her place twice a week and every second weekend. But her two older children cut off their ties with her of their own accord, so the arrangement was kept only with her youngest daughter.

“For two and a half years I continued to hide my identity to protect the children and make the change gradually, so they could get used to the idea,” Rashlin says. Only at the end of 2016 did she clearly start living as a woman.

At the beginning of this year, her daughter had a panic attack at school. The social worker immediately canceled Rashlin’s visitation arrangement, citing the child’s welfare. Rashlin’s contact with her daughter was restricted to two meetings a week at the contact center.

“Why is the immediate answer to the child’s distress to take her away from me?” Rashlin says. “Later it turned out that the panic attack didn’t stem from the gender change, but from the stress caused by the divorce. Do they take any child who has problems because of a divorce from one of his parents? They make me feel like a bad parent, as though I’m hurting my children because I chose to be myself.”

'Your kids will suffer from your egotistical choice'

Yonatan (not his real name), 40, is a transgender man who tried to work things out with his partner with the help of a social worker from a family court’s assistance unit.

“Do you understand you’re ruining your children’s lives and your family?” the social worker asked him. “You don’t seem to have considered the children at all. They’ll suffer for the rest of their lives from your egotistical choices.”

Yonatan decided not to involve the social services and asked the court for a parental coordinator to set up a meeting between the judge and the children to ascertain their wishes. Until the court rules on the matter, Yonatan may only see his children once a week.

“The social services’ approach shows a lack of basic knowledge about anything to do with gender change,” says his lawyer Ilanit Haas Arad. “A transgender parent is seen as having some defect or disability, someone with personality disorders who needs therapy, while his partner and children are seen as victims.”

Anat Inbar, the Social Affairs Ministry’s director of the courts’ assistance units, say that “in the past 20 years the units have successfully dealt with numerous cases of LGBT couples’ separations or disputes, including when there is one transgender parent. If a claim of discriminatory treatment by a unit worker toward a transgender parent is true, it is highly irregular and the ministry will deal with it harshly once we receive all the details.”

The ministry has no clear instructions on how to deal with these situations and every social worker acts on his own judgement. The ministry says that next year it plans to train social workers in LGBT parental disputes. It says the ministry flatly denounces “any offensive or discriminatory behavior toward any person or group on the basis of religion, race, nationality or sexual inclination.”