Outside Israel very little is known about the horrendous policies of Israel’s Welfare Authorities when it comes to fathers in divorce seeking contact or visitations with their children, or when women whose children are forcefully kidnapped into outplacement facilities and foster homes. The fathers and mothers end up seeing their children in supervised visitation facilities, known as Contact Centers, “Merkaz Kesher”. These are secured and heavily guarded facilities where the parent gets one hour a week, and sometimes even less to be with the children in a tiny room, watched by a social worker, and under strict compliance rules such as no photos, no gifts and no spontaneous dialogue.
In case of men in divorce, the chances of a man ending up in a Contact Center are almost one in four, i.e. almost 25% of fathers are sent there, as opposed to 1%-2% in USA and 3% in Australia. In Israel a man can be sent to a supervised contact center simply upon the wish of the woman, “lack of trust”, upsetting the social worker, or as a tool to coerce higher child support.
Overseas Supervised visitations normally serve violent, alcoholic or homeless men. In Israel, because women are immune from prosecution for false domestic violence, false complaints are the norm, the standard, de rigueur. Almost every contested divorce in Israel starts with a false complaint by a woman, an immediate 15 day order of removal from the marital home, and a “recommendation” (which is actually a determination) by a social worker to the Judge, to allow child contact only under supervision of social workers.
The article below sheds light into one of Israel’s most atrocious aspects of gender apartheid against men. However, some women also see their children in Contact Centers. That happens because when poor women ask for help from the Welfare Authorities, the woman are branded as “neglectful” and the children are taken away, into shelters for which the government pays $4,850 a month. The Welfare policies are unwilling to invest a single shekel into the mother’s economic well being, so that she will be able to provide better for the purportedly “neglected” children.
This is a translation of an article published in Hebrew at Israel Hayom by Naama Lanski and Michal Yaakov Itzhaki on February 2, 2014.
“The Trauma of the Contact Centers”
Every Sunday as three o’clock approaches, Gili sets aside all other matters; and rushes to the contact center in his hometown. He knows better than to be late – for he has only one hour per week. 60 minutes. 3600 seconds, not a second more at his disposal to be with his only daughter, aged five and a half. If he arrives late, he loses a few seconds of time with her, and he can in no way afford that. Moreover, he may be punished. Someone might get the wrong impression that he does not care, or he is not a responsible enough father, and take away those 60 minutes for which he has been waiting all week. Before and after those 60 minutes, his life is insipid, empty and sad.
So he arrives early, always. At three o’clock he enters the contact centre; and paces down the driveway as cameras document his steps. At the entrance he is thoroughly searched by an armed security guard; passes through a metal detector; and sits and waits in the single room that serves other parents too, who have been removed from their children.
In the centre Gili is forbidden to hug his daughter, to kiss her, or to whisper in her little ear how much he loves and misses her; and that she is the only reason that he is willing to endure these humiliating visits. “In the only room available to us there was a drug addict father, who sat around watching his son play on the floor. Beside him sat a mother who had succumbed to prostitution and drugs; and myself, a normal father who had never hurt a fly, but who had at the moment of divorce become a ‘violent father who sexually harasses his daughter’; that is what my x-wife claimed.”
“In the only hour of the week in which I was allowed to see my daughter, all that crossed my mind was how to make this meeting with my daughter appear normal in this bizarre place, that has nothing to do with me or with my life. I tried to cram everything I possibly could into that time.”
“Because there’s always a social worker present, who observes you, hears and records all that is said and done, in time we developed a sign language of our own. Two blinks means ‘I’ve missed you’. Tightly shutting the eyes: ‘ I love you ‘. And when my child rubs her eyes with her little fists, it goes to say, ‘don’t worry, everything will be fine’. The first time we were out alone into the garden she ran up to me and told me, ‘Dad, let’s go out quickly and hug each other tightly before they can forbid it.”
45-year old Gili (name changed for privacy) found himself at the contact centre following a bitter divorce from his wife, when his daughter was five years old. He is a famous man, whose name everyone knows, which goes to show that no one is immune to these sagas. In the first four months following divorce, before the visiting hours at the centre had been arranged, he would barely see his daughter one hour per month. “My former wife complained to social services that I touch my daughter sexually. She later submitted three complaints to police that I had threatened her. I was subpoenaed to an investigation; but they did not even open a case. They understood that it was all invented.” Nevertheless, the contact centre became the centre of my fatherhood for two whole years.”
As the sixty minutes with his daughter drew to a close, Gili would remain in his seat at the contact centre, while his daughter would go out to her mother, who had come to pick her up. The reason: “For reasons of security and conflict prevention while the girl was passed from father to mother”. Gili had to wait about twenty minutes, “and I cannot put this picture out of my mind: I watch the CCTV screen and see my daughter walking the path away from me; and know that another week full of tears is beginning, until the next meeting.”
Contact centres appeared in Israel in the nineties, for dysfunctional parents for whom this was the only way to meet their children, or for children who had been removed from their families due to claims that parents had put them in harm’s way. With time and the increase in the divorce rate, contact centres became the default solution of social services and courts in cases of severe conflict between the parents, disagreements concerning visitation, and manifestations of parental alienation: refusal or avoidance of a child to meet with one of its parents, often due to incitement by the other. Even children staying with their mothers in battered women’s shelters might meet their fathers in this way, as do children of parents with mental issues or addictions to drugs or alcohol.
Contact centres are attached to municipal welfare services and are staffed by social workers, who supervise the parents during meetings with their children. Sometimes high school graduates from the National Service for Observant Young Women also serve there. Meetings at contact centres may be divided into three types:
- Fully supervised – the social worker sits next to the parent and child for the duration of the meeting;
- Partially supervised – the social worker is in the room intermittently or observes from another room through a one-way mirror or CCTV;
- Unsupervised – taking place outside of the contact centre, where the contact centre serves only as a pick-up and drop-off point in order to prevent parental conflicts.
64 CONTACT CENTERS, 4,100 CHILDREN
Israel has no less than 64 contact centres serving 4,100 children. According to data published by the welfare ministry to conform with the Israeli Freedom of Information Act, the budget for contact centres was about 4.5 million shekels in 2012. In that year, the centres served 2,540 families; about 4,100 children met with one or both of their parents in this way. On average, each contact centre serves about 65 children meeting their parents.
In 2004, for comparison, there were 67 contact centres, but only 1,774 families were served – or about 3,100 children. In other words: in eight years the number of families treated at the contact centres grew 43%. The number of children meeting their parents at contact centres grew 33%. The contact centres budget has burgeoned a whopping 91% from 2.3 million in 2004 to 4.4 million in 2012.
According to the welfare ministry instructions published in the social workers regulations the contact centre’s purpose is “to build and to restructure the parent-child relationship. The approach is to construct an intervention plan that, as much as possible and according to the needs of minors and their parents, will allow a gradual transition from that of meeting one’s children in a protective institutionalized setting to that of meeting independently without supervision.”
Families are referred to the contact centre by the welfare officer (the Child Protection Service Parental Evaluation Assessor) by a court order. There are cases in which the court delegates to the welfare officer the power to decide upon the duration of visits until return to independent visitation is possible. [Ostensibly] the officers’ top priority is the child’s best interest, the need to protect the child and to take extensive security measures to prevent injury to the child.
[According to the ministry] meetings at the contact centre continue for six months, after which there is an initial periodic evaluation by the competent authorities who accompany the family. If it is decided to continue the meetings, the case is brought to the attention of an expert panel once in several months, in the presence of both parents and representatives of the department of social services, a regional welfare officer for legal arrangements and additional welfare officers, and sometimes the social workers who accompany the family. While preparing this article we spoke to parents who met with their children at contact centres for years. The longest lived case that was brought to our attention is that of a father who met with his daughter at the contact centre for six years.
“In many cases, the parents attend the expert panel unrepresented,” says attorney Shahar Schwarz, expert in family law. “The time is short and sad; and people feel that they are not heard. Parents usually do not receive the minutes following the panel. At best, they will see the report two days prior to the court hearing- In many cases the attorney does not see the report; and the judge must announce recess for a few minutes to allow the attorney to familiarize himself with it.
Many parents, especially fathers, as well as professionals with whom we spoke claim that a parent can easily find himself unjustly or for no good reason referred to a contact centre. According to data from 2010 collected by the “Coalition for Children and Families”, an organisation created on behalf of divorced fathers and their children, 25-33% of fathers requesting visitation were sent to contact centres. In contrast, the welfare ministry claims that only 15% of fathers are referred to centres – 1,725 out of 11,500 surveys conducted after divorce. For comparison: in the United States the rate of referral is 1-2%; and in Australia about 3%. It should be noted that the ministry of welfare did not answer our request to access their figures of demographic breakdown and reasons for referral.
In every case of resistance by the mother to regular visitation between the father and the children, the father is automatically referred to the contact centre,” says D, who was employed at such a contact centre for years. “Unfortunately, I have seen cases of completely normal fathers, who posed absolutely no risk to their children, where the mothers nevertheless took advantage of the fathers’ willingness to sacrifice other things in order to see the children. I estimate that about 20% of divorced fathers arriving at the centres are not supposed to be there. Even when visitation takes place at the contact centre, there are mothers who impose additional hurdles by opposing the contact; or they call last-minute to cancel by claiming that the child is ill. There are cases in which I have examined the medical confirmation of illness and discovered that it was falsified.”
“But our hands are tied. The welfare system has very strict rules; and whoever opposes them gets sanctioned.”
“In one case I identified that the mother was using the children to goad the father. When I tried to warn the father and other social workers, I was reprimanded. They did not like me to interfere or to take a stance. This is a system that cannot and will not accept criticism.”
A BARE COURTYARD AND BROWN CHAIRS
A few years ago in an “Haaretz” interview, the national child protection officer for court ordered parental evaluation, Simona Steinmetz, claimed that a “therapeutic process” takes place in the contact centre, “that will ultimately construct a normative relationship outside of the contact centre.” D claims that this is far from the truth: “We are not therapeutic figures. We are not allowed to treat people who arrive at the centres – only to supervise and to observe. After several months we write an expert opinion which is forwarded to welfare officers. In the meantime parents and children experience enormous pain. Backed by our expert opinion and all of the information she has, the welfare officer writes a review, which she passes on to the court with her recommendation as to whether or not visitation through the centre can be stopped. Usually the court accepts her recommendation. There are situations in which the contact centre supervisor forms and reports a positive opinion of the parental relationship, but this is ignored in the welfare officer’s final survey report.
The exact location of contact centres is not published for fear of protests or vengeful conduct by parents. In August 2012, several divorced fathers petitioned the court for administrative affairs in the Jerusalem District Court for information according to the Freedom of Information Act. Their petition included sixty paragraphs concerning ministry of welfare policies as they relate to protecting the rights of children whose parents are in the process of divorce. Among other things, they requested that the ministry of welfare publish the list of contact centres, including their addresses. The ministry of welfare is to submit its reply to the petition by next week.
We attempted to enter several contact centres. In each case, we were met by a security officer or by a social worker, who forbade us to enter the locked steel gate without accompaniment of a welfare officer or social worker. In the end we were able to enter the contact centre in Ness Ziyona, located in a quiet neighbourhood not far from the city centre. Similarly to other contact centres, it is surrounded by a tall fence and guarded. The small yard is clear of toys, flowers or grass, aside from weeds and a large fig tree, which casts its shadow. In any case, parents are not allowed to exit the building with their children.
The centre is located at the bottom floor of a two-storey building. It is very quiet. Its walls possess light colours; and the lobby is nearly devoid of objects or decorations. Two rooms serve to accommodate meetings between parents and children – each one about 9 m². In each room is a small sofa, a few chairs or armchairs, a rug and a coffee table. In the corner of the room is a computer on a small table; serving the social worker when no families are present.
The furniture and curtains are shades of brown and grey, without design. There is nothing about them to convey a warm, happy, embracing atmosphere, as would befit a room to accommodate children. In every one of the contact rooms there are a few board games and books in a corner – and nothing else. On the wall of the room there is a CCTV installed; and on one of the walls is a large one-way mirror, through which the parent and his children may be observed. There is also a speaker, through which the social worker may thunder her remarks and prohibitions. The two contact rooms are bordered at one end by a kitchenette; and on the other by a secretary’s office. Even prior to commencing meetings at the contact centre, the parent must sign a derogatory agreement, which includes “consent to searching my possessions and body at the entrance to the meeting, at the discretion of the security guard”, and also a commitment to cleaning up the room at the end of the meeting. The parent agrees “not to whisper with the child during the meeting and not to involve the children in the subject of conflict through interrogation, accusation or sending of notes or money to the custodial parent.” An especially outrageous clause reads: “the parent agrees not to photograph the children with a still or video camera and not to record them without permission from personnel.” The parent agrees “not to punish the children during the visit, not to conduct arguments at the centre with the other parent and/or with centre personnel”. In addition, the parent must state: “I know that if centre personnel perceives behaviour that does not allow the visit to take place, it will not take place or will be curtailed” – a clause giving power to the centre employee to control whether the visits may take place. Tardiness of more than twenty minutes without prior notice will cause cancellation of the visit. Failure to comply with any of the clauses may cause the visit to be curtailed; and even complete cancellation of visitation rights until the matter is brought to court – which may take several months. “If you whisper to your child, ‘sweetie, I love you’, the social worker will get involved and you will risk curtailment of the meeting,” says Lilach (45), who has been meeting her son, now nine, at the centre for the last four years. Her former husband submitted a complaint that she is violent. The child was removed from home and sent to a boarding school. He was later returned to his father, who incited him against Lilach. All complaints have long ago been closed “for lack of culpability”.
“At our contact centre, everybody sits in one large room. Many families are crammed inside, and you need to fight for a quiet spot. It is a degrading and hopeless place, where you conduct an engineered visit under neon lights with the most precious thing in your life.”
“I feel I must whisper in his ear so that any type of closeness is established, but I cannot. There is a limited time for hugging. If my son clings to me for more than a few seconds, they will put an end to it. And I only want to hug my child and hold him to me and kiss him endlessly. What a strange and distorted relationship this is because I only have ninety minutes a week to be with him. Everything I do is planned to the minute. Ten minutes for a board game – there are very few games there, played with by thousands of hands – four minutes to draw, fifteen minutes to update each other. I try to cram into ninety minutes what a normal mom is supposed to do in a week. So in this time I never answer the phone, never go to the bathroom, and don’t even drink a glass of water. What parent in his right mind can survive such conditions? There is no spontaneity, no ability to flow with the child. Everything is metered, recorded, reported. You are constantly being tested and constantly afraid that even the most innocent and even correct actions of yours will be misinterpreted. I am so jealous of regular parents,” she says and her voice shakes, “parents who can be with their children whenever they want and in any way they want. I remember how I used to go out of the house with my son at night to watch bats, and no one could tell me it’s forbidden. I am missing the most beautiful years of my son’s life.”
THIS FREEZES YOUR BLOOD
Eliezer Koppel, manager of the Sever Institute and an expert in the phenomenon of parental alienation, says that contact centres have become another venue through which to deepen conflicts having to do with divorce. “Contact centres do not supply any kind of therapeutic environment. They serve as a judgmental and punitive place, that not only prevents the building of relationships, but also aids in breaking them up. Every parent that arrives at the contact centre is treated as dangerous; and that causes incalculable damage to all sides. Parents who are at the centre for no reason feel great frustration and humiliation. A child, who sees its parent in such a place, experiences him as anxious and humiliated. This feeling of parent and child alike is strengthened by the fact that the other parent is not required to attend meetings in this format. Many of the parents ask themselves whether the visits at the centre are worth the damage caused to themselves and their children. Many forgo the meetings out of concern for their children.
Jonathan (50), divorced for ten years and father of a 12-year-old girl, is one parent who decided that the damage caused by such visits is greater than the good. He has not seen his daughter at all for two years, until recently. This is one of many cases that have been brought to our attention, in which the contact centre has become the disconnect centre.
“Until four years ago there were no problems in visitations between me and my ex; and I raised my daughter half of the time. The turning point was on a holiday eve in the year 2010, when my former wife falsely complained to police that I had sexually molested my daughter. According to visitation rights, my daughter ought to have stayed with me for the holiday; and the only way my former wife could prevent this was to submit a false claim. The complaint was closed without them ever having opened a case against me; but it sufficed to prevent me from seeing my daughter for two months. Six months later, an additional complaint was submitted; and then the welfare officer in charge of us recommended we submit to parental competency testing. I had no doubt that I would pass these test with ease, I am such a good father. The testing institute asserted that my interaction with my child is outstanding; but the child is ‘fearful’. The court accepted the testing institute’s recommendation; and instructed me to receive treatment at the institute, after which I would be allowed to begin fully supervised visitation at the centre.”
Jonathan went to visit the contact centre in his city. For three hours he stood outside the building and looked at the visitors quickly coming and going. There were crying children, frustrated and angry parents, and especially fathers with a downward gaze, entering or exiting with quick steps. “More than twenty children entered during those three hours. It looked like a full-fledged industry. It is unthinkable that in Israel so many children are fed into these contact centres. It is unthinkable that as soon as you get excited, you stop being a normative, contributing parent, and start being an ‘at risk’ parent that needs such a place. I told myself I would not contribute to this. I will not allow the institutions with which welfare works to profit at my daughter’s expense. There is a limit to what a parent can take from the nation. My daughter and all other children do not deserve to see their father in such a dark and humiliating place.”
“I met with the social worker; and she asked me, ‘you see it is not so bad after all?’ I looked at her and could not believe my ears. I told her it was worse than I had imagined. It curdles my blood. My daughter will not see me in a place where I am treated as the worst of criminals. And then, naturally as ever, she told me that perhaps I ought to go to the contact centre in Modiin, because it is fancier and serves the elite of Israel: pilots, doctors and lawyers.”
This last year, Jonathan stood every morning at the entrance to the courthouse where his trial was being held with a sign in his hands, blaming the judge for not being able to see his daughter. Recently he has been notified that his perseverance has paid off: after his request for another hearing had been accepted; and after an additional year of further surveys and lengthy hearings, the court decided that Jonathan would gradually be allowed to see his daughter outside the walls of contact centres. “My first two meetings with my daughter were conducted with the parental guidance counsellor at welfare; and afterward there were a few meetings where I picked her up from school, and spent the afternoon and evening with her until 8 o’clock. Soon she will be allowed to sleep over, like she used to – just as she should have all along. The fact that I did not submit to contact centres only goes to prove that there was no need for them from the start, because there was no danger.”
“WHERE IS THE PRESUMED INNOCENCE?”
Eight years have passed since Ronen (40), a police officer, met his toddler son at a contact centre. But the feelings of humiliation and degradation have not left him to this day. He arrived there after his former wife expressed concern that he might hurt the child to hurt her; and that had been enough to cause welfare and the court to decree that he has to visit his son in a small room under lock and key. The boy had been less than two years old at the time.
I would come there after pursuing criminals all day and defending people with my own body. At once I would switch roles and feel like a prisoner with no rights. The most absurd about this situation was that when things got out of hand at the contact centre, the social workers called on me to assist. They told me they felt calmer to have me there; and would brag about having a personal cop to watch over them.
At some point I could no longer stand the humiliation of having a social worker sitting next to me and my son at all times, watching me and listening to every word. I gave up and stopped coming. I was ashamed. I didn’t want my son, small as he was, to think that his father was really a dangerous man who needed to be watched. I didn’t see my son for six months, until I missed him so badly. The social workers knew that there was no good reason for my being there. However, they did not expressly write in their expert opinion that an end must be put to abusing me in this way. My ex-wife would submit all these complaints about me. It seemed I would be called to Police Internal Investigations Department (“Makhash”) twice a week. I lost promotions and almost lost my job. At some point they understood that she was making it up – but they had to investigate each claim. After three years all of the complaints she had submitted were closed.”
Danny (32) had had enough after only two visits at the contact centre to understand he would not be able to endure the repeated experience. He had been referred following a complaint his wife had submitted concerning violence against his daughter. For six months he could not see his daughter, the relationship suffered; and when the pain was too much to bear, he returned to the centre for an additional period of six months.
Danny (32): “Finally the complaint against me was closed, and I returned to normal visitation. But the damage to both of us had already been done.
“I begged the social worker to let me out already – she had already witnessed that my relationship to my daughter was terrific,” he tells. “The feeling at the contact centre is that you become a lab rat, examined under a magnifying glass. Every word or deed they did not like made them invalidate me as a father and require more supervised visits, thus lengthening the period of visitation at the centre.
“I remember one time my daughter told me that her mother had asked her to call her new boyfriend ‘daddy’. She was very disturbed by that and shared it with me. Without thinking twice, I told her that only I was her daddy; and that she should not call anyone else ‘daddy’. The social worker at the centre reported that immediately to my welfare officer; and the following day I was reprimanded. She told me I ought not have spoken that way with the child.”
“Finally the system understood I was not an abusive father. The complaint against me was closed; and I returned to normal visitation. But the damage to both sides had been done.”
“Reality at the contact centres is very humiliating,” says Attorney Shahar Schwarz. “You are squelched there as a parent and as a person. You feel like crying out: ‘who are you to stipulate how I am to hug my children and how I am to speak to them?’ People who have not been through this will have a hard time understanding.” Schwarz is not speaking only out of experience as a lawyer – he himself had been referred to a contact centre following complaints by his former wife to welfare and to police, claiming that he had been violent against her. Only after he was already allowed to see his daughters outside of a contact centre, a lawsuit was submitted against him; and he fought for his innocence and won. “For one whole year I met my twin daughters there, who were one year old at the time – daughters for whose birth I had waited for many years. One hour for the both of them, out of which the first 15 or 20 minutes were lost to separation anxiety from their mother. The visits would terminate roughly and rudely, unnaturally and without regard to the situation. They would tell the mother to come in and get the girls, with no regard at all as to whether we were in the middle of something.”
“The time at the contact centre was so difficult that I was almost ready to give up my daughters; but I knew that if I gave up, I would never be able to look them and myself in the eye. On the other hand, I have clients who have given up; and I understand them. One’s entire parenthood is disrupted in this place. In Israel, if one of the partners simply claims that the other is violent towards him, the way to the contact centre begins to be paved. Where is presumed innocence?”
MEETINGS ACCOMPANIED BY SECURITY GUARD
Not only divorced parents go to contact centres. Isaac (54) comes to the centre to meet his eighteen-month-old grandson, an active little blond, whose eyes are large and pretty. He was born to his high functioning mentally handicapped son and a young woman with mental illness who lives in a hostel in the community. “While still in his mother’s womb, his fate to live with a foster family, and to be made available for adoption, was decided,” says Isaac. “When we saw him in hospital several hours after birth, we were accompanied by security guards, as if we were criminals. Immediately after circumcision, for which we had to fight, the baby was taken from us to a foster family with concealed identity. We do not know who or where they are. Only after we turned to the legal system and demanded to see the baby, they allowed my son, my wife, my younger daughter and me to meet him for one hour per week, which actually turns out to last only 50 minutes, at a contact centre an hour away from where we live. I am an only son to holocaust survivors; and I can’t stand a situation where I cannot see my grandson. An hour a week in this terrible place.”
Isaac is conducting a lively and stubborn battle on two planes. First he is fighting the decision to offer his grandson for adoption and to send him to an anonymous foster family and not to an identified one, where he could visit the baby more freely; and keep in touch with him in a natural environment. In addition he has requested that he be allowed to adopt his grandson himself, to live with him and his wife and son. For that purpose he is gathering letters of recommendation from his employers. On the day of our meeting he showed us his discharge certificate from the IDF, after serving professionally for thirty years. He recently asked for it to be reissued in order to show it to welfare authorities.
The picture we get is that the welfare authorities are doing their best to cause the baby to be offered for adoption,” says Attorney Rami Marmelstein , who represents the grandfather. “They refuse to open fostering by claiming the baby is not prepared for that.” For now, Isaac and his family fight for every minute with their grandson. Isaac produced an exact record of the fact that at least once per month the visits at the contact centre get cancelled. “One time the foster family couldn’t bring him; another time they were on holiday; or the social worker was ill; or they claimed he was crying a lot so we ought not come. Some of the cancellations are sent to us by SMS, as if they are notifying me of something entirely inconsequential; and not of the very thing our lives revolve around. And of course, no replacement visits are scheduled, which stands in rude contrast to court order. Last week the social worker sent me an SMS saying: ‘we regret to inform you that the visit at the contact centre will probably be cancelled because the welfare officer has not transferred the payments to the contact centre.’ These words are grotesquely bizarre. Why do we need to be punished for bureaucratic matters having nothing to do with us?”
“Again and again I find myself going to court, investing money and fighting for the measly fifty minutes with my grandson. Fifty minutes per week. I don’t understand why we are humiliated and treated so poorly. The situation is painful enough as it is – especially at every separation when my grandson is removed from us, looking back at us, and our hearts break into a thousand pieces.”
DARKNESS, BLACKNESS, AND HUGE SADNESS…
..a ravine, gloom, paralysis, death. – these are the words that Ricki (45) uses over and over to describe the time when she used to meet her children at the contact centre. She is the mother of four born to the same man, who lived alongside her and her children; but would disconnect from them at times for long periods.
“When my youngest was born eight years ago, I understood that I am not Superwoman. The youngest was hospitalized because he did not eat enough; and that is where welfare zeroed in on me and declared it negligence. Then the possibility of removing the children came up. At first I fought terribly; but as time went on, welfare continued to supervise and the welfare officer spoke to me about removing the children from home as routine. It was summer, they were home all the time; and it was hard for me alone. She found I was ready to listen to her offer; and I was stupid enough to accept. We agreed that they would be taken to a children’s home for a month or two; and I would be allowed to visit as I pleased.
The two younger children, two and five years old, were taken to a home for children at risk near Jerusalem, from which children are usually transferred to boarding schools or foster homes. Ricki tells me that at the beginning, to her shock and horror, she didn’t see them for a whole month. She didn’t know exactly where they were; and she was not permitted to converse with them on the phone. Only a month later she was allowed to see them at a contact centre.
The first meeting was full of shame. This tearing away from the children paralysed me. For eight months we visited like this. During these months their older sister, who was eight years old, was taken from home for a month to another children’s home in the same area; but I was able to take her back home. Afterwards I was able to get back her younger siblings; and they are all with me to this day, under a supervision order. But this hour per week at the contact centre, this cruel hour, I will never forget in my life.”
From the depths of her pain, Ricki wrote in those days a letter to the judge in charge of her case, in which she described in real time her experience of the contact centre: “One measured hour per week that needs to be utilized to its fullest, and in whose course one must give love and warmth so they don’t forget their mother. In a fenced-in range, an hour devoid of privacy and familiar intimacy, under the watchful eye of the social worker. And then he announces: five more minutes. A stab in the heart. The kids and I don’t want the measured minutes to end; and he announces again: one more hug and kiss. And enter the cab. They measure and mete out my love. And upon saying goodbyes – crying and asking me to come back home with me, and confused looks from the children, and the taxi that disappears with my most precious. And then the terrible moment arrives in which darkness settles its smile upon me. Darkness and huge sorrow, silenced communication until the following week. They turned the lights out on the special connection to my children. They expropriated our right to love, freedom to choose, to contact. This is a world of dark meetings between parents and their children. In it you feel as if in dark cellars of humiliation, degradation and trampling on human dignity. None of the children there laughs or even smiles. Parents hesitate to approach, speak in a whisper and not out loud as one normally speaks to children. These are lost children, who don’t know to whom they belong.”
The father of Ricki’s children tells, that when the children came home, one of them ran around their neighborhood and yelled: “I’m free, I’m free!” The child, now 12, remembers how he tried to escape from the contact center during one of the visits in his uncle’s car, who had joined them for that visit. “I remember that at the beginning I would cry every day in bed, for at least two weeks,” he says. “When the social worker at the contact center would tell us it’s over, I would always ask a bit longer, a bit longer with mother. Then mom would buy me a chocolate egg so I would be really happy. I always asked mom when we would come home, and why I can’t come back. But I can’t remember her reply.”
Professor Vered Slonim Nevo, from the Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University stood in 2008 at the head of the Salonim-Nevo committee for the evaluation of court appointed parental evaluation welfare officers – the very ones in charge of divorce conflicts. One of her significant recommendations was the appointment of an ombudsman – an objective commissioner. We found that people remain powerless and don’t know to whom to go in the tangle of welfare services,” she says. “There were many parents who claimed to us that we had not heard them; and many claims that welfare does not fulfil many regulations. It is unconscionable that in such critical matters there would be no one to complain to; or to appeal to.”
Her recommendation was rejected immediately by the Ministry of Welfare and the current minister, Isaac Herzog. “As Minister of Welfare I supported most of Professor Salonim-Nevo’s recommendations; and some of them were applied,” said Herzog this week. “I am aware of the criticism; but the appointment of an external ombudsman might have opened loopholes; endangered welfare and social employees’ freedom to work; and created an additional layer of empty appeals and threats – when in reality there are enough critical mechanisms such as the courts, internal consultations, and various committees. This has to do with state employees who deal with very difficult cases.”
“IT’S FORBIDDEN TO RECORD”
Professor Israel Zvi Gilat from the School of Law in Netanya is also outraged by the lack of oversight and transparency. In 2002, Gilat stood at the head of an advisory committee to determine the authorities of “decision committees” (that decide whether to remove children from their homes) and their mode of operation (modus operandi). The committee was appointed by the Minister of Welfare at the time, Solomon Benizri.
“Members of the committee requested that procedures be transparent and fair,” says Professor Gilat, “and then there would be no problem to remove children from the home, to send them to boarding schools, and to send families to contact centres. But I am certain that if everything were transparent and open to critique, these things would not happen. The problem is that this system is not open to critique. If somebody would like, for example, to record what is said, to receive the minutes of a decision committee meeting or surveillance committee — and he does not receive permission, what does this teach us?
These are meetings in which sharp criticism is thrown at parents; and they on their part are supposed to respond – so why can’t they record? Or allow an additional person to accompany or represent them? Child welfare is not a psychological principle; but a moral one. Parents ought to be regarded as partners rather than as potential criminals,” adds Vered Salonim-Nevo. “I would not close down” contact centres; but they ought only serve in case of emergency and protection, in cases of real danger and violence. The situation ought to be strictly examined in partnership with the parents and family. We must honestly ask whether this difficult and unnatural environment is really needed.
“International research shows that when many and varied treatment programmes are invested in; and the family is taken as a partner in the process, the results are fantastic – and lead to a reduction of cases requiring the removal of children from the home to the contact centres. Therefore, in my opinion, we must invest in greatly developing therapeutic and rehabilitative tools that exist today.”
Doctor Elisheva Zohar Reich (67), manager “Yahassim” centre for therapy of couples, families and individuals; and until six months ago a court appointed expert, agrees with this approach. Increasing rates of divorce and family conflict, increasing rates of false complaints, and various trauma that people face – all need professional treatment that does not exist today,” she says. “Contact centres should be merely a stepping stone, until accusations against the parent are investigated. Unfortunately in the current format, contact centres cannot offer a solution for normative relations. What is offered is one weekly visit of one to two hours – while in the meantime disconnections are formed between the parent and child; and no contact is made with the extended family of that parent. The parent that comes to meet his child at a contact centre is looked upon by the child as unfit, problematic, neglectful – a person one must be careful of and who needs supervision. This disconnection causes the child to experience abandonment by a central figure in her life; and the child grows ever more attached to the custodial parent, because she is afraid to lose that parent as well. Employees of contact centres work hard to prevent the last fragment of contact between parent and child from disappearing; but in order to construct a meaningful relationship, they admit a large number of families concurrently. As long as they are the only tool that holds the relationship together, they cannot create the revolution that will lead to healing. I believe the contact centre should employ family counsellors who can offer therapy.”
“In real time, treatment ought from time to time to include both parents, so that they are both involved in creating and developing the relationship, which will in turn assist in constructing ideal relationships outside the centre as well. “
Zohar Reich criticizes the system that does nothing to combat the phenomenon of false complaints; and no less the lawyers who choose to feed the conflict between the parents. “In order to prevent disconnections and unnecessary referrals to the contact centre, the system must respond quickly and in real time. I think that most of the problems would be solved if the court system would use heavy sanctions against inciting, alienating parents, who use their children to prevent contact and regular visitation.”
According to Eliezer Kopel, the first step that must be taken in the contact centres is to open them to public scrutiny. “Contact centres must be normalized. In the situation that has been created in the contact centres as they are today, there is nothing normal. Given the current budgets which flow to the contact centres, they certainly can be transformed into therapeutic, educational and experiential centres for the whole family. Instead of social workers and National Service volunteers, who are there to supervise visitors to the centre, I would appoint a therapeutic team of clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, and psychotherapists.”
A SAD BIRTHDAY IN THE CENTER
Gili celebrated his daughter’s seventh birthday at the contact centre. The two of them were all alone. By way of exception the social workers allowed him to videotape and document the birthday. Today she is twelve – Gili has not watched the video of that day for five years; and watching it today shatters him. This is the saddest party we have ever seen. Colourful balloons are scattered on the floor of the contact centre; and plates full of the girl’s favourite sweets are arranged on the little table, alongside several birthday cakes. None of Gili’s family members was allowed to attend let alone friends from the girl’s class. A burst of love moves Gili to hug her. A small hug. A hug that curtails abruptly due to the penetrating glare of the supervising social worker.
Following that birthday party I did not see my daughter for three weeks,” he recounts. “The social workers claimed that it had flooded her emotionally; and that she needs the time to calm down. I felt I was going to die. At some point I decided to sit by the contact centre and not to budge until they permitted renewed meetings. After several days, that happened.”
Gili continued to meet with his daughter at the contact centre for six months, “until the meetings were halted, when they had no more excuses to keep me there; and when the mother had trouble bringing the girl every week. Suddenly, after almost two years, the nightmare ended. All at once, without support, without redress for the damages caused, just so on one sunny day. They hit and ran; and left me to deal with the damage.”
“The state inserted me into the contact centre for no reason; and it should pay for what it did to me and my daughter. I am sometimes still afraid hug her, so they don’t say I am touching her inappropriately. And she shrinks from hugging other relatives as well, such as her grandparents. Luckily, our relationship today is strong and wonderful. No one will ever be able to separate us again. But after all that I have been through, I feel I’ve been left handicapped.”
RESPONSE FROM THE MINISTRY OF WELFARE: “THE SOCIAL WORKERS’ ONLY PRIORITY IS THE CHILDREN’S WELL-BEING”
“Contact centres are not the problem but the solution – an important solution to the problem of being able to lead a normative family life as much as possible and in a limited capacity, for the good of the children whose parents are in the process of a nasty divorce – a battle often conducted at the expense of the children’s wellbeing.
“The Ministry of Welfare, through the social workers in general, and those at the centres in particular, will continue to act on behalf of families in the midst of difficult and bitter conflict, and to be the ones at the forefront of this battle, keeping the well-being and security of children at top priority.
“The feeling conveyed in your letter is that your only purpose is to criticise and attack the entire system, in the name of those few parents. The Ministry of Welfare is not afraid of criticism; and it is natural that in all it does some errors are committed; but we pay attention to them and take action to resolve them.”
RESPONSE FROM THE ISRAEL COURT ADMINISTRATION
“Family Court decisions on the topic of visitation between parents involved in a divorce procedure are based on consideration of all evidence and circumstances relevant to the case. Most often the family courts are aided by a survey conducted by a welfare officer, which includes facts, professional impressions, expert opinions and recommendations. The court may accept the welfare officer’s recommendation fully or partially, request additional investigation, or reject the recommendations entirely. In addition, the court may instruct the welfare officer to continue involvement through social workers, professional support workers and others, in order to assist in resolution and continued parental contact for the children. The purpose of the Contact centers is to allow visitation in a protected and supervised environment between the parent and his child. In any instance when a court order is not observed, the injured side may address the court which issued the order.”
Michal Jacob Yitzhaki, firstname.lastname@example.org
Naama Lanski, email@example.com