The Jerusalem Post recently published an article by Judy Montagu entitled: A Perfect Love, about the importance of grandparents in the lives of children, and the unfortunate phenomenon of grandparents cut off from their grandchildren by children, or children-in-law.
Sometimes, however, a grandparent, heart-breakingly, has no answer to the question, “Savta – when are you coming?” A friend of mine hasn’t seen her little granddaughter in months. She lives in the center of the country, her daughter and son-in-law in the south. For reasons best known to the child’s mother – her own immaturity likely playing a big part – she keeps my friend dangling on a cord of uncertainty over if and when she will be allowed to renew contact with her granddaughter.
“It’s impossible to describe the agony of not being allowed to see her,” my friend told me quietly. “There’s the loss of not being a part of the child’s emotional and physical development, the pain of worrying that she will feel abandoned when savta disappears from her life once again.”
In the April 1 issue of Britain’s Independent, in a column called “Meet the grandparents: the unsung heroes of family life,” Virginia Ironside wrote about a woman whose son had died.
“While his widow was grieving and on her own, the grandmother looked after her granddaughter every day during the week for two years. But when the daughter-in-law married again, she was told, by the new husband, that she wasn’t wanted.
“She’s never seen her granddaughter again from that day to this. Cards and presents are returned. She now doesn’t even know where they live.”
In Britain, grandparents are finally being given legal rights to maintain contact with their grandchildren after a family breakdown or divorce – “not before time,” commented Ironside, calling the lack of recognition of the vital role grandparents play in society “a scandal” that is at last being addressed.
Apparently, the New Family organization has set up a hotline for grandparents who find themselves in this painful situation. Judy Montagu’s article cites New Family as saying that there are 300,000 in Israel suffering as a result of this situation, though I find it difficult to imagine what kind of data they made use of to arrive at this number.
Currently, there are no legal rights for grandparents other than an exception in section 28a of the Law of Legal Capacity and Guardianship, 5722-1962. This statute allows the parents of a child who has passed away to petition the court for contact with the offspring of the deceased child; in other words, their grandchildren.
The courts have on an ad hoc basis ordered contact between children and grandchildren, based on the best interests of the children test and section 72 of the Law of Legal Capacity, which allows the court, to initiate contact with relatives of a minor in order to hear their opinion on matters relating to the minor.
The proposed legislation currently before the Knesset would amend section 72 such that the law would:
- State positively that minors have a right to reasonable contact with family members, and
- Where there is a dispute between the child’s parents and other family members as to contact with the minor child, the relatives may petition the court to ask for orders regarding contact with the child.
Although the proposed legislation gives the court discretion as to whether or not the contact will be good for the child, and the right to order contact with conditions (for example, one might, in certain cases, imagine the meetings to initially take place in a visitation center run by social services) I do have some concern as to how a change in the law might be manipulated by abusive families.
Reading the proposed legislation brought to mind some women I represented who were in women’s shelters, women who were abused not just by their spouses, but by the entire extended family. As I mentioned in my last post, the changes in the law might open the door to serial litigants, including unpleasant family members who are not petitioning for contact with the children in good faith.
If I thought that judges could always stand strong against this I wouldn’t be concerned, but I’m not so sure of this. I once represented a woman who fled to the shelter (literally: with her kids escaped through the window). She, husband and children had been living with his parents, who both witnessed the physical abuse and abused my client emotionally. The grandparents showed up for our first court appearance with the husband, when my client was still petrified of the entire family and very post-trauma. Despite the fact that the law says only the parties to a conflict may be in the courtroom in Family Court, and despite the fact that I vigorously objected to the presence of the grandmother and aunt in the courtroom, the judge allowed it.
I certainly believe that there is a need for legislation that promotes contact with grandparents. I benefited from love and guidance from wonderful grandparents, and our children are fortunate to have marvelous grandparents.
However, I hope that the legislation that ultimately emerges from these efforts takes into account the protections that need to be given to people recovering from abusive relationships.