This article, written by Rabbi Kennard MA (Oxon.), featured in the Australian Jewish News on 6th June 2013. Rabbi Kennard is the principal of the Mount Scopus Memorial College, a Co-educational Jewish Day School, with over 1,500 students from Kindergarten to Year 12, located in Melbourne, Australia.
A mother’s battle for JUSTICE … and her children
Two years after her twin boys were taken from their home by their father, a young mother is still fighting for their safe return.
It seemed like a fairytale romance. He was a medical student from central Europe; she a Cambridge graduate from England. They met at an international student event, and shortly after they were married and living in his home town.
But this fairytale did not have a happy ending. Immediately after the wedding, as she was trying to find her way in a city of strangers, learning a foreign language, she relates that he became unaffectionate, controlling and abusive. Even when she fell pregnant, and gave birth to beautiful twin boys, there was no change.
After months of having to cope with the demands of two babies, apparently suffering from his cruelty and indifference, the situation became intolerable and she fled overnight to a refuge for battered women. But when she returned the next morning he had arranged for the police and paramedics to commit her to a mental institution, on the word of a psychiatrist who had never met her.
Fortunately, an independent police psychiatrist declared the diagnosis of mental illness to be completely unfounded. The father was immediately evicted from the home, deemed a danger to his children and was only granted fully supervised access to them from then on. The mother thought she and her boys were safe at last.
But she was wrong. And anyone who thought that in a civilized European country the law would protect abused mothers and their children from violent fathers would also have been wrong. Because from that moment she found herself trapped in the legal system, with those whom society appoints to protect the powerless, instead providing the most support to the powerful.
One year after his attempt to get the mother committed, the Supreme Court granted the father unsupervised visitation rights. Six months after that he came back to the apartment. Not for the mother, but for the children. Armed with a highly irregular court order that awarded him full custody, and accompanied by four armed policemen, he snatched the boys as their mother was feeding them supper, taking with them only the clothes on their backs, oblivious to their screams.
After a long legal struggle and weeks with no visitation rights at all, the order was amended to temporary custody and the mother was allowed to see her children three times a fortnight, pending a final legal decision.
Two and half years later, the “final legal decision” is still far off and the situation remains the same. Every Tuesday and alternate Sundays, mother and children are united at a cold and clinical visiting centre far away from home, and can spend a few hours (some taken up by travelling from and back to the centre) laughing, playing and loving together, until yet another tear-stained parting.
The visits are often cancelled on the whim of the father. The children’s kindergarten teachers tell the mother that they fear to share information on her children’s progress, and she is denied any involvement in their medical issues. She only learnt that each boy had teeth removed, for reasons that she still does not know, when she collected them for a visit and in shock saw the gaps in their smiles.
The question of custody in the event of family breakdown is always tragic and inevitably acrimonious. There is no right answer. But what stands out in this case is that the court’s rulings deviate from the traditional assumption across the world that, if forced to choose, the mother is a more appropriate guardian, especially when the children are young.
Observers of this story are therefore bewildered as to how and why this happened. The judge’s original ruling to take the children away from their mother was based on a psychological report assessing the children as “retarded” because they could not speak 200 words at two years old and alleging that the mother suffered from mental illness – and this from a psychologist who had only seen the children at 16 months and was unqualified in adult psychiatry.
But despite both the psychologist and her report having now been thoroughly discredited and two subsequent reports having confirmed the complete absence of any mental issues, the decision has not been reversed.
Conversely there was much evidence from health visitors, the children’s doctor, Social Services and other professionals that when the children were previously in the mother’s care they were well developed for their age and were well looked after. Their reports and recommendations for the mother to be granted full custody were ignored.
Even more obvious is that nearly two years in the father’s care have not contributed to the children’s development. Last week saw their fourth birthday, yet they have very limited vocabulary, are not toilet-trained and are repeating their year in kindergarten. Meanwhile the judge has refused to have the children independently assessed, has not held a single custody hearing and has ignored all the concerns submitted by the mother and professionals about the children’s welfare, including numerous reports of danger.
The mother’s supporters can only speculate that the judge’s indifference to the children’s plight in the face of overwhelming evidence of their lack of progress, and her tortuously slow conduct of the case, suggests that she has her own motives, or is being influenced by other parties. Reports in the local press suggest that another judge with links to the father has actively intervened in the case, despite having no official role.
With the court providing only pain rather than help, to whom could the mother turn? At first she received little or no support from her adopted Jewish community. Her husband had the natural “home team advantage” and the sympathy from his countrymen. The allegation of mental illness, though disproved, added to the exclusion that she experienced. Even the town’s rabbis, with some notable exceptions, either openly sided with the father or merely did nothing to help.
With the passage of time this has begun to change. More can see with their own eyes that a terrible injustice has been done and are giving the mother a degree of succour and support. Some of the rabbis have become more helpful and, under pressure from abroad, they arranged a get, allowing the couple to be divorced under Jewish law, even though the civil divorce, bound up with a custody resolution, remains distant.
Yet when asked to work with the father to persuade him to accept mediation, or to tell the court the truth about the children’s welfare, the lay and religious leadership of the community continue to look the other way. Requests to the charitable foundation that supports many Jewish institutions in the city, including the kindergarten that the boys attend, to conduct an investigation, have been ignored.
She has her family back home who have put their own lives on hold in order to support their daughter and sister, and hundreds of supporters amongst those who know her and have heard her story. But on the ground, in a foreign city, battling Kafkaesque court proceedings which seem so far removed from justice, she is on her own. And, except for the few hours each week that they spend in their mother’s arms, her twin boys are just as vulnerable and helpless.
Readers may ask how I can be partisan and side so conclusively with one party. I have studied the case closely; have read court documents and have met with an independent member of the local community. The mother is clearly a well-balanced woman of intelligence, common sense and intense sincerity.
But I admit a emotional involvement. I am inspired by her struggle and by the suffering that she is prepared to undergo in her relentless quest to bring her children home and to help them grow and thrive. When I have asked her if she ever considered leaving the friendless and alien land in order to continue the path of which she had once dreamed – postgraduate study at a prestigious American University – she could not understand the question, and asked incredulously, “how could ever I leave my boys?”
All parents makes sacrifices for their children. Some even resent what they have to give up. Yet here is a young woman who has chosen to forsake everything and would give even more for the sake of her boys. From her I learn what it means to be a parent.
And my personal connection goes deeper. I was her teacher in her teenage years, and, as the Talmud says, our students are like our own children. For that reason above all, I pray that these two boys come home to their mother very soon.
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