Evaluation of a Pilot Project of Child Participation in Family Court Proceedings

One of the basic principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by Israel in 1991, is the right of children to express their views in any judicial or administrative proceedings affecting them, and according their views due weight. Included in the steps taken to adapt Israeli law to the Convention, was a pilot project implemented in 2006-09 in Jerusalem and Haifa Family Courts to enable children to exercise this right. The project was monitored by a steering committee headed by Justice Saviona Rotlevy and conducted in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice, the Courts Administration, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services Family Court Counseling and Mediation Units, and Ashalim.

The pilot program involved establishing Child Participation Departments at the Family Court Counseling and Mediation Units. As part of the program, children aged 6-18 involved in cases of custody, visitation rights, emigration or education were invited to participate in the judicial process and express their views, wishes and feelings at a meeting with a Child Participation social worker and with a judge as well, if they so chose. After the discussion and with the child’s consent, the Child Participation social worker reported to the parents on the child’s emotional state and needs.

The study followed the pilot program throughout its implementation as a basis for formulating regulations for all of the Family Courts and for the Religious Courts, which also deal with family issues. It related to the children’s patterns of participation, factors promoting or inhibiting their participation, the implementation of the pilot, and its implications for the perceptions of the parties concerned. The data was collected using qualitative and quantitative methods from a variety of sources: Child Participation workers, judges, attorneys, court-appointed social workers, parents and children.

Evaluation findings show that at the first stage of the pilot, only one third of the children invited to participate were heard by a Child Participation worker who conveyed what they said to a judge, and that parents’ hesitations about their children’s participation posed a barrier to their doing so. After presenting these and other findings to the steering committee during the pilot, and subsequently introducing changes into the patterns of work, parental fears diminished and, during the second stage, the rate of participation rose to 60% and other aspects of the program’s implementation improved as well. Findings indicated that most professionals, parents and children experienced Child Participation as beneficial and positive.

Based on the study findings, the steering committee has given the Minister of Justice its recommendation to legislate a model for children’s participation in the judicial process in Family and Religious courts.

The study was initiated by Ashalim and funded with its assistance.