Greece: Custody Invoice Places Ladies, Kids at Danger

(Athens) – A bill to amend custody provisions in the Greek Civil Code ignores risks for victims of domestic violence that would endanger women and children, Human Rights Watch said today.

The draft law “Reforms in relation to parent-child relationships and other family law issues” is expected to be introduced in parliament in early May 2021. It would redefine the “best interests of the child” in Greek law and require equal joint custody of children in cases of separation or divorce. Exceptions, including in cases of domestic violence, would require a potentially lengthy legal process. The proposed changes violate international law that custody decisions must be based on an assessment of the best interests of the individual child. and do not provide adequate protection for victims of domestic abuse and their children.

“Equal co-parenting is a laudable goal, but a blanket guess of 50-50 custody ignores the dangerous reality for domestic abuse victims – mostly women – and their children,” said Hillary Margolis, senior womens rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek Parliament should prioritize the safety of children and victims of abuse and oppose these alarming changes.”

Expert organizations in Greece have expressed deep concern about the proposed changes to the Civil Code. During the public consultation on the draft law, the Groups criticized the basic assumption of the draft law that the best interests of the child are generally equated with the equal participation of parents in the upbringing of the child, rather than on a case-by-case basis.

Groups included the Hellenic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Society, the Family Rights Society, the Hellenic National Human Rights Commission, the Legal Committee on Legal Custody Issues, the Equal Opportunities Organization Diotima, and Refugee Support Aegean.

The proposed changes would allow the courts to restrict parental communication with a child when that right is “poorly or abusively” exercised, or to revoke custody when a parent is unable to perform their duties or when that function is abused to execute. However, such decisions must be final or made by the Supreme Court. This can take years during which a suspected abusive parent can maintain custody and communication with the child and co-parent.

In cases of “imminent threat” to the mental and physical health of a child, a prosecutor can take immediate protective measures and then have 90 days to bring the case to court. The bill does not specifically mention abuse of one parent by another, nor any measures to protect victims of abuse by intimate partners in joint custody cases.

Such omissions in the law could force women and their children into constant contact with abusers and create opportunities for further harm, often coinciding with the particularly risky time for injury or even death when a victim abandons their abuser. Perpetrators could use custody regimes to abuse victims physically, psychologically or under economic pressure. The bill, if it comes into force, may prevent victims from abandoning their perpetrators. Women in Greece already face several obstacles, including victim blaming and police disapproval, to report domestic violence and seek help.

The bill allows judges to order mediation if the parents cannot reach an agreement on joint custody or if one parent fails to comply with custody agreements. International and regional legal organizations have expressly warned against mediation in cases of violence against women, stating that prior professional assessment is required to ensure that such procedures do not increase the risk or are not carried out against the will of the victims.

Proponents claim the bill will strengthen justice and combat a “sexist culture” that primarily grants custody to mothers. The bill is in the midst of a number of laws and policy initiatives in Europe aimed at promoting traditional concepts of family life at the expense of women’s rights, including in ways that limit and restrict the protection of women exposed to domestic violence perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.

United Nations experts sharply criticized a similar bill in Italy in 2018 as “potentially serious regression” of women’s rights and protection from violence. A group of UN and regional experts has stated that intimate partner violence must be taken into account in custody decisions and that non-compliance reflects discrimination against women.

The redefinition of the best interests of the child by Greek law violates a principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Greece ratified in 1993. The Committee of Experts, which oversees the implementation of the Convention, found that any determination of the child’s best interests requires an assessment that corresponds to the specific context. “

The provisions of the law would also violate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by Greece in 1983. The CEDAW committee, which oversees compliance with the Convention, has determined that in cases of gender-based violence, the life and health of women and children should take precedence over the rights of the perpetrator, including in relation to custody, access and visitation. It found that Spain had violated the rights of a domestic abuse victim and his daughter, who murdered her father, after courts failed to properly take into account his abuse when determining children’s visits.

The draft law, if it came into force, would also violate the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), which Greece ratified in 2018, according to which governments take into account the occurrence of violence against women or domestic violence Must be used in determining custody and visiting children, and to ensure that precautions do not endanger mother or child.

The Greek parliament should reject and revise the law as it stands to ensure it protects the life and health of parents and children, including strict protections for victims of domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said. The government should put in place a family court system, which Greece does not have in place, to rule on such matters, including trained experts to assist in child best interests identification and risk assessments for parents and children.

Greece’s international partners, including the European Commission, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and UN experts on violence and discrimination against women, should urge the Greek government to oppose legislative changes that could endanger victims of domestic abuse and that violate Greece’s international obligations.

“A law that could force people to withstand persistent domestic abuse is not in anyone’s best interests,” said Margolis. “The Greek government should recognize the risks women and children face in their own families and ensure that custody cannot be used as another weapon.”

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