Abuse Victims Put in Harm’s Way by New Greek Bill, Opponents Say
(Bloomberg) -- A Greek law aimed at addressing the challenges of 21st-century family life risks hurting victims of abuse, its critics say.
The bill, to be voted on in the 300-member parliament this week, requires parents who have separated to jointly decide on matters concerning their child. That means victims of domestic abuse have to rely on their tormentors for child-rearing issues pending judgment on their former partner’s crimes -- a process that can take as long as eight years.
“The idea of shared custody creates problems, as the abused parent or child are at the mercy of the abuser, who retains the right to participate in all decisions concerning the child,” said Aikaterini Fountedaki, a professor at the Department of Civil Law, Civil Procedural Law and Labor Law at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
The bill is aimed at modernizing the country’s family law, which dates back to 1983. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s justice minister, Konstantinos Tsiaras, said in an interview that the bill takes all steps necessary to protect children and women from abusive behavior, adding that it “is based on gender equality and defends the parents’ ability to jointly participate in raising their children after a divorce.” Women’s organizations, who say it’s “sexist and discriminates against women and motherhood,” took to the streets against it on Tuesday, demanding its withdrawal.
With Greek society deeply divided over the bill, opposition parties have said they won’t support it. Disagreement has even come from within the governing party, with former Tourism Minister Olga Kefalogianni and former Education Minister Marietta Giannakou submitting amendments.
“The untested and vague terms that pave the way for the general interest of every child to be harmed must definitely be removed from the text,” Kefalogianni said in an interview. “It must fully ensure that a child won’t remain with the abusive behavior of the parent when there are clear and established indications,” she said, pointing to the importance of such changes in the context of increased domestic violence during the pandemic.
The shared-custody debate has once again thrown into the spotlight the issue of abuse in Greek society. In February, the country introduced measures to prevent sexual violence and harassment of adults and children, after Olympic sailing gold medalist Sofia Bekatorou charged a high-ranking official from her sport’s federation of rape -- opening the floodgates on similar allegations in the sports and entertainment industries.
That came about two years after the government of former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras backed off on a bill that could have potentially eased the punishment for rapists, after it sparked protests from women, international rights organizations and opposition parties.
For many, the government is missing an opportunity to establish a long-awaited family court, with psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers who can swiftly and effectively evaluate the situation and save parents and children from long and costly court battles.
What rankles opponents of the family bill is the clause that an abusive parent needs to be convicted before losing custody. That’s even though “a parent can lose custody for less, like failing to meet with court’s orders for alimony, or efforts to impede communication,” said Fountedaki, who was part of the preparatory legislative committee of the law.
The draft law allocates a third of a child’s time to the non-residential parent, which would create an unfair structure, said George Nikolaidis, the head of the Department of Mental Health & Social Welfare at the Center for Study & Prevention of Child Abuse & Neglect.
“The one who’s actually in charge of the child’s care, the two-thirds parent, has mostly obligations, despite the fact that he/she has it harder, and a cherry picker, the one-third parent, gets all the rights,” he said. The second parent can spend quality time with the child, while also controlling the life of the resident parent, having a say in whether they can move houses, cities or find a new partner, he said.
Meanwhile, even supporters of the bill are not entirely happy with it.
“What we have today is a bill which I think is not going to solve any issue, which has transferred the responsibility of implementation to judges,” said Ioannis Dorotheos Paparrigopoulos, a lawyer and the head of the Shared Parenting Group, the Greek branch of International Council of Shared Parenting. A parent who didn’t have custody under the existing law, still doesn’t get half of the child’s time, he said.
For women activists, while equal co-parenting is a laudable goal, it ignores the dangerous reality for domestic abuse victims –- overwhelmingly women –- and their children.
“The Greek parliament should put the safety of children and abuse victims first and reject these alarming changes,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
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