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Gathering Considers How Societal Changes Have Altered Child Care

December 13, 2007
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Sarah Katz
The dramatic changes that have occurred in American society over the last 30 years have come to affect the composition of the family and, in turn, to change how offspring are cared for. For example, for several decades now, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children living with and being cared for full time by their grandparents.

According to 2007 statistics from the Children's Defense Fund, more than 5 million grandparents live with grandchildren under the age of 18, with more than 2 million grandparents in those instances serving as the primary caregiver of said minors. In Pennsylvania, about 200,000 children reside with their grandparents, and in 84,000 of those instances, the grandparents are the primary caregivers.

During a recent continuing legal-education course, attorney Sarah Katz affirmed that there does seem to be "an increasing number of grandparents raising their grandchildren."

Titled "The Rights of Children, Parents and Grandparents in Jewish and American Law," the course not only allowed attorneys the opportunity to review Pennsylvania's custody laws, but also to learn about the responsibilities and rights of parents and children under Jewish law, or halachah.

About 30 people attended the program held on Dec. 7 at Gratz College in Melrose Park.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, president of Gratz and a professor of religious studies there, introduced the course by offering legal commentary from the Jewish perspective.

In addition to Rosenbaum's explanations, aspects of American law were taught by Katz, a staff attorney in the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services Inc., and Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, which she co-founded in 1975. Both practices are located in Center City.

While parents, in general, have pre-eminent rights over the care and custody of their children, Katz said that the changes in American society in the past 30 years -- such as the increase in life expectancy and rising divorce rates -- have led to grandparents playing a greater role in their grandchildren's lives.

"In recognition of the changing American family," continued Katz, every state legislature has enacted grandparent statutes that define the rights that grandparents have under the law.

In this state, she added, the statute is known as Pennsylvania's Custody and Grandparents Visitation Act, which was enacted in 1981 and amended in 1996.

Rosenbaum touched on several areas of Jewish law, including the status of children, the standing of those offspring born out of wedlock and what happens to kids in the case of divorce.

In Judaism, "actions must be in the best interest of the child," he said. For example, in the case of divorce where the mother has been granted custody, the father is still obligated under halachah to support his children.

Rosenbaum went on to say that Jewish law outlines different rules for male and female children in the case of a custody dispute between parents.

According to halachah, explained Rosenbaum, if the child in question is male or female and under the age of 6, the mother is awarded primary custody. For a child over 6, fathers would be granted custody of a male child, and mothers would be granted custody of a female child.

However, added the professor, "children's needs must be met, even if that means Jewish law needs to be set aside."

If both parents die, custody over minor children can transfer to grandparents. The rights of grandparents under halachah allow for them to be de facto parents, said Rosenbaum.

In the case of an orphaned child, he added, a set of grandparents can be granted custody, depending on which parent had custody or would have received it. This again depends on the child's age, as in the gender stipulations that hold sway in parental custody cases.

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