Family Justice Initiative

Divorce and Custody for Those Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy

In many ultra-Orthodox communities, men and women are expected to marry in their late teens to early twenties, and to start having children soon after. Because of this, many Footsteps members are already married with children before they even consider leaving their ultra-Orthodox communities of origin. A person’s decision to leave ultra-Orthodoxy is often seen as an irreconcilable difference if their spouse chooses to remain ultra-Orthodox, and many individuals consider divorce as part of their effort to redefine themselves and rebuild their lives.

When children are involved, protracted and expensive custody proceedings may ensue. It can be very difficult for someone leaving ultra-Orthodoxy to receive fair treatment during these proceedings, as Family Court often unduly favors the parent who will maintain “status quo” for the children with regard to their religious upbringing. This is further magnified by the messaging that those leaving ultra-Orthodoxy (and their children) get from their communities of origin — that their children are better off without having contact with them. It is also not uncommon for ultra-Orthodox communities (and even the families of those leaving) to rally around the spouse who remains, raising money for legal fees and pressuring the spouse who is leaving to either return to the fold or stop seeking their custodial rights.

What Footsteps Offers

Parents have a legal right, and a responsibility, to parent their children. Footsteps strongly affirms that individuals should not lose this right simply because they have chosen to pursue a self-determined life outside of ultra-Orthodoxy. To this end, Footsteps offers emotional, legal, and practical support for those undergoing divorce and custody proceedings.

Our Clinical Staff provides individual counseling or referrals for those navigating the emotional impacts of divorce and custody proceedings and provides additional case management as needed. We offer emotional and peer support groups for parents navigating this process, including specific groups for those who are unable to parent their children in the ways that they would like, whether due to unfavorable custody and visitation arrangements or because their children have been alienated from them. Together, Footsteps parents support each other through hard times and celebrate each other’s parenting victories, both big and small.

We empower members with access to resources and information, so that they can make choices that are good and right for them and their children. We partner with nonprofit legal organizations such as NYLAG, Her Justice, and Legal Services of the Hudson Valley. We train attorneys to provide culturally competent legal support to  our members. We also connect our members with a network of pro and low-bono attorneys and maintain an emergency legal fund for members who cannot afford filing fees, attorney fees, and other costs that often pile up in the years that it might take to finalize a divorce.

Footsteps also works to establish a foundation of legal precedents that will lead to better outcomes for formerly ultra-Orthodox people in future custody proceedings.  By providing pro bono and low bono attorneys to represent parents who had often previously been forced by economic circumstances into representing themselves, Footsteps hopes to build a history of legal rulings that support the rights of formerly ultra-Orthodox people to parent according to their own values.

How Can I Help?

Donate today to stand with and stand up for parents fighting to maintain relationships with their children. Our Family Justice Initiative is only possible because of you. 

Volunteer. If you are an attorney interested in providing representation to members through our Family Justice Initiative, reach out to our Senior Legal Strategist, Julie F. Kay at [email protected]. To volunteer in another capacity, click the button below.

How Can I Get Help?

If you are navigating divorce and custody while or after leaving an ultra-Orthodox community, you are not alone.To learn more about the supports Footsteps has to offer and becoming a Footsteps member, please call us at 877-STEPS-55 (877-783-7755), email [email protected], or fill out this form. You do not need to be a Footsteps member to speak with a member of our team about your options.

You can also read through our legal guide, Navigating Divorce and Custody While Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy, for help making informed decisions and to identify tools to ease the process.