The Hallmark of Klal Yisrael: A Caring Heart‚Ä¶ Foster care today
By: Charlotte Friedland
Published in Inyan Magazine, March 12, 2014¬†¬†
A small detail, easy to overlook, in Megillas Esther is the fact that Mordechai took care of his niece because she had no living parents. How difficult it must have been to raise an orphan in that devastating post- Churban era. After the churban of our time, many valiant people took in orphaned relatives ‚ÄĒ just as Mordechai did ‚ÄĒ taking on the role of foster parents. Those children are now grown, but there is still a significant need for foster parenting in Klal Yisrael today. What does it mean to raise someone else‚Äôs child? What reserves of patience, wisdom, love, and common sense does one need to undertake this responsibility? To answer those questions, we spoke to families in England, Canada, the U.S., and Israel. Technical procedures differ from country to country, but foster parents‚Äô experiences worldwide are united by commitment, common challenges, and deep fulfillment. In the following case histories, names have been changed to protect privacy.
A woman in the UK offered a glimpse of what it is like to give up a child to someone else‚Äôs care. As the mother of a large family who was unable to care for her own severely disabled newborn, she sought to have him adopted by a frum family. She told of frustration after frustration, as the very agencies authorized to help her were indifferent to her pleas that he go to a kosher home, where he would be raised by observant parents. Authorities at Bikur Cholim d‚ÄôSatmar and Ezer Leyoldos in London regard her case as unusual, asserting that today‚Äôs government agencies with whom they deal are quite sensitive to the specific needs of the religious community. There are many different options available to families seeking to give foster care, including government certification for official foster parents and for ‚Äúprivate fostering‚ÄĚ that occurs when concerned community leadership feel it is in the child‚Äôs best interest to live outside of his or her birth home.
¬†In either instance, Bikur Cholim and Ezer Leyoldos go to great lengths to find a caring family to take in the child, and issues regarding legal guardianship are worked out with the biological parents. Mrs. Esther Schein, the mother of a large London family of her own, started out by taking in children with severe disabilities for short periods of time to provide respite for their biological parents or caregivers. Eventually, Social Services contacted her directly about a Jewish girl with numerous disabilities needing an Orthodox home. ‚ÄúRuchamah was wild when we first got her. She had spent several years in a hospital. But we‚Äôve had her now for four years, and she has changed so much that we all love her. She‚Äôs adorable! In my younger years, I never thought I would do this sort of thing,‚ÄĚ Mrs. Schein reflected, ‚Äúbut now I thank Hashem for the opportunity to do this mitzvah. It‚Äôs a real honor. And I know my husband and family share this feeling. When my children are grown, I‚Äôd love to take in a baby; if Hashem gives me the strength, I will look into it when the time comes.‚ÄĚ Unlike Mrs. Schein, most people doubt they have this kind of courage and relatively few step forward.
Unfortunately, as in most countries, more frum families are needed in the UK to care for children with disabilities as well as vulnerable children who must be removed from emotionally toxic homes. It takes a lot of patience to deal with children who have been severely mistreated. By definition, the children come with emotional baggage. They must learn to trust, to accept love, to develop self-esteem. It can be hard on the foster family, yet the rewards are enormous. What Is the Impact on the Family? A couple in Canada, Reuven and Malka Grossman, agreed to take a twelveyear- old who had already been in three foster homes. Suri‚Äôs behavior was so bad, her attitude so combative, that no one could tame her. Not everyone encouraged them, including Mrs. Grossman‚Äôs own mother, who felt she was taking too much on herself. But Mrs. Grossman had grown up in the post-Holocaust years and seen how her mother graciously took distant relatives into their home; moreover, her table was open to all, often catering to the lonely and depressed.
‚ÄúOn Shabbos, she would send me with cholent to everyone in need in our neighborhood,‚ÄĚ Mrs. Grossman recalled. She had seen chessed all her life. And now, despite her mother‚Äôs warnings, she felt it was her turn. At the time, the Grossmans had one teenage daughter, Liba, and they felt a little sister would be good for her. They made it a point to include her in the discussion on taking in this challenging foster child. She agreed, convinced that it was a great mitzvah. When Suri arrived, they had to buy her clothing, register her for school, teach her the proper way to eat, and set limits on her behavior, while allowing for her extreme need for love. ‚ÄúAt first, Suri would sit next to me on the couch and snuggle against me like a like three-year-old,‚ÄĚ Mrs. Grossman said. Liba bore the brunt of Suri‚Äôs defiant behavior, and she hadn‚Äôt anticipated how much attention the child would crave. At one point Liba even complained that all the family‚Äôs attention was focused on Suri. Yet, when asked repeatedly if they should return Suri to the agency, Liba objected. She cared too much to turn her out. Over the years, Mrs. Grossman taught Suri emunah. ‚ÄúShe was secretive, suspicious. I told her that she could always confide in me, but if she can‚Äôt tell me, our Father in Heaven always listens to us. Daven and He will hear you.‚ÄĚ
Most of the problems were of Suri‚Äôs own invention. Though aware of the mental illness of her biological parents that necessitated her departure (in fact, she saw them on a regular basis), she somehow associated her troubles with her foster family, as though they had caused her pain. It took several years ‚ÄĒ until she was about eighteen ‚ÄĒ for her to appreciate all that the Grossmans had patiently done for her. After that moment of clarity, she could never thank them enough. When she married, she moved to a different city in Canada, but never forgot them. She called and wrote repeatedly, telling Mrs. Grossman that she was the most wonderful mother in the universe. ‚ÄúMy heart is so full of love for you that it‚Äôs impossible to express it,‚ÄĚ she cried.
Today Suri is the loving mother of several children. Bubby Malka and Zeidie Reuven shep nachas, well aware of what could have become of their Suri, had they not rehabilitated her. They have seen other children in their community who have not been so fortunate. They pointed out that they had no training in how to deal with this child who had been so scarred by life. ‚ÄúWe were on our own,‚ÄĚ said Mrs. Grossman, ‚Äúso we parented by instinct: love, love, love.‚ÄĚ The New York Scene In contrast, New Yorkers interested in being foster parents are blessed with OHEL Children‚Äôs Home and Family Services. Before 1969, Jewish children in New York could be placed by government agencies in non-Jewish homes. OHEL was created to provide Jewish children with qualified Jewish foster parents. For more than forty years, OHEL has had a contractual relationship with the NYC Administration for Children‚Äôs Services (ACS), the government agency responsible for the welfare of New York City children. When a Jewish child is removed from a home by ACS because of alleged abuse or neglect, ACS contacts OHEL.
To date, OHEL has placed over 2,500 Jewish children in loving Jewish foster homes. Yet there are a great many misconceptions about OHEL, according to the organization‚Äôs Director of Marketing and Communications, Derek Saker. He stressed that OHEL is not an adoption agency or a group home, nor is it a tool of the state to remove children from their parents‚Äô homes. Director of Foster Care and Preventive Programs Mrs. Shelley Berger explained that in New York, only Child Protective Services is authorized to visit a home reported for neglect or abuse. If they determine that a child (newborn to age eighteen) is at serious physical risk at home and there are no other solutions possible, Family Court will order that the child be removed from the home, usually immediately. The goal is always to seek the rehabilitation of the parents and return the child. If the parents undergo successful therapy and show they can provide a safe environment, the child will be returned. If not, the child eventually may be freed for adoption by Family Court, or will remain in foster care until age twenty-one.
Every situation is different, and Family Court makes most of these important decisions with input and reports from OHEL. For that reason, foster parents must be aware that they may have to give up the child. As soon as the court orders removal, the child must have somewhere to go. When ACS contacts OHEL about a Jewish child needing placement, OHEL has twenty-four hours (and sometimes less) to find a certified foster home. OHEL must be available 24/7 to ACS to ensure that no Jewish child will be placed in a non-Jewish foster home. For that reason, OHEL maintains a list of certified foster parents who can take a child at a moment‚Äôs notice, even on Shabbos or Yom Tov, if necessary. OHEL does its best to match each child with the same type of Jewish home as his background ‚ÄĒ Chassidic, Litvish, Modern ‚ÄĒwhatever the child is used to. ‚ÄúThe child must fit,‚ÄĚ noted Mr. Saker. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a delicate shidduch.‚ÄĚ For that reason OHEL is constantly looking to train potential foster parents from all segments of the Jewish community. And given the number of foster children and their challenges, there is a strong need for families of every type, for children of every age.
Currently OHEL has seen a significant increase in teenagers, sibling groups, and children with disabilities needing placement. OHEL can certify foster parents anywhere in New York State, but the majority of foster homes are in the New York City area, as the child must be brought frequently for family visits and meetings with his or her social worker. Training of the parents is a key priority and the agency provides numerous types of support throughout the foster child‚Äôs stay, including financial assistance. In addition to a board rate, OHEL pays for school tuition and summer camp, as well as medical and mental health services. While there are a number of steps to the process, the experience is one of warmth and encouragement. One would think that there would be many people in New York volunteering to be foster parents. Ironically, the opposite is true, attested Derek Saker, and he recounted a sobering tale: ‚ÄúWe ran a campaign to encourage people to look into foster parenting. It went all over the world as part of a Tishah B‚ÄôAv presentation by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation. And we got calls from everywhere ‚ÄĒ Australia, Canada, Europe, numerous states in the U.S. ‚ÄĒ but almost no one from New York City. In New York, everyone thinks someone else will do it.‚ÄĚ
Who Becomes a Foster Parent?
They may be individuals or couples, young or mature, who have no children of their own but have a lot to give; or families with children who want to share their love with a child in need; second marriage couples and ‚Äúempty nesters‚ÄĚ whose children are grown but who still have the vitality and parenting skills to raise another child. In short, there are no common denominators except chessed and love. To outside observers, foster parents seem extraordinary. Yet most will tell you they are ‚Äúnothing special.‚ÄĚ They feel they are just doing what‚Äôs right. Some parents take a child for long-term care, others for a short time. A Chassidic couple, Rabbi Moshe and Mrs. Gitty Cohen, had been married for a few years and had no children. Rabbi Cohen suggested taking in a foster child. Though Mrs. Cohen was reluctant, she agreed to consider it and they went for training at OHEL. Eventually they were offered a baby who had been hospitalized and they went to the hospital to see him: such a beautiful child! Chaim was about a year old, with no major disability, but his mentally ill mother had not fed him properly and his development was well below normal. When they met the mother, she cried and got so hysterical, Mrs. Cohen reported, ‚Äúwe just stared at the floor tiles. We had to keep telling her we would care for her baby only temporarily, that she would have him back soon.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúYou should see Chaim now,‚ÄĚ smiles Rabbi Cohen. ‚ÄúHe has put on weight and he‚Äôs walking. And he‚Äôs such a happy, sweet baby. He smiles at everyone. Everyone tells us what a chessed we‚Äôre doing for him, but we feel that we‚Äôre the ones enriched. He‚Äôs brought simchah to our home.‚ÄĚ
The Cohens are so excited about their baby it was hard to ask the big ‚Äúwhat if.‚ÄĚ Should his mother recover, Chaim must be sent back to his biological parents. How could they endure the separation? They are uncomfortable with the thought, but Rabbi Cohen shrugged it off. ‚ÄúWhen we first got him, our Rebbe told us that we would raise him till he‚Äôs an adult, but that his parents would always have a say.‚ÄĚ (When he reaches school age, the biological parents will choose his school and make other important decisions.) Mrs. Cohen added, ‚ÄúWe look to my father for guidance in everything. He told me, ‚ÄėThere‚Äôs no mitzvah to uproot a Jewish child from his natural home. If the time comes that you must give him back, it will be the best thing for him.‚Äô‚ÄĚ How can they prepare for such an eventuality? For one thing, they are working toward adopting another child. If they are allowed to keep Chaim, he will have a brother. If he must go back to his parents, they will at least have their adopted child. It‚Äôs a wise strategy. Does knowing that Chaim may someday be taken from her cause Mrs. Cohen to hold back her love in any way? ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know how to hold back,‚ÄĚ she answered simply. ‚ÄúI love him with all my heart and I always will.‚ÄĚ Some foster parents keep the child for only a few days. These are ‚Äúrespite‚ÄĚ or emergency foster care parents who extend their welcome as needed ‚ÄĒ to some children only once or twice, to others on a continuing basis.
One such foster family, the Goldbergs of Queens, hosts ten-yearold Michoel for a Shabbos once a month so his regular foster family can have some respite time. Avraham Goldberg takes Michoel to shul with him and learns with him, as any parent normally would. He fits well with the Goldbergs‚Äô own children ranging in age from five to sixteen. ‚ÄúHe was overjoyed when he stood by me during licht bentchen and I pointed out the candle I was lighting for each child, including him,‚ÄĚ glowed Mrs. Rifka Goldberg. ‚ÄúHe needed to know that I love him, too. One must be careful though,‚ÄĚ she warned. Keep in mind that your foster child has had a rough life and may not react to affection the same way as your own children. ‚ÄúWhen I tuck the younger children into bed, I give them a kiss and a hug. When it was time to tuck Michoel in the first time, I asked, ‚ÄėWould you like a kiss and a hug, too?‚Äô He answered, ‚Äėa hug,‚Äô so that‚Äôs what I did. ‚ÄúSometimes, after a child has been placed with a foster family it becomes clear that it‚Äôs not a good match. I feel you have to balance good intentions with common sense in the context of your family. In such rare situations, I‚Äôve found that OHEL is sensitive and receptive. They will place the child with a family that will best suit his or her needs.‚ÄĚ
Children Need Love in Eretz Yisrael
In Israel, it is more common to find children in group homes than in private foster care. Institutions familiar to all of us, such as Bayit Lepletot/Girls Town Jerusalem and the Rubin-Zeffren Children‚Äôs Home in Netanya ‚ÄĒ founded by the Klausenberger Rebbe, zy‚ÄĚa ‚ÄĒ are home to many children who cannot stay in their birth homes for a variety of reasons. One nonprofit organization involved in both group homes and private foster placement is Orr Shalom. The children, including frum children from Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak, Yehudah, and Shomron, may have disabilities or are referred to them by the Ministry of Welfare due to their parents‚Äô mental illness, neglect, or abuse. Sometimes placement can be found within the child‚Äôs extended family. If not, care is taken to find homes that are consistent with the child‚Äôs religious, national, and cultural background. After an in-depth interviewing process and approval by both Orr Shalom and the Ministry of Welfare, the entire prospective foster family participates in a training course to prepare them for challenges they may face. When the course is completed, Orr Shalom will try to match a child with that family. The foster parents will receive a stipend so the child will not become a financial burden. Counseling and training by the professional staff continue to help the family achieve success.
Orr Shalom is currently seeking chareidi foster families who can deal with children with physical disabilities and mental health issues in the areas of Yerushalayim, Yehudah, Shomron, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Eilat. (See phone number in sidebar.) It is quite common for children to be placed through individuals rather than institutions. Mrs. Chana Abrams, an Anglo olah in Bnei Brak, told the moving story of how she brought an infant into her home. Her husband had four other children from a previous marriage, but after several years of marriage, she had not borne children. A neighbor, who herself had adopted several children, would ask her occasionally if she would take in a foster child. She did not feel ready. ‚ÄúThen, one day, I had just been davening very intently for a child. When I went out to do my shopping, my neighbor approached me and said, ‚ÄėI know of another baby, two weeks old. He has cerebral palsy, but would you consider him?‚Äô This time I said yes! My husband was not surprised when I asked him. We had discussed the idea many times before. ‚ÄúAs soon as we saw him, I knew he‚Äôd be ours. He was shining, he really glowed. There would be medical issues, but I didn‚Äôt care. We have a very good relationship with his biological parents. At first, his mother actually didn‚Äôt want to see him; the pain was too great. Little by little, she came around. Now he is ten and though he knows we love him, he has mixed feelings about his biological family. ‚ÄėWhy didn‚Äôt they want me?‚Äô he asks. I suppose that feeling is normal for all foster and adopted children, and I told him so.‚ÄĚ Initially, the couple had no training for their challenging role. Now, however, they have the support of social workers from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services. ‚ÄúAfter we had taken him into our home, the local agency entered the arrangement with a stipend for his care and by sending a social worker once a month. And she‚Äôs great! She‚Äôs gotten us through a lot of hard times. ‚ÄúI confess that sometimes I wondered if I‚Äôd bitten off more than I could chew, especially at the beginning. But there is terrific siyatta diShmaya ‚ÄĒ somehow the right child finds his place in the right home. He really fits into our family. And he knows he belongs!‚ÄĚ That feeling was poignantly expressed by a child placed in a loving family by Orr Shalom. Asked by a social worker how it feels to be a foster child, he drew a picture of a desert island with a number of ships circling it. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs me,‚ÄĚ he said, pointing. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm like an island. All around me are big ships ‚ÄĒ teachers, therapists, other kids ‚ÄĒ but none of them could reach me. Now I‚Äôm with a family that loves me; they were the only ones that could find a place to anchor in my heart. I‚Äôm not alone anymore.‚ÄĚ
As we move toward Pesach, let us consider a fascinating truth about Yetzias Mitzrayim. It‚Äôs well known that a great many Jews who did not want to leave Egypt with Moshe died during the plague of darkness. Rashi suggests that the number of dead was four-fifths of the nation! What happened to all their innocent children, the orphans of fourfifths of Bnei Yisrael? Targum Yonason Ben Uziel points out that there were 600,000 men leaving Egypt ‚Äúlevad mi‚Äôtaf ‚ÄĒ aside from the little children.‚ÄĚ He says that each man took five children with him.
How could it be exactly five? Asks Rabbi Yosef Zvi Salant, author of Be‚Äôer Yosef. Rav Salant calculates that each family left with five families of children ‚ÄĒ their own, plus the children of four other families whose parents had died in the darkness! What a different picture of Yetzias Mitzrayim that fact presents: a nation of aveilim, loving aunts and uncles who had just lost their brothers and sisters, absorbing the orphans of the deceased into their own families ‚ÄĒ caring for them, comforting them on the long trek through the desert, bringing them to Har Sinai to accept the Torah with the rest of Klal Yisrael. This outpouring of love, Rav Salant proposes, is the ‚Äúchessed ne‚Äôurayich,‚ÄĚ the great chessed performed by Bnei Yisrael as they embarked on their journey in the wilderness. They had been slaves at the lowest level of tumah, but in rising to the occasion and taking thousands of orphaned Jewish children with them they acquired the spiritual nobility to become Hashem‚Äôs chosen. We have never lost that nobility or that mission. The chessed is still there, imprinted on our souls. Let us use it once again and volunteer to take those treasured ‚Äútaf‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ our brothers‚Äô children ‚ÄĒ into our homes and hearts.