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A Slice of Home: Through the eyes of a foster child  

By: Yitty Steiner

Published in Binah Magazine, September 16, 2013 

It was my daughter's comment that did me in. She was talking in her sleep while I walked her from the babysitter across the hall to her bed. "I want my mommy. When is my mommy coming home?" As soon as she was safely deposited in her bed, I fled to mine and began to sob. Though more than twenty years have passed since I'd uttered those words, the intense emotions that engulfed me upon hearing them shook me to the core. The circumstances surrounding my foster-care placement were simple: My parents were both battling serious illnesses and had to be flown cross-country for medical treatments.

It seemed that the most logical thing to do with a seven-year-old girl was place her with a local family and allow her to continue to go to the same school, see her grandparents, and play with her friends. I recall how my parents broke the news to me: Tatty and Mommy came into my room. Mommy was wearing her (treatment) pump, as usual, and Tatty, his trademark smile. “How would you like to go live with Chaiky for a few weeks?” they asked me. I loved Chaiky. She was my best friend, but the words ‘a few weeks’ were making me nervous. “Why?” Tatty took the lead. “Because Mommy needs to go back to the hospital for surgery, and the doctors want me to have surgery, too.” Here he paused. Ever the ish emes, he said “Zeesekeit, Mommy needs me to be with her now.” Most kids would have cried, gone into shock, even giggled nervously — but not me.

My mother had been diagnosed with cancer when I was four, and I had never found it scary — it was more like a fact of life. Now my father needed to go to the hospital and have surgery, too. Oh, what a shame! Would he have to wear pumps like Mommy, or was that only for people with cancer? “So I’m going to live in Chaiky’s house for a few weeks, and then I’m going to come home?” “We hope so. If all goes well, it should be just a few weeks.” I think one of the first things I threw out as an adult was my red leather suitcase. To me, it symbolized being a person always on the move. For the first few weeks I lived with Chaiky and her family, but then complications set in and my parents had to remain hospitalized for several more weeks. This was not going to be as short term as all had thought. The question on everyone’s mind was, “What do we do with Yitty?” And what was on my mind was: Why is her Shema so off-key? Why does Mrs. Horowitz sit near Chaiky each night and sing Shema while never coming over to my bed?

My Mommy had a great voice, and as long as she wasn’t postsurgery, she would sit on my bed, stroke my hair, and sing Shema, followed by some of my favorite songs. I missed my Mommy and started to cry whenever bedtime rituals would wind down. But I didn’t want Mrs. Horowitz to feel bad, so I pretended I was really sleepy and curled up under my blanket. I heard her kissing Chaiky and calling out “g’night” as she left the room. She didn’t kiss me. I cried some more. I think Chaiky knew I cried many nights, though she never mentioned it. My tears and my pain were emotions I kept very much in check. They were feelings that were mine alone.  The committee — which consisted of my grandmother, my uncle, Mrs. Horowitz, and a social worker — decided that it would be best to move to another family that was equipped to care for me for the duration of time my parents would be hospitalized. When they called me in and doled out some hugs and stickers, I knew something was “up.” Not that I never got stickers or hugs, but the tension in the room was something an astute kid like me picked up on very easily. So they want me to move again. I smiled at the adults and said it was fine. Then I ran up to my room two steps at a time, took out my red leather suitcase, and started packing like a pro. Uniform shirts in a stacked pile on top, Shabbos shoes in the corner, jewelry in the small pocket... and with each item I placed inside, I chipped away at the child within me. I was strong. I was just moving again.

Why cry? If I cared to admit it, I was angry. I was easy to get along with, kept my room neat, never missed the school bus — why wasn’t it working here? Had I done something I was unaware of? Or was it... was it that I was just too much because I was not theirs?  That was enough to make cry. Moving in with the Spitzers was nice. Here, I had my own room, which was good and bad; good because I had more privacy and bad because it exacerbated my loneliness. Mrs. Spitzer waited with me for the bus each morning, ironed my clothes to perfection, and told me lots of stories. But she doesn’t hug or kiss me good night. Sometimes I think she just isn’t the type, but then I see her hugging her friends when she meets them. What is it about me that makes all mothers keep their distance? A year and a half after I’d moved in with Chaiky, I was back home. Packing that red suitcase in the room I’d slept in for so many months, I surprised myself by choking back the tears. Would I really miss a home that wasn’t my own? As lonely as the status quo was, I almost wanted to keep it for fear of more upheaval and change.   Mommy came into my room, sat on my bed, stroked my hair, and hugged me. I could see she looked very weak, but so happy to see me. I smiled, but suddenly felt very shy.

We hadn’t seen each other in a long while, and I couldn’t get myself to relax. But then she sang Shema and tickled me until I giggled. That broke the ice between us. I was home. Home. Home. Home. Shortly after our marriage, I told my husband that I wanted to foster a child. I felt that my experiences would make me a natural for the job. Ten years later, the opportunity fell into our lap when an 11-year-old daughter of a friend from Israel who needed to leave home moved in with us. We had a great first day bonding and playing. She hit it off with my children. All was going really well. Until bedtime, that is. She is a mature kid. I don’t want to intrude. Should I go in, sit on her bed, and do the same bedtime routine I do with my own children? Or should I give her space? She has a mother, after all, and a terrific one at that. Perhaps she’d feel I was pushing too far if I came too close. I made a split-second decision to keep my distance. 

She was not a little kid — her space should be respected. I sat on the chair near her bed, spoke to her for a minute or two, and then left. And in that moment, I understood all the foster mothers in my life. Post-script: When I pitched this article to Binah, I had no idea just how far on a personal journey it would take me. Much as I’d understood all the foster mothers in my life, I never reached out to them to tell them how much I understood and appreciated their sacrifice and love. This is typical of many foster children, who as young adults move on and don’t necessarily keep up a connection with their foster families.

So I did what I should have done years ago — I called them. I called the Horowitzes and the Spitzers and the Kleins and the Mandels (they came later on in life) and… I thanked them for opening their homes and taking me in. I thanked them for giving me a piece of their hearts and a prime slice of real estate in their home. I thanked them for stocking the fridge with my favorite foods and for preparing salads without peppers. I thanked them for the endless nights of homework they did with me and for their attendance at my school performances. I thanked them for giving me a sense of normalcy in a very notnormal childhood. I thanked them for the Purim costumes that they sewed to match their own children’s. I thanked them for the times their reactions were perfect and for the times they were not. I now knew just how challenging fostering a child could be. And I told these women how their open doors had encouraged me to open mine.  

Q&A with Shelly Berger, Director, Foster Care and Preventive Programs, OHEL

As in the story, foster parents are often caught between wanting to give the foster child space and giving the child the love they crave. How would you advise a foster parent in regard to this?
Every child is unique and will require a different approach, depending on age, circumstances, etc. But as a rule, foster parents need to take cues from the foster child and combine that with a healthy dose of good parental instincts, just as they might do with their own child. However, along with that, an understanding of the dynamics and the unique issues foster children deal with is integral. It is also very helpful to work with a therapist who is seeing the child and can assist the foster parents with parenting and communication issues.

We ask all potential foster parents to participate in an extensive group training to ensure they have the tools and knowledge to succeed as foster parents. In addition to a therapist, foster parents who are certified with OHEL also have a case manager who will assist and advise them regarding how best to meet the needs of the foster child in their home.
Who can be a foster care parent? What kind of qualities should the family as a unit have?

Children come in all shapes, ages and sizes, and so do their foster parents. First and foremost, foster families should have a stable, loving, functioning and supportive home environment and an interest and willingness to take a child into their home and provide for his or her emotional and physical needs. Successful foster parents usually do not come to their decision lightly and should be aware of the rewards and challenges of foster parenting. As they say: no pain, no gain. Supportive extended family and community is very helpful. Generally, foster parents receive a monthly stipend to cover room, board and basic clothing.
Have you ever advised a family not to foster? What would make you say no?

OHEL gives potential foster parents training sessions to ensure that they are “educated consumers.” These sessions also enable them to assess if what will potentially be required of them as foster parents will be a good fit for them and all continued on page 22 members of their family. It also gives the trainers an opportunity to get to know the potential foster parents better. If, for example, we sense that both parents are not on board, or they don’t seem to grasp the dynamics of what would be the most helpful environment for a foster child, or they view taking in a child as a way to solve a problem in their family, we would point out those concerns.
Which children are most challenging to find homes for?

It is most challenging to find foster homes for adolescents, sibling groups who should be kept together, and children with special needs — emotional and developmental.
What are some of the common myths surrounding fostering?

Myth: I could never be a foster parent. It’s only for “malachim” and “tzaddikim.”

Truth: Foster parenting is for ordinary human beings who have an interest and willingness to provide a loving home for a Jewish child in need.

Myth: There are very few Jewish foster children, and I am sure that OHEL has plenty of foster parents.

Truth: OHEL is currently facing a significant increase in foster children and a decrease in foster parents. We always need a large pool of foster homes to ensure the best fit for a child. Of late, OHEL has had great difficulty in recruiting Jewish foster parents. In many ways, given the large size of the community, many believe ‘someone else’ will step forward. The problem is that very few people are doing so. Providing foster homes for Jewish children of NYC is the responsibility of the entire Jewish community.

Myth: We can’t become foster parents. We have children of our own to care for.

Truth: Many families who have children of their own and are therefore a childoriented house find it easy to incorporate a foster child into their family.

Myth: Taking a foster child into my home will be detrimental to my own children and perhaps be a bad influence.

Truth: Having a foster child in the home will certainly mean challenging moments and situations for all members of the family. However, foster families report again and again that the experience has probably been the most meaningful one in their family’s life, has been a growth experience, and has benefited them as a family, and as individuals, more than they could have imagined.

Myth: Once I become a qualified foster parent, I cannot say no to a foster child.

Truth: Becoming a qualified foster parent only means that legally OHEL can consider a foster placement with you. In any possible placement, OHEL works closely with the prospective foster parents, discussing a case before any mutual decision is made. Naturally, in a situation where the placement is not working out, the foster child will be placed with another family.

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