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Jewish Kids are in Foster Care, Too

By Leah Rothstein

Published in Jewish Press’s Health and Living Magazine, November 2014 

One time, we were called to take in some foster children on Erev Shabbos,” recounts Adina Broder, a foster mother. “They showed up with literally nothing- just the t-shirts on their backs. Despite how close it was to Shabbos (and I was having Shabbos guests), I had to run out right away and buy them clothes and all the essentials they’d need.” Adina Broder’s family takes in foster kids for the short term, and has hosted more than 20 kids in the last 8 years for varying lengths of time. Mrs. Broder finds the experience to be incredibly rewarding.

“My first exposure to foster care was when I was in law school and working at a clinic advocating for families,” Adina says. “I tremendously admired the foster parents I met there, and thought that I wanted to do that someday. I was single then, and when I was dating I brought it up with my husband that this was something I would like to do. We started the training after my youngest kids, who are twins, were four years old. I think most people don’t consider foster care to be an option only because of lack of exposure to the idea. It’s such an incredible way to really impact a child’s future.” Batsheva Berger is a home-finding supervisor at OHEL, the Jewish foster care placement agency. Her job is to recruit, train, and certify foster parents. “We try to match the background for the family placement, whether Chasidic or modern, whatever best suits the child’s needs,” she explains. “The gender and ages of the kids need to be a good fit for what the parents are able to take in, which can change as their own kids age.” She encourages everyone thinking about foster care to make an initial call just to find out what it entails – there is no commitment involved in finding out more. “People tend to think foster parents are angels but they’re just like you and me. They think about it for a while, explore the idea, then decide to go through with it. It comes with a lot of assistance and support, they don’t go it alone.”

Before anyone can become a foster parent, there are over 30 hours of training divided over the course of 8 sessions, as well as a home study and personal meetings with the entire family. “When we place a child with a foster family, we need to be able to say that we know these people very well on all levels and feel safe placing our children with them,” Batsheva says. In New York City, Jewish foster children are placed in Jewish homes by the organization OHEL, a contract agency with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

Due to the vast numbers of people living in NYC, there are proportionally many more children in need of foster placement than one agency can case manage. Therefore, unlike other similar organizations such as New Jersey’s Child Protection and Permanency, ACS contracts placements out to over 40 different organizations. Most of them don’t have trained and certified Jewish homes ready to take in children at a moment’s notice. In cases that Jewish children need to be removed from their homes for their own safety, OHEL has an agreement with ACS to call OHEL first for placement. OHEL’s cases are mostly in Brooklyn and Queens, but include all the boroughs and also Long Island.

Shelley Berger, the OHEL Director of Foster Care, interfaces with ACS and oversees the caseworkers and their supervisors. Her philosophy of foster care is that the system is inherently second best to the ideal of a parent caring for their own children. She says, “It’s always sad when a parent can’t care for their child. We try to take care of the children as we would our own, which is a tall order.” Over time, the policy has moved from removing a child for any possibility of risk, to keeping them with their families unless the child is at risk of severe bodily harm, sexual abuse, and other violent situations. Instead, ACS will look for anything that can be done so the child will be able to stay home, and tries to strengthen the family with preventative services in the home. When removal is still necessary, ACS first looks to family members or other close relatives or neighbors who might be able to safely take in the children, in order to minimize disruption in the children’s lives. Within the Jewish community, some people may question whether calling ACS is mesira (betraying a Jew to the authorities). Shelley Berger disabuses that notion by pointing out that “a threat to a child is paramount. It’s a case of rodef, a pursuer of life that must be stopped.

The system has come a long way and the response is not a knee-jerk decision to remove the child from their home, so you don’t have to be afraid that you’ve caused a family to be separated unnecessarily.” OHEL does their utmost to place every child in need into a Jewish home. Why do Jewish kids need to be put into foster care? While substance abuse and teenage mothers are the most common factors citywide, OHEL finds that mental illness is the primary cause in our community. Many individuals go untreated to the point where they can’t care for their children and neglect them. For parents like these, foster care can be a blessing in disguise as it allows them the opportunity to get their own lives back together and focus on getting treatment without the distractions of running a household. Once a child is removed, a judge provides parents with a probation period to reorganize their lives and show that they can provide a safe and stable home for their children.

At the end of the probation period, they will be re-evaluated to see if they are prepared to resume their parental responsibilities. If they fail the evaluation, the case manager can petition to terminate parental rights and the child can be adopted by the foster family or someone else. If the parent displays progress but isn’t there yet by the deadline, the case manager can also ask the judge for an extension. The goal of the whole process is to provide a clear timeline for the child’s future permanent placement.

“The important thing is to give a child permanency, because it’s important to their psychology to have a stable home, and adoption is better than long-term foster care,” Shelley Berger explains. Daniel G. lived with a foster family since he was a young teenager. Since his birth family was traditional, his placement with an Orthodox foster family was a culture shock at first. But his foster parents were “very nice, and they understood that I wasn’t coming from the same type of background that they were. They were always willing to explain things to me- it was a learning experience.” The moment that stands out to Daniel the most about his experiences in foster care was after he’d gotten separated from his foster family on a trip to Six Flags. When they were finally reunited, he was taken aback by how upset his foster mother was, and she explained that she’d been very scared when he went missing.

“That’s when it clicked for me that she really thought of me like a parent, and felt like I was one of her own children. A parent goes crazy if their child gets lost, and since she was that scared, that’s how I finally realized that she considered me one of her own.” “My experience in foster care was overall a positive one,” Daniel adds. “I am religious now and happy that happened to me. Back when I was living at home, I didn’t aspire to very much and I wasn’t a great student. In foster care I was put into a situation with much better schools- I liked the yeshiva system and was able to excel there in both my secular and religious education.” Looking back, Daniel reflected on his tremendous gratitude for having his foster family in his life. “I’ve met people along the way who I love and they love me— I’ve made an extended family out of my time in foster care.” Although he is now 21 and has aged out of the system, he remains close to them and often visits them for Shabbos. A lot of foster parents say having a foster child improves their own household; in the same way that having a guest puts all your kids on their best behaviors. Even after the foster kid settles in, it changes the family dynamic. Foster siblings become more giving and empathetic.

Adina Broder finds that her own four children have benefited from their foster siblings and appreciate the opportunity to help them. They enjoy the chance to show a new child around and teach them the ropes, and the experience also made the whole family more appreciative of how fortunate they are to have a healthy and loving home and family life. “My kids enjoy having foster children come. When we haven’t had one for a while, they’ll ask when we are going to have another one!” “I’m very sad when I hear the stories of what these kids have suffered, and it’s painful to know what they’ve been through, but I am inspired by their resilience and how they are still able to smile,” Adina says. However, to protect her own kids, she usually conceals the details of what exactly the foster children have been through. It’s enough for them to know that the foster children couldn’t stay with their own families. There was an exception to that rule. Once a girl who had refused to talk about her experiences to social workers and therapists felt safe enough to confide in the Broder kids.

“My kids took it in stride, and it was actually very helpful for the girl because it helped her deal with what she’d seen,” Adina says. Additionally, learning what the girl was thinking allowed her social workers to treat her successfully. OHEL is always recruiting for more parents: “We always need more foster parents because we try to match the family’s background, and also because we could require someone to be available at a moment’s notice, even on Shabbos or Yom Tov, so we need lots of open options,” says Shelley Berger. In addition, she wants everyone to know that although there is a perception in our community that, “I can’t be a foster parent unless I’m a special tzaddik,” the reality is “they are people like you and me.” Parents who already have kids and have a child-oriented lifestyle can perhaps fit another into their family.

Empty nesters can use their available space and parenting experience. Married couples who haven’t had children of their own have so much to give. “If you can do it, then it’s really an amazing experience and an incredible thing to do,” Adina Broder says. “If your family situation allows for it, it’s an amazing chesed.” “In the end,” says Batsheva Berger, “we count on the community to help these children.”

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