When seven brothers and sisters were removed from their abusive Orthodox home last month, many families offered to take them in. But good intentions don't suffice when the law requires a foster family license. So the Chassidic siblings were split among three Latino foster families."It's like being taken away from your family and dropped on Mars," says Debi Peled, an activist who wants to recruit more Orthodox foster families. "It's hard enough as it is, and then they are put in an environment where they are not even comfortable making a bracha [a blessing]."
The children ended up spending only one night with the Latino families before they were placed with Orthodox foster families. That incident jump-started a drive to increase the number of licensed foster families in the Orthodox community and to set up a system so that authorities on all ends - from rabbis and school principals to the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) - know what to do to keep the kids in a familiar environment.
Keeping kids in a home with comfortable reference points is the ideal scenario for county and state agencies that place foster children, whether that means within ethnic or religious communities or special-need communities, such as the hearing- impaired. "When a child comes into the system, we try to keep them in the most homelike setting," says Carol Stewart, supervising children's social worker for DCFS.A foster-care situation can arise when one or both parents become ill or are killed, or, more often, when children are being abused or neglected. In most cases, there are just a few hours in which to place the kids.The crisis can come to a head at school, in a police station, or at home, so it is crucial to make sure that everyone knows whom to call first.
Jewish Family Service (JFS) and its Orthodox Counseling Program often serves as a contact points for state and county authorities, and DCFS also places kids through Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, a Jewish Federation beneficiary agency that certifies foster families.Michael Held, director of Orthodox Counseling Program, says the number of foster children in the Orthodox community has gone up recently. "The Orthodox community functions as part of a larger society, and in society in general there is both an increase in the total number of reportable abuse cases as well as an increase of awareness among more people about the importance of intervening and stopping abuse and seeing to it that children receive the kind of support that will help them grow up to be a healthy human being."
An organization called Acheinu, which means "our brothers," wants to see to it that no children fall through the cracks and end up in nonobservant homes. That can be devastating when so many details of their lives are governed by Jewish law, says Randie Goldberger, who is spearheading the drive in the Orthodox community.
Goldberger and her husband Sam received their foster family license a few months ago and currently have two school-age children living with them and their own four children, all under the age of 6."People don't know that we have Orthodox kids that get taken out of Orthodox homes and need someplace to go," says Goldberger. "This is a community responsibility."
Goldberger entered the world of foster care a few years ago, when she got a call asking if she could take in a teenager. She and her husband got emergency credentials, and over the next few years, new cases kept coming to their door.
Goldberger recently hosted a three-hour orientation meeting for Orthodox families, where representatives from the state and county detailed the many requirements necessary for licensing.It is a rigorous process, and the three-hour orientation is required just to receive an application. After that comes fingerprinting, background checks, homes visits from the licensing agencies, dozens of hours of classes for first aid, CPR and parenting. There are limits to the total number of kids allowed per family and the number of kids allowed per bedroom.
Some of those requirements are restrictive for Orthodox families, who tend to have more of their own children, and Held says he hopes the community will work through legal and political channels to get those limits waived or changed.
Peled and Goldberger are also working with county and state agencies to get classes scheduled for days other than Saturday.
Goldberger says that aside from actively recruiting new families, the association she and Peled are working to set up will help families through the process as well as offer support once they are licensed.Sheila Arnold, program manager for foster care and adoption at Vista Del Mar, says Vista Del Mar social workers have smaller case loads than county employees, so they are able to offer more personalized help in the process. The agency also offers weeknight classes for families going through certification through Vista Del Mar, which is a licensed foster-care agency.
Peled says the association will also help coordinate the offers to help with rides to school or therapy, preparing Shabbat meals, or getting clothing to a family. The group hopes to acquire nonprofit status so they can accept donations to supplement the county's stipend for foster parents when necessary.Mostly, though, the families will need emotional support when they care for a child who may come with a full load of emotional damage.
"Yes, there's less of mommy to go around," Goldberger says. "But my kids are learning an incredible chesed [kindness], which is so important. I want them to understand it's not just about them and their needs. This is showing them what it is to live a Torah lifestyle."
For more information, call the Orthodox Counseling Program, (323) 761-8800; Vista Del Mar, (310) 836-1223 ext. 280; County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, (888) 811-1121.Acheinu's next orientation meeting is Wed., July 5, at 5:30 p.m. at the home of Randie Goldberger. Please call Vivian Sauer at (323) 761-8800 for address and information.