It was two years ago that Yocheved Rosenthal of Hancock Park heard that a family of young Orthodox children had been placed in a non-Jewish, Spanish-speaking foster home.
The children, who had been placed with the family because the situation in their own home was abusive, were overwhelmed by their foster family's alien customs. The children did not speak the language, and they could not eat the non-kosher food.
"Everything was totally unfamiliar, and they were terrified," said Rosenthal, a mother of five and a licensed foster parent, who launched into action upon hearing of the placement. "We did everything to get those children out."
Rosenthal's efforts included lobbying the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), local politicians and even then-Gov. Gray Davis until the children were placed with a Jewish family.
If that had been a one-time occurrence, it would have been an interesting, albeit disturbing, anecdote about a kink in the child-welfare system. But Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) has a litany of similar tales that underscore the same theme: There are not enough foster homes in the Jewish community to provide short- or long-term care for abused or neglected Jewish children. Children in need of placement are apt to get lost in the DCFS bureaucracy and placed with unsuitable families.
But the problem is not endemic to the Jewish community. Los Angeles County currently has 40,000 children in its foster-care system and is always looking for quality homes to serve them. At the national level, 542,000 children are in foster care, with 126,000 eligible for adoption.
While some foster children are fortunate -- they are placed with families who love and nurture them -- others are shuttled from foster home to foster home.
The Jewish community has recently taken efforts to both alleviate the communal shortage of foster homes and reform the state and national foster-care systems.
The Jewish Community Foundation recently gave a $40,000 grant to FosterHope, a new collaboration of JFS, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Childshare and DCFS to educate the community about foster care and recruit more Jewish foster families.
At the state level, individuals such as Daphna Ziman and Dr. Pejman Salimpour are working to improve the system. Salimpour's Nexcare Collaborative provides a free referral service so that foster children and others can have unfettered access to services that will provide them with a safe, nurturing and healthy environment. Ziman's organization, Children Uniting Nations (CUN), of which she is the founder and chair, is working to place every foster child with a family or give them a mentor who will be a constant, stable presence in their life.
Ziman, a licensed foster parent, is also using her extensive political contacts to encourage legislative reform on a national level to improve matters for foster children and their caregivers. In a related matter, President Bush on Dec. 2 signed the Adoption Promotion Act of 2003, which provides incentives to people seeking to adopt children older than 9 years old.
Many people say that the problem of foster care is not only the children's problems -- abuse, neglect, lack of stability or love -- but society's as well.
"Foster care is a community issue," said Stuart Riskin from the Office of Public Affairs at DCFS. "Everybody should be aware of the situation, and everyone should be willing to participate. Without community support for all children, society will suffer along with the children."
Statistics show that without proper parenting, these children are likely to end up uneducated, unemployed, homeless, or worse.
"We have 11,000 children 18 years old and over, and they sleep on the streets of L.A. every single night, and 70 percent of those are ex-foster kids," Ziman said. "They either turn to the drug economy or they commit crimes, and they end up in prison."
"Because they have been institutionalized for so long, it is more comfortable for them to be institutionalized again," she added. "We have literally been breeding criminals in the [current] foster-care system."
It is difficult to determine how many Jewish children in Los Angeles County need foster care and how many licensed Jewish homes exist to serve them. Up until a few months ago, the DCFS did not ask children about their religion. Unless parents or the child volunteered the information and insisted that it be used in their placement, the children were put wherever there was space.
After intense JFS lobbying, DCFS case workers are now encouraged to ask about religion when placing a child in foster care, but they are not required to do so. As a result, there are no solid numbers available on how many Jewish children go through the system.
FosterHope estimates that as many as 20,000 Jewish women and children in Los Angeles suffer some form of physical abuse, and even more suffer from sexual or emotional abuse, all of which are common precursors to placing children in foster care.
As for the licensed Jewish foster homes, Vista Del Mar and JFS together have less than 10 registered. However, it is possible that there are other Jewish foster families registered with other non-Jewish child welfare agencies. The lack of Jewish foster homes means that even if a child is identified as Jewish, it is unlikely that there will be a licensed Jewish home available to provide care.
In the past four months, Laurie Tragen-Boykoff, a JFS child advocacy coordinator and FosterHope coordinator, received two calls requesting Jewish placement for children, but there were no Jewish homes available.
"God knows we need Jewish homes," Riskin said. "When it comes to Jewish homes, or Orthodox homes, we basically have nothing. If the community doesn't put their hand out to meet us, we can't meet the needs of the children."
Jewish children placed in non-Jewish homes can experience any number of traumas due to the unfamiliar environment. In one case, a well-meaning Christian fundamentalist family took their Jewish charges to a Jews for Jesus religious service. In another case, a teenager told her non-Jewish foster family that she wanted to keep kosher, but they told her that it would not be possible.
In the past nine months, the DCFS started working less to place children in foster care and instead keep them in their original homes and provide supportive services to the families.
"Research has shown that the more families we keep intact and provide stronger and more dynamic upfront services, the greater the likelihood that the family would be preserved," said Riskin. "But we will always need foster care, because we will always need to remove children from problematic situations."
The need for foster care in the community will never disappear.
"If there is just one child and we don't have a home for that child, to me that is [a] community crisis," said Sally Webber, a JFS child advocacy coordinator.
Webber is one of the founders of the FosterHope program, an initiative to publicize the need for foster families in the Jewish community and provide information about how to become a licensed foster parent. FosterHope will work through the synagogues.
The organization will provide rabbis with materials for sermons on foster care and set up a number of information and recruiting sessions at synagogues. Its goal is to recruit 10 new Jewish foster families.
The process of becoming a licensed foster parent is a lengthy and complicated one. California law requires applicants to complete 30 hours of training and have a fingerprint and child-abuse clearance for anyone 18 years or older living in the house and for all prospective babysitters.
Additionally, the home cannot have more than two children sharing a bedroom or more than six children living there. Foster families are also required to lock up all medications, detergents, cleaning solutions and kitchen knives.
But even once a home is licensed and foster children placed in it, the situation is rarely smooth.
"Some people take in foster children, and they think, 'This is a piece of cake,' but the children come with problems, and they don't come with instruction books," said Rosenthal, who over the years has had six foster children live with her family.
"I had the initial impression that if you take in a child who was disadvantaged and you love them and include them in your family, they would be grateful and excited, but that is not true at all," she explained. "If the parents are living, no matter how much the children have been neglected and abused, they still long to be with their own parents."
"Children get taken into the first foster home, and they are so traumatized that they don't behave perfectly," said Ziman, who eventually adopted her foster daughter. "But the foster parents want the child to not be a bother, so they send them out and the child becomes a double reject."
"They move from school to school, they never know what is going on, and they always feel like a failure, and they have huge self-esteem problems," she continued. "Because of their lack of self-esteem, they tend to not believe that they are capable of anything."
Ziman is lobbying Congress for support on the Foster Care Mentoring Act of 2003, which will be voted on in January. The bill proposes to forgive student loans to anybody who acts as a mentor to foster children.
"Research shows that caring adults can make a difference in children's lives," states the text of the bill. "Forty-five percent of mentored teens are less likely to use drugs. Fifty-nine percent of mentored teens have better academic performance. Seventy-three percent of mentored teens achieve higher goals, generally."
In order to find the mentors, the bill proposes to establish the "Day of the Child" -- a CUN-sponsored mentor recruitment day -- in every state.
Ziman's other efforts on behalf of foster children include championing proposed legislation to pay caregivers bonuses commensurate with the progress of the child. For example, the caregiver would receive larger payments for such things as taking their child to therapy, buying them new shoes or ensuring regular dental visits.
On the state level, Ziman worked on a law passed in September to make the state responsible for the safety of the child. The impetus for it was a case known as "Terrell R" in which a foster parent sodomized a 10-year-old boy in his care. Linda Wallace Pate of the law firm Pate and Pate filed suit against the state for neglect and lost, because the Court of Appeal ruled that the county was immune from liability.
While the system is imperfect and needs constant refining, when it works, it can save lives.
Lee Wallach, 40, a managing partner at Rocket Reporting Network and chairman of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, was a foster child. Thirty-seven years ago, Vista Del Mar found a Jewish family, the Silberscheins, for Wallach to live with after his natural parents became too sick to care for him.
"I was put into foster care when I was 3," he said. "I knew that these were new people, and it was a little more uncomfortable for me, because all of a sudden, I was dumped into a house with people I didn't know. But I was quite lucky, because I was immediately put into the family that became my parents, and they really gave me amazing care."
The county placed Wallach's sister with a non-Jewish family, and as a result, she not only had an unstable upbringing, going from foster home to foster home, but, according to Wallach, she also lost her Jewish identity.
"My sister bounced around a lot," he said. "She was in a lot of different homes. It was surreal when we met [as adults]. She didn't know from Jews. She didn't even know what a Jew was."
Wallach is so grateful for the life that his foster care gave him that he will serve as a spokesman for FosterHope.
"Vista Del Mar gave this little boy a mom and dad," he said. "I'm the perfect example of how the foster-care system and the Jewish community system can reach in and make a significant difference."
The first FosterHope presentation will take place on Feb. 9, from 7-9 p.m., at Congregation Or Ami, 26115 Mureau Road, Calabasas.
For more information on FosterHope or to set up a FosterHope presentation at a synagogue, call Laurie Tragen-Boykoff at (818) 789-7938.
For more information on Children Uniting Nations, log onto www.childrenunitingnations.org .