On “Raising Jewish Children” and the Foster Care System

The recent Jewish World article about Jewish foster children in a non-Jewish home framed the situation in terms of a conflict between Reform and Orthodox communities here in Troy.  Here is the headline and opening paragraph:

Who can best rear these two foster children? Troy Jewish community has opposing thoughts

A battle over two Jewish children is brewing in the Rensselaer County Department of Social Services (RCDSS), the county’s family court and pitting the Troy Orthodox and Reform Jewish communities at odds over how Jewish children should be raised.

(NOTE: The on-line version used “rear” in the headline, while the print version said “raise.”  It comes out to the same thing.)

replied (and also wrote a blog post) that I don’t think there’s actually any great difference between the positions of Leible Morrison, spiritual leader of Troy’s Orthodox Congregation Beth Tephila, and myself, rabbi of Reform Congregation Berith Sholom, about whether non-Jewish parents can raise Jewish children.  But I think I’ve figured out why it made sense to the reporter and headline-writer to highlight disagreement (besides making attention-grabbing copy):  There’s confusion over the word “raise.”

In foster care circles, we commonly use the phrase “to care for” when speaking of children who are “in care.” “Raising” a child more likely means children who are in a permanent placement, which ideally means adoption. Obviously a foster parent is doing the day-to-day job of raising foster children, but it’s a far cry from being their “forever family.”

So “the idea that a non-Jewish family can raise Jewish children” had only one meaning in my mind — being raised to adulthood by adoptive non-Jewish parents.   I’m sure that Leible Morrison and I agree that that’s absurd, no matter how sincere such parents might be.

If there is disagreement between the Troy Orthodox community (as represented by Leible) and the Reform community (as represented by my partner and me), it’s about foster care placement, not about adoption.  And it’s not coming from my position as a Reform rabbi, it’s coming from our over 5 years of experience as foster parents.

Enter Agudath Israel of America.  They don’t seem to have a website, but I found a couple of articles on-line presenting their point of view (see Cross-Currents and Matzav — exactly the same article).  Here’s the first paragraph:

Agudath Israel of America has accused the Rensselaer Department of Social Services of violating state law by working to have two Jewish children (a brother and sister) adopted by non-Jewish couples. Under New York State law, social service agencies and the courts are generally required to place children in foster and adoptive homes that share the religious faith of the child. But in the case of two children under the jurisdiction of Rensselaer Social Services, the law is being ignored and plans for their adoption by two non-Jewish couples are underway-even though their mother has requested that her children be kept together and placed in a Jewish home.

Give me a break!  These children are not free for adoption, and no plans can be made for their adoption for another year!  Here’s how it works:

Every child in foster care has a “permanency goal.”  The efforts of the county and all its support systems are directed toward making this permanency goal a reality. When children first come into foster care, the legally-mandated goal is reunification with birth parent(s).  To further that goal, birth parents are entitled to regular supervised visits with their children, usually weekly.  As it happens, Jewish Family Services provides supervision for these visits in Rensselaer County, and our synagogue was actually a visitation site for over a year.  So we’ve seen it from several angles.

Since there seem to be no Jewish (and certainly are no Orthodox Jewish) foster families available at this time in Rensselaer, Albany, or Schenectady County (this is based on conversations with other foster parents), placing these two children for foster care with a Jewish family — in, say, Boro Park — would mean that their mother probably would not be able to visit with them.

So Judge Cholakis, in keeping the children local, is not ignoring the religious and cultural needs of these children; she’s balancing that against the need to preserve the mother-child relationship and to promote family reunification as mandated by law.

And in any case, the conversation at this point can only be about foster care placement.  Adoption only becomes a possibility after a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months; at that point, if the parents aren’t making progress toward providing a safe and adequate home, New York law requires that the county begin legal proceedings to terminate parental rights.  This gives the child the possibility of being adopted and growing up in a “forever family.”

So there’s no way that the county is making any “plans” for adoption just a few months into the foster placement.  Even if there have been conversations, conversations don’t equal legal plans, and it’s all governed by the legal requirements.  Foster parents falling in love with a baby in their care?  Sure, it happens all the time.  Baby leaves after many months and is adopted elsewhere?  Sure.  Happens.

Agudath Israel of America has been muddying the waters between foster care placement and pre-adoptive placement and smearing a hard-working Department of Social Services.  And what’s particularly sad is that their intervention is not needed.  As a former foster parent, I know that the birth mother could have a great deal of say over where her children are adopted, if she’s decided that she’s not going to be able to raise her children.  If she’s ready to relinquish her parental rights, rather than waiting for time to run out on her, she could do so conditionally:  On condition that the children are adopted together, that they’re adopted by an Orthodox family, by an ultra-Orthodox family, or even by a particular ultra-Orthodox family (who are certified as foster parents, of course). She has that power! I hope someone has told her that.

Agudath Israel of America should be ashamed of themselves.  Tochachah — reproof — is best given in private, but when the offending party is loudly libeling another party, I think they have forfeited their right to that courtesy.

And on re-reading the original article, I have to ask again:  Where was this young woman’s family and community before DSS stepped in?  There was a bris, there was a grandmother; didn’t anyone realize that there was a problem?