The Jewish community is facing a foster care crisis, with childcare experts warning that essential services have reached breaking point, writes Caron Kemp
For the past 24 years, Michael and Barbara [not their real names] have been opening up their homes and their hearts to Jewish children in great need.
In that time, 12 children have moved in to the north London home they share with their three offspring, some for a matter of weeks while others have stayed for years.
“My wife was a nurse at the time we began fostering and would often see mothers that she felt would benefit from some respite,” explains Michael. “We felt that we were a stable enough environment to provide that safety-net and things just progressed from there.”
Yet now at retirement age, Michael’s passion for Jewish fostering is unfaltering and he is making a desperate plea to the Jewish community to open its eyes to this crisis on our doorstep and to take action.
“Whether we want to admit it or not, Jewish children can be exposed to terrible circumstances and through no fault of their own, they sometimes need a safe place to go,” admits Michael. “We’ve experienced a vast array of reactions from friends and the wider community when we explain what it is we do, but mainly there is enormous disbelief that there is any need in our community.
“I really do worry that we are therefore not taking this problem seriously enough.”
According to The Fostering Network, 80 percent of English children in care are living with foster parents. Yet while the need is so vast, we are currently witnessing an estimated shortfall of almost 8,000 families. And the demand in the Jewish community is particularly acute.
“I’ve seen Jewish children being placed in Christian or Muslim homes, far away from any relevant religious influence because there was nowhere else for them to go,” adds Michael.
“These children, who have already experienced such upheaval and have lost so much, lose another element of their identity when consistency and familiarity are never more vital, which is truly heartbreaking.”
In 1984, leading Jewish charity Norwood, which supports vulnerable children, families and people with learning disabilities, started a project to find foster homes for Jewish children, but that ceased to exist in 2008 due to a lack of demand and a tightening of regulations and it has never been replaced.
According to David Harris, Norwood’s director of development, the charity did work to recruit more Jewish families into foster caring over three years until 2013, but the eventual uptake was low.
This was followed shortly after by a community-focused awareness campaign, but its success was limited.
“The whole community has got to come together and improve this dire situation,” urges Michael.
“We would like to retire but I’m very worried that without any central body handling this crisis and without more families willing to open up their homes, our community’s children will suffer further.”
And as local authority senior social worker Natasha Adley, whose work is focused on young people in care, explains, the benefits of Jewish homes being available for Jewish children in crisis are palpable.
“As social workers, when we look to place children and young people with a foster family, one of the important criteria we consider in the match is religion, ethnicity and cultural identity,” she explains.
“If a child has grown up within a particular culture, being able to maintain that consistency and part of their identity is so important.”
“If you consider what makes you you, it may be that going to synagogue or lighting Shabbat candles or celebrating festivals is a big part of that, or perhaps going to Jewish youth groups or religion school, and thus supporting kids to continue to do likewise is really important.”
Moreover, Natasha is keen to impress upon the community that we are not immune from such crises.
“Jewish children, like any children, could face adversity in their younger years leading them to have some time out; possibly short term respite or longer term,” she adds.
It is this painful truth that compelled Michael and Barbara to become foster parents in the first place and what drives them to continue to encourage others to sign up.
“This is about people who can offer stability and a loving environment to show these children their worth in life,” Michael concludes.
“Yes it is demanding and difficult at times, but it is also incredibly rewarding.
“Watching a damaged child begin to flourish again makes it all worth it, and knowing that is in the confines of our religious practices so offering them further grounding and familiarity is very powerful and profound.”