There are about 440,000 kids in foster care in the United States right now, about a quarter of whom are awaiting adoption. Almost every state in the country reports a shortage of people willing to care for them. For the past few years, I’ve spent time traveling around the country meeting people who do. From suburban Denver to rural Arkansas and the urban centers of New Orleans, I have interviewed scores of men and women who have opened their homes to children who have suffered the most devastating kinds of trauma. These children have suffered abuse or severe neglect at the hands of their own family members, and the state has found that the problem is so severe they need to be removed from their homes to keep them safe. Almost all of the foster parents I meet are connected with evangelical churches or other Christian organizations. And more than once during my travels I have stopped to wonder: Where are the Jews?
Evangelicals have revolutionized the world of foster care in many ways, finding ways to bring middle-class Americans to serve in this capacity, rather than leaving it to folks who are doing it for the money. A little more than a decade ago, leaders in the evangelical community recognized that the way we were recruiting foster parents was not very effective. Putting up a picture of a child on the nightly news and asking if anyone wanted him or her was not a very compelling message, no matter how cute the picture was. And so pastors started telling their congregations something much more specific: These are the children in our ZIP code who need a home tonight. The urgency of the message was clear. Project 1.27 in Colorado succeeded in getting most of the foster children eligible for adoption into permanent homes.
Then there was the training. Traditionally offered by the state—infrequently, at inconvenient times, and in inconvenient places—training for foster parents was a problem. Many foster parents reported that the state didn’t even return their phone calls when they volunteered. So organizations like The CALL in Arkansas offered to use all the materials the state required in order to do their own training. They now operate in most of the state’s counties and have cared for more than 10,000 children since their founding in 2007. Some of these groups also supplement state material with education in trauma-informed care, for instance, giving new foster parents better tools for handling kids from very tough backgrounds.
Many of these groups have come to understand that while not everyone is cut out for foster care, everyone can do something to help—and so they offer support training to other members of the community. Those supporters can perform respite care for foster parents, or help build furniture at the last minute, or simply provide a sympathetic ear and some spiritual support for these families. Half of foster families quit within the first year and it’s not surprising. Fostering takes a toll on people’s marriages and on their other children. But hundreds of organizations have grown up around the idea that communities need to do a better job helping these families. CarePortal, for instance, allows churches to see requests from local child-welfare officials. These include calls for clothing, strollers, tutors, mentors, and rides. CarePortal operates in half the states in the country and has served more than 40,000 children.
I asked the founder of CarePortal whether synagogues could sign up too. He paused for a minute and said no one had ever asked. But then there is not much attention paid to the issue of foster care in the Jewish community. I belong to one of the largest synagogues in the New York suburbs. The members there perform all sorts of acts of chesed and are active in everything from volunteering at soup kitchens to resettling refugees, but child welfare issues are not really on our agenda.
I should say that Jews are not the only religious group that seems to be disconnected from the challenge of foster care. Catholic friends have complained to me about a similar problem in their community. While groups like Catholic Charities have long been active in the world of adoption and foster care, most lay Catholics think more about giving financially to these organizations rather than actually volunteering themselves.
Kathleen Domingo, who heads the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told a local Catholic website that “the Catholic community has been very slow to get on board with fostering.” In the past couple of years, that has started to change. With the support of Archbishop José H. Gomez, Foster All, a local nonprofit, “has made more than 85 presentations at local parishes, signing up more than 300 people who expressed interest in foster care. Other parishes have hosted clothing drives or community breakfasts for children in foster homes.”
What is it that’s standing in the way of the Jewish community launching its own efforts? When I tell friends in my community about these organizations and these churches—which are more common in the South and West—they often ask me whether the groups work in foster care simply to gain converts. I’m not sure if that says more about their misunderstanding of evangelicals or of the purpose of foster care.
When I asked Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (an umbrella group for these organizations) what he made of this question, he told me: “If you just want to proselytize, you can go to the park and pass out tracts. Adopting or fostering or becoming involved in the life of a struggling family is far more costly than cheap proselytizing.” He says that the families involved in this work feel a deep religious obligation: “Being loved is the most transformative power on Earth. The Christian gospel said our God welcomes us amidst our great need. We seek to reflect that same heart.”
I’m not going to go too far down the theological road here, but I would say that most of the Jews I know would be on board with these sentiments too. And yet they don’t seem involved in the most intimate kind of community service there is. It’s not just the children who end up being cared for. Many foster families stay connected with the children even once they return home to their biological families, and many foster parents become invested, as a result, in the success of the biological parents. They sometimes help with job searches, babysitting, and connecting those families with other resources. Foster children often serve as a bridge to connect the most disconnected families to a local community.
For more observant Jews, welcoming a non-Jew into their family, even on a temporary basis, might present challenges. Would you teach an 8-year-old foster child to keep kosher? Could you send him or her to a Jewish day school? Would you ask the child to be shomer Shabbos? But then again, for most American Jews, few of these questions even apply.
I think the real reason that the Jewish community is not so engaged in foster care has more to do with cultural factors than religious ones. When I travel to communities that engage more deeply in foster care, people talk about “foster friendly churches.” By this they sometimes mean churches that are multiracial or multiethnic. But they also mean something else. One mother I interviewed recalled being “terrified” to drop off her first foster child in the nursery during the service (as she did with her older kids). She tried to explain to the woman running it: “OK, she hits her head and will bite herself when she gets upset. Just come get me and I’ll come get her.” The woman took the baby, hugged her, and said, “I’ve got this. I had a trauma baby, too.”
Do most Jewish parents feel comfortable bringing a child with special needs, or who is loud and disruptive, into communal Jewish spaces, confident that others will not only make them feel welcome but also know how to help and care for them? It is rare to find such children in any of four synagogues I have attended as an adult, and there is no child care available for a child who will hit her head and bite herself if she gets upset.
When I visited Salt Lake City, I was surprised to find that Mormons also did not seem to be focused on the issue of foster care. Though they have very tightknit communities and individuals are obligated by the church to make all sorts of service commitments both inside and outside of the church, there was no formal program to address the needs of the most vulnerable kids in the area. One woman who worked for a group home provider called Utah Youth Villages attributed it to the culture of high achievement among members of the church. They want their children to do well in school, get into a respectable if not necessarily elite college, and enter a lucrative and rewarding career, she told me. Sound familiar?
In a world in which parents seem to be engaged in an ever-escalating battle over whose child has achieved the most academic, athletic, or social successes, where is the community that welcomes kids who look and act different, kids who have been abused or neglected and who can’t behave calmly in any kind of social setting, let alone ace their SATs? These spaces are vanishingly rare. But if we want to create space for foster children, we have to look at all aspects of our communities. What would we do with children in our midst whose problems loom larger than a failed grade?
The need for quality foster parents is not going away. A few years ago I interviewed a pastor in New Orleans who had adopted a toddler out of the foster care system. He told me he was reluctant to sign up, but he told his wife he would attend an information session that the state was holding. He found himself deeply disturbed by the questions the other people in the room were posing. One asked whether he had to keep foster children in the same part of his house as his other children. Others were focused on exactly how much money they could make from the state for each kid. He told me that he decided to foster in part because he couldn’t bear the thought of these other people doing it.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on child welfare, as well as a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.