New effort to aid Jewish foster, adoptive families

When Lynne was a child, her parents brought two young foster children into their home for a brief period. This experience was very meaningful to her and when she and her husband, Brad, discovered they were unable to bear children, the Phoenix couple decided to become foster parents themselves. But it had a very different outcome.

After taking the required classes and getting licensed to become foster parents, the couple (who did not want their last name used in this article) welcomed David (not his real name) into their home.

“It was our desire at the time to have an older child,” Lynne said. “We wanted to provide a home for someone whose parents were unable to or maybe weren’t around anymore.”

Soon after David, 10, moved into their home, they learned that he was developmentally disabled, but there was no documentation explaining what his disabilities were.

“We didn’t know what resources were available to us so we didn’t know how to ask for them.”

When it comes to figuring out how the process works, “it’s very hard to put all the pieces together,” Lynne said. “There’s not a flowchart that tells you what to do next or how things happen. So many times, you feel like you’re on a scavenger hunt, but don’t know what you’re looking for.”

During the 21 months David lived with them, the family went through the process of David’s parents getting divorced and being severed from their rights over David and his four siblings. There were weekly meetings with caseworkers and high-needs case managers. It took several months before the couple were able to secure counseling or other services and they went through a rough period with medication regulation.

David entered fifth grade at a first-grade reading level and received some help at school – “I would like to put in a plug of how wonderful Madison School No. 1 was for kids with special needs,” Lynne said. When David entered sixth grade, he was reading on a third-grade level and played soccer and baseball.

But Lynne said that David blamed her for not being able to be with his parents and threatened to kill her on a number of occasions. She and her husband were unsure of how to proceed, and couldn’t find any support groups to help.

After 21 months, David left their home and was placed in a high-needs home.

“There is no one to hold your hand, there’s no one to advocate for you,” Lynne said. “There’s no one to tell you what the next step is, and there’s no one to tell you what your rights are as a foster parent.”

The girls who lived in Lynne’s childhood home as foster children were placed there through a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service. In 2013, JFCS launched an initiative to train Jewish families to become certified foster care parents, but JFCS no longer offers any foster care-specific programs.

Jewish Free Loan offers interest-free loans up to $20,000 for Jewish individuals and families wanting to grow their families, which applies to adoption, foster care-related expenses, and infertility treatments. Besides these, no other resources in the local Jewish community had been available to help Jewish families who wish to become foster or adoptive parents.

Until now.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz and his wife, Shoshana, had tried to adopt a child for about five years, both domestically and internationally.

“After hitting a lot of walls and spending a lot of time and energy and money, we finally told the state that we would foster and within an hour, they had a child for us,” said Yanklowitz. “It really opened up our eyes to how great the need is.”

Their foster child was only 4 days old when he arrived at their home on a Friday night right before Shabbat. He is now 6 months old.

Although the Yanklowitzes have two children of their own, a 3-year-old daughter and a boy who turns 2 this week, they decided when they first married that they wanted to be able to provide a home for a child who didn’t have one.

“We were blown away by how challenging the  bureaucratic process can be when looking to foster or adopt,” Yanklowitz said. “And how isolating it can be.”

So it was out of this personal experience that Yanklowitz, who is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, founded Yatom: The Jewish Foster & Adoption Network this past June. Yatom means “a vulnerable child” or “orphan” in Hebrew.

“Being that we have a focus on social entrepreneurship, we try to build new initiatives in the Valley Beit Midrash structure and also to create or embrace new initiatives in the community that may currently be beyond our formal structure in order to address new needs,” Yanklowitz said.

Last month, Yatom introduced the Yatom Family Fellowship, which was created to inspire families striving to foster or adopt. After putting out the call for applications, Yatom was contacted by a few dozen families nationwide, Yanklowitz said. “There was a much larger interest than we thought.”

Eight families, one in Phoenix and seven in seven other cities, were selected to receive a $1,000 stipend to participate in the one-year fellowship. The stipends are funded by Valley Beit Midrash and Yanklowitz’s discretionary fund.

The fellowship is geared toward Jewish families – including single parents or LGBT couples – who are interested in adopting or fostering but who have not yet started the process.

“One of our main goals is to motivate and incentivize people who are on the fence to actually do it,” Yanklowitz said. “So those who are already in the process or in the midst of it, we want to support them, too, it’s just a different program.”

During the fellowship, Yatom will “try to hold their hand” in the process of applying and getting licensed and certified, as well as provide access to expert sources to coach them with any challenges they encounter. There’s also a social component that involves monthly conference calls with the other families and a Jewish learning component.

According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, there were more than 18,000 children in Arizona who were in out-of-home care as of Sept. 30, 2015. The majority of these children, 33.4 percent, were between the ages of 1 and 5. Neglect is the main reason children are in out-of-home care – 85.7 percent of the cases.

“I think this is an area where our local Jewish community can really play a much greater role,” Yanklowitz said. “First, in families considering fostering or adopting or secondly, people considering financially or socially supporting those who are doing it. And third, advocating on a statewide level for a better process and more funding for this kind of work. So everyone can participate in this. I think it is something that ought to keep us up at night, how many children are being neglected.”

Visit yatom.org.

This article first appeared on the Aug 26 issue of Phoenix Jewish News.