When we hear of kids being removed from their homes, instead of asking, “Why is this happening?” we should be asking, “What can we do to help?”
I will never forget the sight of the abandoned babies and children I saw in the streets of Iran, where I grew up in the 1980s. In the absence of a social welfare safety net, impoverished parents who could not or would not take care of their children would routinely dump them outside and leave them to the mercy of passersby. These sights shocked me to the core, and as a child I pledged to myself that when I grew up I would one day help children like these.
My family moved to the US in 1988, when I was eight, and we integrated in the Jewish community of Los Angeles.
I met my husband, Bijan Refael Zangan, when I was 24, and after our wedding we moved to Israel, where he learned in kollel and I studied for my master’s in psychology while working for Efrat, an organization that encourages women not to terminate their pregnancies. Unlike almost all the young couples around us, however, we did not effortlessly move on to the next stage, parenting. Rather than mope about my own childlessness, I tried to occupy myself productively by getting involved with local seminaries and volunteering to help busy mothers by watching their children while they were out working.
When my husband received a job offer from Touro College in Los Angeles, three years after we had gotten married, I told him that it was too hard for me to continue living in a community of young families and working with women who didn’t want their unborn babies. So he accepted the offer.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, I began to work as a therapist while pursuing a doctorate in psychology. One day, when I walked into one of my classes, the non-Jewish professor asked me if I belonged to the Orthodox Jewish community. When I said yes, she asked me if I knew about a Jewish friend of hers who had been murdered by her husband. “Why wasn’t the community there for her?” my professor demanded.
Apparently, this woman had been the victim of domestic violence for years, but she had been afraid to call the authorities or seek help because she was scared that her children would be placed with non-Jewish families.
The story itself was devastating to me, and hearing the professor blame the community for complicity made me feel personally ashamed.
Something has to be done about this, I thought.
I bought copies of Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski’s book about domestic abuse, The Shame Borne in Silence, and asked local bookstores and shuls to put it on their shelf. (Of Rabbi Twerski’s many titles, this crucial one somehow is consistently absent from many Jewish libraries and book collections.)
In the meantime, my husband and I had been married for six years and still had not been blessed with children, which was a source of deep sorrow for both of us, but especially for me. Yet my husband continually encouraged me not to fall into despair. “The yetzer hara tries to distance us from Hashem by magnifying what we don’t have,” he would often tell me. “The yetzer tov, on the other hand, tells us to focus on what we do have and share that with others.”
Basically, what he was telling me was that I had two choices: I could brood over the fact that I was childless, or I could take the kochos of mothering that I so badly wanted to utilize and express them in other ways.
Thinking of the abandoned kids I had seen back in Iran, I told my husband that our community needed to have homes with open doors so that children in crisis would have somewhere to go — and so that parents in crisis would not refrain from seeking help out of fear of losing their children to the government foster care system.
And so we began the process of becoming certified foster parents.
But before we could complete the certification process, we discovered, to our delight, that were going to become parents ourselves — to twins. Becoming foster parents while expecting is not recommended, but since I keenly recognized the importance of having Jewish families ready to take in children who need emergency foster care, I began to get involved in advocacy, giving talks in the community about child safety and the need for Jewish foster families.
I also created a WhatsApp group through which I spread the word that if anyone knows of a family that is at risk of having its children removed by the authorities, they should be in touch with us and we would try to place the children in an appropriate Jewish setting.
Even after our twins were born and I had my hands full taking care of them, I continued my advocacy work.
Several years passed. As the twins’ fourth birthday approached, with no siblings on the horizon, I was again beset with feelings of longing to become a mother.
And then I heard about a traditional Persian-Jewish family whose children were being removed from the home by Child Protective Services (CPS) due to instability in the home. The father had appealed to the community for help placing his three children in a Jewish home, but so far no one had come forward. I actually knew the mother from Iran, and I felt haunted by the family’s plight.
There were so many reasons why I couldn’t take in these children. Ours is a frum home, with uncompromising standards of kashrus and shemiras Shabbos and no computers or other digital devices. How would these children, who were traditional but not religious, adapt to these requirements? Furthermore, we lived in a small house with only one shower. How could we share these tight quarters with another three children?
The night after I heard about this family, I had a dream about a friend of mine who had recently died of cancer. “I’m not alive anymore,” she said to me in my dream, “but what are you going to say? What reason do you have to say no to these children?”
While this friend was alive, I had confided to her how badly I wanted to have more children. “You want Hashem to bless you with more children, Natalie?” she asked me in my dream. “Well, here are His children. What are you doing to help them?”
I thought of Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh and perhaps the first foster mother in our people’s history. Had she not stretched out her hand to grab Moshe’s basket, even though it seemed hopelessly out of reach, what would have happened to Moshe Rabbeinu — and to all of Klal Yisrael?
The next morning, my husband and I went down to the CPS office and asked if we could become foster parents to these children. At the time of our interview, a couple from the Caribbean Islands who were state-certified foster parents were being interviewed as well. Had we not stepped up to take in the kids, they would have gone to this Christian couple.
I will never forget the day when the children were taken from their mother and given to me. I was standing beside the mother in the CPS office, and I told her she should let her kids know that I am her friend and that they might be placed with me for a while. Shortly afterward, the social workers came in, took the kids from the mother, and told her to bring the kids’ stuff from the car and go home by herself.
“But I didn’t get to say goodbye to them!” she wailed. “I didn’t get to hug them!”
The tears flowed in both directions, as the heartbroken mother left and the kids screamed for their mom.
The CPS officials instructed my husband and me to go home. “We’ll let you know if you’ve been approved as foster parents,” they told us.
“We’re a good match for these kids!” I pleaded. “We come from the same culture and religion, and we know each other from before.”
“We’ll let you know,” they repeated.
Several hours later, we got a call that we had been approved and that the kids were coming to stay with us.
I had to quickly explain to my twins that we had new kids coming to live with us because they couldn’t be with their own parents. These kids had been raised very differently from ours, with TVs, computers, smartphones, and non-Jewish music, and integrating them into our own internet-free home proved to be quite an adjustment.
Caring for the children, who were aged seven, six, and eighteen months, respectively, was challenging in other ways as well. Bedtime in particular was a major ordeal, as I had to put five young children to sleep — three of whom were not my own and showed serious resistance — without ever losing patience or saying anything that could be construed as a threat and possibly reported by the children to CPS. In general, I had to keep a daily journal of my interactions with the children to ensure that I had explanations ready of any incident that might one day be brought to the attention of CPS.
Not only was I living under the CPS microscope, with regular visits from social workers as well as supervised meetings with the children’s biological parents, I also had to deal with the agony of the displaced children, who sorely missed their parents and were suspicious of their new foster family and our odd, religious way of life.
Yet my husband and I felt all along that Hashem was giving us a special koach, and somehow we managed to care for both our own children and our foster children effectively during the three months they were with us.
Hashem also gave us another special gift at that time. We discovered that we were expecting another set of twins.
Several years after the birth of my second twins, I started a nonprofit organization called Children’s Village Advocacy. In addition to recruiting foster families and placing Jewish children with those families, the organization’s staff, volunteers, mental health director, and parent consultant provide support and education to families in the community so that children do not have to be removed from their homes in the first place. We also spread awareness of the available resources for victims of domestic abuse, so they can feel safe reaching out for help, knowing that their children will be cared for by members of the community while they make the arrangements necessary to protect themselves. Our goal is that every shul should have a designated family that is ready to act as a temporary “safe place” for children whose parents are unable to care for them.
Unfortunately, there are pitifully few frum homes available to take in foster children. This is true not only in Los Angeles, but across the country. One reason is simply logistics: CPS will not place a foster child in a home with six or more children. Another reason is that frum parents are understandably leery about their kids being exposed to children from dysfunctional environments. But this means that even when CPS is looking to place a frum child in a culturally familiar foster environment, such homes are rarely available.
When we hear of kids being removed from their homes, instead of asking, “Why is this happening?” we should be asking, “What can we do to help?” The question of “why” invariably leads to needless gossip and lashon hara, and rarely leads to action.
Even couples who are unable to become foster parents can help. For one thing, they can ease the burden on foster parents by providing meals, clothing, or babysitting. They can also monitor visits of foster kids with their biological parents, which helps stabilize the family unit.
More fundamentally, by looking out for struggling families around us, each of us can prevent these families from making it onto the CPS radar in the first place. Every family goes through periods of hardship and even crisis, and we as a community should be the first responders to these situations, so that outsiders and the authorities do not have to get involved.
One of the most overlooked reasons for families slipping into crisis is actually the birth of a baby. The postpartum period is overwhelming for every mother, and those who lack adequate support, or suffer from postpartum depression or psychosis, are at particularly high risk of poor parenting and neglect.
Every neighborhood, every community, and every shul needs to look out for families with a new baby. Sending meals is wonderful, but often it’s not what’s needed, or it’s not enough. We can’t assume that just because a family has only one or two children, they should be able to manage, or that just because a family has four or seven or twelve children, they already know how to get it together. Every woman, and every family, responds differently to every birth, and it’s our job as a community and as Am Yisrael to express interest in how they are doing and make ourselves available to help as needed.
Even with all our efforts to keep families together, having children remain with their parents is not always an option, and we need to create a system within our own communities for placing these children in a safe environment.
In the year since Children’s Village was founded, we have been contacted regarding 23 cases. In some of these cases, children were removed from their homes and placed in appropriate Jewish foster settings. In other cases, we guided the parents to take parenting courses and learn the appropriate skills to care for their children themselves. We also galvanized other families to provide support for both foster parents and birth parents during the sensitive time when children are in foster care. No family exists in a vacuum, and particularly for families who don’t have extended family nearby, it is critical that neighbors and friends show interest and help out.
Not long ago, I got a call from a woman who received a visit from CPS officials, who became suspicious after her child had been brought to the doctor for what they deemed an excessive number of visits. Hysterical, the mother had refused to open the door.
“It’s always better to allow the investigators in,” I explained to her. “If you don’t let them in, they can simply get a warrant to break through your door. But if you do let them in and try to work with them, your chances of keeping your children in your own care are much better.”
Prevention, of course, is the best strategy of all when it comes to protecting our children. Many frum schools require parents to put in chesed hours to help the school, and I’ve long wished that schools would offer parenting classes as a way of fulfilling this chesed requirement. For what greater chesed can there be than to learn how to become a better parent, thus minimizing the need for outside intervention and, in extreme cases, removal of the children from the home?
These days, with our two sets of twins aged eight and four, my husband and I provide respite and emergency foster care to kids in need, opening our home as a short-term stopover for children who have been removed from their homes, until more permanent arrangements can be made. But mostly, I focus on getting the message out there that we’re all responsible for Klal Yisrael’s children. “Hear something, do something,” I tell people. “Small actions can make a big difference.”
To this day, I can’t get the story of the woman who was killed by her husband out of my mind. About a year ago, I told that story to a friend, and she said that a friend of hers died many years earlier under similar circumstances. It turned out that we were talking about the same story, and after that conversation she put me in touch with Mali, the daughter of the murdered woman.
When I spoke to Mali, I told her that her mother’s story had inspired me to make sure something like this would never happen again.
“I was only 11 years old when my father murdered my mother,” she said to me. “It turned my life upside down. And my father died shortly afterward.
“My mother was such a good, loving person,” she added wistfully. “Even when she was going through the hardest time of her life, she always wanted to help others. She didn’t want to lose her children, and she didn’t have a safe place for herself and the kids, so she stayed. I’m sure that even though she’s not physically here, she is happy to know that other women like her are getting the help and support they need.”
The narrator may be contacted through LifeLines or the Mishpacha office.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 809)
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