A complaint from a Muslim constituent has led the New Jersey legislature’s sole Orthodox Jewish legislator to introduce a bill that would mandate that children in foster care be placed with their co-religionists “to the maximum extant practicable.”

But one local observant Jewish foster mother to Christian children worries that the bill would make life even harder for children needing foster care and the adults who wish to care for them. She believes that better enforcement of current guidelines, which require respecting a child’s religion, along with more formalized efforts by the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services to seek religiously compatible foster homes, would suffice.

“A child’s religious and cultural backgrounds are significant aspects of determining the best interests of the child,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, a Democrat who represents the 36th District. Schaer drafted the bill and sponsored it in the Assembly.

“That’s why it’s so important that the placement of a child into foster care or adoption should be consistent with their religious and cultural backgrounds, unless it’s proven by convincing evidence that such placement is not in the best interests of the child,” he added.

Foster care is the initial step DYFS takes when it decides that it is not in a child’s best interest to remain with his or her parent, and it is considered to be temporary. But when the birth parent is unable or unwilling to address the issues that led to abuse or neglect a judge can terminate his or her parental rights, enabling the child to be adopted.

Schaer drafted the bill after being approached by Aref Assaf, president of the Arab American Forum and a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger’s website. Assaf had written about a young Muslim child whose Christian foster family changed the child’s name, took him to church, and finally converted him.

“Even when his parents were allowed supervised visits, DYFS disallowed the parents from taking the child to the nearby mosque and threatened at times to end the visits. DYFS repeatedly ignored the parents’ wishes that the religious dietary restrictions be observed by the foster family,” Assaf wrote. He contrasted the New Jersey law with New York State’s requirement that children be placed in the custody of individuals or agencies “of the same religious persuasion as the child.”

Orthodox Jewish groups support Schaer’s measure.

“We commend Assemblyman Schaer for crafting this important piece of legislation,” Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, who represents the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs in Trenton, said. “We believe it is vital to the welfare of a child to be raised in a religious environment consistent with that of his or her parents. Having a child placed in a foster home of a different faith can be both traumatic and confusing.”

The Brooklyn-based Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, which provides foster care and social work services, primarily to the Orthodox community, also supports the measure.

Foster care “could be one of the most traumatic periods in a child’s life and the placement with a family that provides the environment to sustain a child’s religious beliefs can have a profound positive impact,” Derek Saker said. Saker, Ohel’s director of communications, lives in Passaic. “Taking a Muslim child and placing him in an agnostic home – or a Jewish home for that matter – adds to the confusion of the child.”

In New York State, he said, a government agency contacts Ohel if there is a Jewish child who needs foster care. Ohel and similar Muslim organizations “have for decades been trying to get a license to operate in New Jersey,” he added

In May, an Assembly committee approved Schaer’s bill by a six-to-one vote. It has yet to come to a vote of the full Assembly. From there, if it passes it would go on to a Senate committee, and then to the full Senate, where it is sponsored by State Sen. Anthony Bucco, a Republican who represents the 25th District. Schaer hopes the measure will be taken up in the fall legislative session and passed before the end of the year.

One Jewish state legislator expressed reservations about the measure as it is drafted. “I think the bill has some problems in it,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who represents the 37th District.

“Will this somehow mean that some children cannot be placed in adoptive families because there is some kind of an extra barrier?” she asked. She noted that current law requires the state to make “a reasonable effort” to maintain a child’s religious upbringing. The proposed bill would require that DYFS prepare a statement of facts when placing a child with another religious faith. “That adds a whole lot of bureaucracy,” she said.

She also wants to make sure “that there is nothing in this bill that could prevent gay couples from adopting a child. Would a Jewish gay couple or a Catholic gay couple be okay?”

Foster and Adoptive Family Services, an organization of New Jersey foster parents, opposes the bill, saying it would “severely restrict the pool of potential families for any particular child.”

One observant Jewish foster mother agrees with that critique. “I support taking religion into strong consideration,” says Tovah Isaiah Gidseg, a Teaneck resident who is raising two non-Jewish foster children. “I just don’t support requiring same-religion placement in all or even the majority of cases, the vast majority of whom are non-practicing Christians.

“This means adoption for Jewish families is just going to be that much harder. Few kids in the system are Jewish, and there is not really a shortage of Jewish foster or adoptive families.

Gidseg said the bill is “well intentioned.

“DYFS needs a formalized way to deal with the needs of children of minority faith. I just think [this bill] is a bit far reaching and misguided and will potentially harm the ability of Jewish families to be foster and adoptive parents.”

Gidsig said that the state makes “tremendous attempts” to keep children in the care of their birth families or extended family. Thirty-five percent of children in New Jersey foster care are in such “kinship” placement, one of the highest rates in the country, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“The definition of ‘kinship’ in New Jersey extends to close friends, neighbors, and members of a child’s religious community,” Gidsig said. “My family has been considered as a ‘kinship’ placement for Orthodox Jewish children before, despite not having a close relationship with the children, because DYFS understands that keeping an Orthodox child in a religious home is important. Jewish children in New Jersey, especially those in Orthodox communities, rarely enter the formal foster care system, and when they do they are almost always placed in Jewish homes.”

That is not to say that the system could not be improved. “Here in Bergen County, the foster care home finders and caseworkers generally know which foster families are Jewish and will go to those families if a Jewish foster child enters the system,” she said. But it may be different in counties that do not have large Orthodox populations. “There seems to be no central list of Jewish foster families available to caseworkers, so there’s no way for a DYFS worker to know which families are Jewish besides those who they personally are acquainted with or who their co-workers might be familiar with,” Gidsig said. “From what I’ve been told, the main way they know which homes are Jewish is by word of mouth among the caseworkers. This system is highly informal and this can be a real problem, because it results in Jewish children sometimes unnecessarily being placed in faraway counties before the local DYFS office discovers that they actually had an available Jewish home in their own area.”

Gidseg said that the original case that sparked the bill, where the child was stripped of his Muslim identity, was a violation of DYFS policy.

“DYFS already makes it legally incumbent upon all foster families to honor and maintain a child’s faith. We must agree to this when we become licensed as foster families and we can lose our licenses for being religiously coercive in any way. We were asked at length during our home study how our Jewish faith would impact our fostering and how we would honor the racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds of foster children. While I certainly believe that it’s very difficult for a religious Jewish child to maintain their faith outside of a Jewish home, I do not believe the same is equally true for children of every faith and denomination. This has been borne out in the experience of myself and other Jewish foster families I know who foster/adopt non-Jewish children.

“Most of the Jewish foster parents I know have found that the children placed with them are almost exclusively from nominally Christian, nonreligious backgrounds, and usually the parents are not upset that their children are with a Jewish foster family.

“Why, then, should these children only be placed in Christian homes?” Gidseg asked.

“Why is a Jewish home that is willing to make sure the children get to celebrate Christmas (even if it’s in the home of a non-Jewish friend or family member), or who finds someone to take the children to church if they so request, or that allows the children to practice their traditions, be considered less of an appropriate placement?

“Instead of making such a placement an outright violation of policy, DYFS could instead provide more support and education to foster families and caseworkers with regard to cultural and religious competency and how to make sure children’s’ traditions are honored in their foster families, and encourage birth families to talk openly about their preferences for their child’s placement early in the placement process. DYFS should also begin to maintain updated statewide lists of foster families of minority faiths that they can use as a reference if looking for a placement of a child who is Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc.”

The proposed bill, Gidseg said, would seriously affect Jewish families’ ability to adopt New Jersey children, even if parents had lost their parental rights, and had not indicated that they cared about their children’s religion.

“In most cases I know of, if they have asked for a same-religion placement they have received one if it is available,” she said.

“At the point that adoption is finalized, a Jewish family who adopts through the foster care system has the right to pursue a conversion for their child to Judaism. This is not a right that should be removed, as the adoptive family becomes the full legal parents and therefore the ones to make religious decisions for their child.”