There are children who need us

There are children who need us

Exploring the challenges and joys of foster parenting

Tovah Gidseg in the hall of the Bergen County Courthouse after her family adopted their two youngest children. (Maegan Dougherty Photography)
Tovah Gidseg in the hall of the Bergen County Courthouse after her family adopted their two youngest children. (Maegan Dougherty Photography)

“There are children out there who need us,” Sigal Bekker Saban said. “Who knew there were children in New Jersey waiting for families?”

Ms. Saban runs the Mom and Dad Academy, a parent education center in Fair Lawn that is hosting Tovah Gidseg on Wednesday. Ms. Gidseg will present a workshop on “All You Ever Wanted to Know About Foster Care and Adoption in New Jersey.”

Ms. Gidseg laughs at the idea that she’s some kind of expert, as the publicity for the workshop bills her. But she does concede that having been a foster parent for over five years — several times — and then going on to adopt most of those children, she does have some expertise in the logistical, emotional, and hands-on experience of being a foster and adoptive parent through the Department of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly DYFS) in Northern New Jersey.

Parenting many children — she is now the mother of four at home, the oldest of whom is 6, as well as a teen who now lives elsewhere but with whom she remains involved — is of course challenging. Ms. Gidseg makes it clear that it is also rewarding and occasionally hilarious. She is hesitant about allowing too many details into the paper — you can hear more in her talk. It’s not just a question of her privacy; it’s a question of the privacy of her foster and adopted children. As a foster parent, she doesn’t even have the right to sign media releases for schools or camps to include her foster children’s pictures in newsletters.

“Fostering is by definition temporary,” she said. “Reunification is always the goal of foster care, and birth parents always have the right to have a year to work a case plan and receive services to help them regain custody of their child.”

It is only if birth parents aren’t able to make adequate progress in providing a safe living environment for their child after that year — and if no other family members are able to care for the child — that adoption is an option.

Ms. Gidseg wants her workshop to start people thinking about the possibilities of fostering or adopting children in New Jersey.

“You can become a foster parent with the goal only to foster, a foster parent who is open to adopting children you foster who may become available for adoption, or you can apply to only adopt, in which case you may wait longer but only have children placed with you who are legally free for adoption or will be soon. Most people I know who have adopted through foster care fostered those children first, but I also know people who have adopted directly through the state a child who was already adoptable,” she said.

And while it’s not the specific topic at her Fair Lawn talk — the Mom and Dad Academy is non-sectarian — as a religious Jew Ms. Gidseg has a particular interest in increasing the Jewish community’s awareness of the foster care system, and its involvement in it, and she will discuss some of those issues.

“Most children in our home have quickly acclimated to living in a Jewish home and love participating in Jewish rituals.”

“Unlike other religious communities, particularly the evangelical Christian community, our community by and large has not taken as much of a hands-on role with this issue,” she said. “We are a generous and chesed-oriented community that in my experience is more likely to donate to organizations that do this type of work than to actually engage in it by mentoring at-risk parents, fostering children, adopting waiting children in the foster care system, and so on.”

Why become a foster parent?

Hilary Levin and her daughter Dalia on Mothers Day
Hilary Levin and her daughter Dalia on Mothers Day

“Because you love children and want to care and protect and advocate for a child with all your heart while their birth family tries to heal and rectify whatever problems led to the child’s removal. Because you want to help a child blossom and be part of supporting the child and family’s safe and lasting reunification. Because you have empathy for families in crisis and their children, and are willing and able to fight hard for a child to get the support, the education and therapies and whatever else that they need and deserve,” she said.

How can you imagine saying goodbye to a child you have taken in?

Ms. Gidseg pulls out an anonymous quote that circulates in the Internet sites where foster parents gather: “I am not afraid to grieve. I am afraid of what would happen to these children if no one took the risk to love them.”

Despite the grief that is possible if a child does leave your home, she said, you have the satisfaction of “knowing that giving a child a foundation of love and secure attachment will make a huge impact on that child’s future relationships and life success.”

Adopting a foster child also has its emotional challenges.

“With the gaining of a new permanent adoptive family, a child will also experience grief, and feelings of rejection and loss. You need to be committed to learning how to help them live with and resolve those feelings.”

Her class will go over the details of what’s required from foster parents, but if you’re a typical reader of this paper, you’re probably okay. You have to be over 18, have no history of violent crime or abuse of or neglect of children, have a safe home (rental apartments are fine) with room for a child, and be able to play well with a long list of others, including caseworkers, attorneys, therapists, teachers, and in some cases birth families. ( “That’s a part I’ve found especially rewarding,” she says.) You don’t have to be married, be a stay-at-home parent, or be well-to-do financially, because the state assists with the child’s expenses.

Of course, there are additional challenges — and opportunity for humorous anecdotes — when it comes to a family like Ms. Gidseg’s, which observes Shabbat and kashrut, taking in a child who most likely is not Jewish. (Not that there aren’t occasional Jewish children who need a kosher home for emergency or permanent placement, highlighting the shortage of appropriate families who have undergone the training necessary to take in those children.)

“You can take your foster children to synagogue — except in the case of an older non-Jewish child who specifically expresses that they do not wish to go, in which case you can make other arrangements,” she said.

“Sometimes compromises have to be made.

“If they or their birth families ask, you have to get them to church or mosque.”

That doesn’t mean the foster parent has to go along; the child’s caseworker will help find someone in the larger community who will take them to services.

That hasn’t actually come up in her experience, however.

“In our family’s experience, the biological families have at times been confused about what Judaism is or been worried we wouldn’t give their kids any kind of Christmas, but they have never had an issue with us taking the kids to synagogue or specifically asked that we take them to church,” she said.

“Most children in our home have quickly acclimated to living in a Jewish home and love participating in Jewish rituals. Children in foster care have by and large had very chaotic lives with a lot of trauma before they come to you. Rituals, boundaries, and reliable, consistent schedules (such as every Friday night all devices being turned off, candles being lit, songs being sung, a special meal being eaten) give them tremendous reassurance even if the specific rituals are a bit foreign,” she added.

If you adopt a child, however, “their religious identity post-adoption is entirely up to you.

“When we’ve had older children who are not on a track to be adopted by us, we make sure they get to celebrate Christmas, but we do so by taking them to non-Jewish family members’ houses or allowing them to decorate their bedroom or doing secular things with them like going to see the Christmas lights on the houses in a nearby town.

“All the children in our home have always celebrated all Jewish holidays with us but in the case of older kids who grew up in Christian homes we just make sure they have places and ways to celebrate their own holidays in ways that don’t compromise our own faith system. We’re obviously not going to put up a Christmas tree in the living room. Believe it or not, we’ve fostered an equal number of kids who have been Christians who’ve never gone to church regularly and kids whose parents practice Wicca. It’s a good reminder that children of literally every faith and background do end up in the foster care system.”

A bigger issue than religious differences, she says, has been “making sure that we are culturally competent in various cultures that we do not belong to and that we make sure children who are of a different race than us have lots of positive exposure to children and adults who are of the same race and or culture. Research is increasingly showing that this is absolutely critical for children who are fostered or adopted. Transracial adoption, which happens frequently in foster care, can have great outcomes, but when children have very little exposure to people of their own race the outcomes are much more negative in terms of their self-concept, self-esteem, comfort in their skin, and ability to cope as adults.”

Hilary Levin of Passaic has dealt with some of these issues. She’s the adoptive mother of Dalia, not quite 4 years old and — in Ms. Levin’s words — “super adorable and the absolute best personality.

“I really wanted to have a little girl,” Ms. Levin said. “I couldn’t figure out how to do as I had no money for private adoption or other avenues. A friend of mine showed up on my doorstep one day with ‘something she wanted to show me’ and it was a 3-month-old baby. I was so excited and said ‘God, I want one of these!’ It turns out that Dalia was born the next day!” Ms. Levin said.

Her friend guided her to the foster system. “Dalia was my first real call, and it was a dream come true,” she said. “She was one and a half years old, had been in only one foster home since she got out of the hospital, and the state was ready to terminate the rights of the mother and wanted her in an adoptive home. Her foster mother at the time had been doing foster care for more than 40 years. Dahlia was her 179th placement! She was in her 70s and needless to say did not want to adopt.

“The first week I visited twice a week at her foster mother — ‘Mama Linda’ — and played with and fed Dalia and asked Mama Linda a ton of questions about Dalia.

“Then I took her on an outing and did a another in home visit the next week and then she spent a whole weekend with me and then another — and then she moved in permanently.

“I do think it was confusing for her. She would cry when I dropped her off after a weekend — it was really hard to leave her. I also had to be considerate of Mama Linda’s feelings — she had her for over a year by then. The day I picked her up for good, we were all crying, except Dalia,” Ms. Levin said.

Some of the details of how the state operates have changed since then (another reason to attend the workshop).

Dalia “has been accepted and loved and adored in my circle of friends,” Ms. Levin said. “I do get a lot of looks on Shabbos. I’m not sure if it is from the fact that my hair isn’t covered or her race — it’s probably a combination.”

She’s thinking about moving to a more diverse community.

“Right now Dalia goes to a non-Jewish daycare and will go to a public pre-school in the fall,” she said. “She is not aware of her race or any differences between us at all yet, and when she does become aware I don’t want her to be in a place where she is the only non-white around. I converted her through Rabbinical Council of America and their guidelines state that I commit to sending her to a Jewish school starting in first grade, so that is the plan.”

Tova Gidseg will discuss foster parenting and adoption in Fair Lawn Wednesday, July 29.
Details here.

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