ROSA DOHERTY

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - FOS­TER­ING

FIVE CHIL­DREN tum­ble down the stairs for break­fast. It is hard to hear over the chat­ter about who is eat­ing whose ce­real — the Robin­sons look and sound like any large Jewish fam­ily. John, who is a Lib­eral Demo­crat coun­cil­lor in Hull, York­shire, has a busy work life and his wife Sarita is equally busy, co­or­di­nat­ing Re­form Ju­daism’s north­ern com­mu­ni­ties. Their two el­dest sons at­tend RSY sum­mer camps, while their youngest, Jamie, loves Jewish-themed books.

The Robin­sons have been fos­ter­ing chil­dren of all faiths for seven years, but their five bed­room home is an ex­am­ple of some­thing that’s in­creas­ingly rare in the Jewish com­mu­nity. Last week, two Lon­don coun­cils warned that chil­dren in need are be­ing left without Jewish foster care, be­cause of a lack of suit­able fam­i­lies to help them.

The Robin­sons see their home as Jewish, even though John is a Chris­tian. Jamie, now aged four, was con­verted un­der the aus­pices of Re­form Ju­daism. He ar­rived as a new­born baby need­ing a foster home and has only known the Robin­sons as par­ents. The rest of their brood are Chris­tian or have no faith.

“You could say we are a com­pli­cated fam­ily,” Sarita re­flects, “but for us, it is no big deal.”

When they adopted Jamie, they al­ready con­sid­ered them­selves par­ents to Ben, 13, and Adam, 12, nei­ther of whom were re­li­gious. The fourth child, Anna, a Chris­tian 16-year-old un­ac­com­pa­nied asy­lum seeker and her new­born baby, joined them in April this year.

“Jamie had been with us for five months when so­cial ser­vices told us he was go­ing to be put up for adop­tion. We said we wanted to be con­sid­ered and a long seven months later we were suc­cess­ful.”

Rais­ing foster chil­dren with dif­fer­ent re­li­gious iden­ti­ties, along­side a Jewish son can be chal­leng­ing, she ac­cepts.

“But it is not that com­pli­cated. The two boys, who came from non­re­li­gious back­grounds, have grown up go­ing to RSY camps. The younger one is in­ter­ested in Ju­daism and he says the bless­ings with us on a Fri­day night.

“The other is less so. But they both love com­ing to shul, be­cause they find it fun and they get to eat, and they also go to church with my hus­band if they want. Most im­por­tantly, we pro­vide them with free­dom of choice.”

While so­cial ser­vices pre­fer to place chil­dren with fam­i­lies of the same faith or cul­tural back­ground, a na­tional short­age of all kinds of car­ers means chil­dren can of­ten be placed with peo­ple of a dif­fer­ent faith.

“It is dif­fi­cult to give num­bers but we do know there is a na­tional short­age of Jewish foster fam­i­lies, says Caro­line Shloss, An­drew Mar­go­lis and their son Alex Mark Cun­ning­ham, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Manch­ester’s ma­jor wel­fare char­ity The Fed. The char­ity has re­ceived in­quiries from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in Lon­don, forced to look for place­ments in the north be­cause there is not enough avail­able lo­cally. Un­der­stand­ing how im­por­tant iden­tity is to chil­dren in the care sys­tem is cru­cial in mak­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence with a new fam­ily pos­i­tive, says Sarita.

“Take our 16-year-old, who is an un­ac­com­pa­nied asy­lum seeker. We looked up where she was com­ing from. On the day she ar­rived we cooked her food from where she was from to make her feel at home.

“It is im­por­tant for them to be a part of any­thing they want to be, but we don’t force any­thing on them. The most im­por­tant thing you can pro­vide any child is sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity. Foster chil­dren have come from places that weren’t safe or sta­ble.”

She keeps the cup­boards stacked with food to cater for each child’s taste.

“It looks ex­actly the same as any other house­hold. They fight about who sits where in the car, one will eat this, the other won’t eat that. They fight about toys, about space. The only dif­fer­ence is that we have a so­cial worker to work with.”

The cou­ple think of all the chil­dren as part of the fam­ily. “We don’t talk about them as foster chil­dren, we con­sider them our chil­dren. When Jamie was con­verted the boys were in­vited onto the bimah with the fam­ily.”

She is keen to point out that her multi-faith house­hold does not mean com­pro­mis­ing her own Ju­daism. “At home ev­ery­thing is kosher, and they live by our rules as it is a Jewish house. But un­like Jamie, the foster chil­dren are free to eat what­ever they want, out­side the house.”

Does she worry that this will one day en­cour­age Jamie to rebel, be­cause his sib­lings have dif­fer­ent rules?

“Of course I worry. One day we might go out to din­ner and Jamie says ‘Why can’t I have a ba­con sand­wich, be­cause Adam or Ben can?’ But like any­thing, as your chil­dren get older and more chal­leng­ing, you deal with it as it comes.”

The cou­ple were drawn to fos­ter­ing when they strug­gled to have their own chil­dren. In­stead of giv­ing up on a fam­ily life they looked at dif­fer­ent op­tions.

“Not be­ing able to have chil­dren just isn’t dis­cussed in the Jewish com­mu­nity and it is al­ways some­thing I have found frus­trat­ing be­cause there are other op­tions be­yond IVF. There is a real stigma at­tached.”

Fos­ter­ing has not only been a way for them to ful­fil their dreams of a fam­ily, but to ful­fil their shared re­li­gious val­ues as well. “We are pro­vid­ing a home to peo­ple who need one. The num­ber of chil­dren in care has in­creased but the lack of foster car­ers re­mains the same.”

It was that lack, par­tic­u­larly within the Jewish com­mu­nity, that at­tracted An­drew Mar­go­lis and Caro­line Schloss to the role, 17 years ago. The cou­ple, 66, and 61 re­spec­tively, be­gan fos­ter­ing in 1993 through Nor­wood and pro­vided a home for six­teen Jewish chil­dren over the years.

“We got mar­ried later in life and knew we wouldn’t have many chil­dren of our own,” says Mar­go­lis.

Jewish chil­dren, like those from any other com­mu­nity, needed their help be­cause of fam­ily break­down, ne­glect, or is­sues of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

“The big­gest myth is that th­ese is­sues only af­fect chil­dren from eco­nom­i­cally de­prived back­grounds, or the strictly Ortho­dox com­mu­nity,” he says.

“It doesn’t. We had chil­dren from well-off fam­i­lies and across the re­li­gious spec­trum of the com­mu­nity. We found there was al­ways a short­age of foster car­ers within the Jewish com­mu­nity.”

The cou­ple, who live in Muswell Hill, north Lon­don, say fos­ter­ing pro­vided their son Alex with an op­por­tu­nity to mix with other chil­dren and learn how to share.

“He was an only child, so for him it was to­tally ben­e­fi­cial. He learnt to so­cialise, and play with oth­ers. It taught him to value what he had,” says Schloss.

“We had a girl ar­rive to stay with us with noth­ing but a plas­tic bag once. I re­mem­ber him say­ing, ‘I don’t un­der­stand why she can’t be looked after by her own mummy’. It is no bad thing for chil­dren to learn and ap­pre­ci­ate what they have and might take for granted.”

The cou­ple, who no longer foster, are still in touch with many of the chil­dren for whom they pro­vided a home.

“Of course you build up bonds. It is great to see the pos­i­tive im­pact that you have,” says Mar­go­lis.

And his wife ex­plains that the process of mov­ing chil­dren on, ei­ther to adop­tion, or in some cases back to their orig­i­nal fam­i­lies, helped the cou­ple with their own par­ent­ing.

“One of the hard­est things par­ents find is to let go, but ac­tu­ally it can be a pos­i­tive thing. Learn­ing to let go of foster chil­dren, know­ing they were go­ing on to bet­ter things, helped to make that eas­ier.”

Some names have been changed. Any­one in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a foster par­ent should con­tact their lo­cal coun­cil.

It is great to see the pos­i­tive im­pact that you have

Sarita and John Robin­son and Jamie

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