'What do you want for dinner?" Sara Porat yelled to her foster daughter, six-year-old Rivka. "Faces!" Rivka yelled back, looking up from the dolls she was playing with long enough to smile excitedly at the prospect of her favorite dinner. "Faces" was actually cucumbers, peppers, olives and cottage cheese arranged on the plate to look like a face - complete with hair and, of course, a bow.
Sitting at the kitchen table with her foster family, Rivka ate her supper piece by piece, giggling as she took apart the face her mother had so creatively constructed. Family dinners like these were normal now for Rivka, a healthy and happy adorable six-year-old with glossy black hair and dark brown eyes.
Only three years earlier, dinner had meant scraps her older sister scavenged from garbage cans around their neighborhood to feed Rivka and her other siblings.
Rivka's biological mother, Yael, suffered from a serious mental illness that was exacerbated by post-partum depression, and after giving birth to Rivka, Yael spent her days lying in bed, incapacitated and unable to care for her children. The whereabouts of Rivka's biological father are unknown.
Left to fend for themselves, Rivka and her three siblings - all younger than eight - were starving, dirty and neglected until Yael had a violent outburst against a neighbor, alerting Child Protection Services to the dire situation. They intervened immediately and placed the kids in a government-sponsored children's home, where they awaited placement in foster care or in a boarding school.
It was there that Sara first met Rivka.
"I remember it so clearly," says Sara. "She had a red rash all over her face and her hair was cut very short. She and her siblings were all severely underfed and lice-infested. She looked like a little mouse, but I fell in love with her the second I saw her."
This year, an estimated 8,500 such children are living outside their homes in boarding schools or in foster care. About a quarter of them were removed from their homes this past year by Child Protection Services (CPS).
Local social services departments receive some 35,000 reports a year of problems in the home, half of which require attention. Often alerted by a neighbor, relative or doctor, CPS investigates each situation to determine its urgency.
If the reported claim is true, a committee for planning and treatment is formed to examine the child's case and figure out the best plan of action - whether to work within the family to change the existing reality or, in the worst cases, to remove the child from the home.
The grounds for removal are numerous and ugly, including parental neglect, sexual, physical or emotional abuse, drug abuse, mental retardation or psychological illness and the absence of parents due to death or imprisonment.
In the least ideal situations, occurring about 40 percent of the time, parents refuse any intervention and CPS is forced to take them to court.
The majority of the time CPS wins the case, which doesn't always necessitate the removal of a child from the home, but can instead force the parents to send the child to school, to the doctor or undergo a treatment or therapy deemed necessary by the court.
In the "ideal" removal scenario, the parents agree to have their child temporarily taken from them and work with the committee's psychologists and social workers to resolve their problem. The biological parents remain involved in the foster care process until the committee decides the child may return to them.
WHEN ADAM was five, he and his older siblings were removed from their home because their father was in prison and their mother was addicted to narcotics. While his older sisters were placed in boarding schools, Adam was put in an emergency children's home to wait for a foster family to become available.
If the danger to the child in the home is immediate, as it was in Adam's case, an emergency children's home provides shelter for three to six months, until a more permanent solution can be arranged.
Today, there are nine such emergency centers across the country, housing at-risk children up to age 14. It was here that Adam met his foster mother, Danna Lerner.
After reading a newspaper article on foster care four years ago, the Lerners decided they had the resources to give an at-risk child a better life and contacted Summit, a foster care agency responsible for the area from Jerusalem south to Eilat.
"I had been so nervous to meet him, scared that he wouldn't like us, or we wouldn't like him," recalls Danna. "But when I saw him, I just felt so bad for him - he was five years old and had no mother, no father and no home. He grew up in a boarding school. When he would cry, a worker - not a mother - would come to wipe his tears. I just wanted to give him a hug and tell him everything would be okay."
To help Adam adjust, the Lerners visited with him on four separate occasions, the last of which included spending Shabbat at their house, before he moved in with them completely.
In the beginning, Danna remembers, Adam used to cry all the time and beg to go back to the children's home until he got used to the idea of having a second family.
Three years later, he calls Danna and her husband "mom" and "dad," excels in school and enjoys the life of a normal eight year old. Adam has become an inseparable part of the Lerner family and Danna would give anything for the chance to adopt him, because today she stands to lose the boy who has become her son.
"He knows everything, he understands everything that's going on, and even though we sometimes forget he's our foster child, he never forgets," says Danna.
His biological mother is now clean from drugs and has steady employment, and Adam visits her - in the company of a Summit social worker - once every two weeks.
"She really loves him and for now, she's happy he's with us because she doesn't want him to end up living on the street like she did," says Danna. "But he really wants to live with his real mother."
The same committee that removed Adam from his home meets once or twice a year, depending on the age of each child, to reevaluate the parental situation.
Today, barring extremely dire circumstances, the child is placed back in the hands of his biological parents within a maximum of four years. Due to Yael's severe psychological illness, the Porats have no reason to worry Rivka will return to her mother. But Danna admits the chances Adam will be returned to his are high.
"If the committee decides she can take care of him, then there's a good chance he'll go back to her," she says. "But either you give all of yourself or you don't give anything, and we've given everything we have to Adam and it would be very, very hard to lose him. It's hard for me to even think about it... He's my son. I'll always think of him that way."
IN ISRAEL today, there are 1,400 foster families providing homes to 24% of children taken from their biological parents. The other 76% are raised in rehabilitative boarding schools, selected based on their ability to accommodate the specific needs and experiences of the children.
Older children or those who endured particularly traumatic experiences are often better off in special schools designed to care for them than in families ill-equipped to handle their special needs. In addition, biological parents are usually threatened by the idea of their child being placed in a new family.
But on the whole, foster care is a much better option for a child than a boarding school, says Shalva Leibovitz, the head of foster care in the Social Affairs Ministry.
Once a child is taken from his home, he becomes the responsibility of the ministry, which works in conjunction with the country's three foster agencies of Or Shalom, responsible for the center of the country, Summit and Matav, responsible for the North. Though privately run, each agency is funded and supervised by the government.
"Our whole motto is that every child deserves a home - our hope is that foster care can be a corrective experience for whatever the child went through in his life," explains Niva Ament, a social worker with Summit. "Every child should know what a functioning family is."
In 2000, the Social Affairs Ministry convinced the government of the value of placing children in foster homes rather than boarding schools, enabling the agencies to allocate more efforts toward recruiting and supporting foster families.
Before that, 85% of children taken out of their homes were placed in boarding schools, and only 15% in foster care. In the United States, notes Leibovitz, those numbers are opposite.
Until they turn 18, foster children are supported by the government, which provides a monthly stipend of around NIS 2,000 to foster families and reimburses them for any psychological or physical treatment required by the child.
Each foster family also has a designated social worker assigned to the case by the foster care agency responsible for its region. One of the main tasks of the social worker is to supervise the visits with the biological parents and siblings.
"The visits with the biological parents are very important because they help encourage positive contact and a healthy relationship for the child," says Ament. But for the foster parents, the interaction with the biological parents is not always easy.
"We have always been careful to make sure Rivka honors her mother," says Sara Porat. "But I can't say there aren't moments when I don't feel a little jealous of her or wish she wasn't there. In some ways I'm glad I have those moments because it shows me that she's really mine."
Sara recalls a specific night a few months ago when she was tucking her daughter into bed and Rivka turned to her and asked, "Mom, why don't you ever ask me who I love more, you or my other mother?"
"I said, 'Okay, I'll ask you - who do you love more?' And Rivka said, 'My other mother,' looking at me very carefully to gauge my reaction. But I looked at her and said, 'I'm very glad to hear that, because I love her, too.'
"'Why?' Rivka asked me, confused, and I said, 'First of all, because she had a wonderful daughter like you, and second, because your mother has wonderful qualities that you also have.' Then she looked up at me and said, 'Actually, mom, I love you best,' and went to sleep."
Both the Porats and the Lerners say their children have been teased by others for having more than one set of parents, and Danna recalls a time when she yelled at Adam for doing something wrong, and he responded, "You can't tell me what to do, you're not my real mother, you're my mother made of plastic."
While Danna says she sometimes pities Adam's biological mother for not being able to take care of her own children, she admits that she also admires her strength.
"If someone took my child away from me, I don't think I'd be able to work with them and help them," Danna says. "She says she's happy he's with us and that she knows that because of us, he'll grow up into a good man, and I don't think that's a strength everyone has."
Together with the foster family, biological parents and sometimes even teachers, the social worker builds a treatment program for each child and meets with him every few weeks to chart his progress. Social workers are also available to help the foster family cope with any difficulties in adjusting to the tenuous situation.
But the most critical function of the foster care agencies is accurately matching a child to a foster family. Though it's much more difficult to place a baby, whose personality and issues resulting from any trauma are impossible to foresee, placing a young child is often very rewarding, says Ament, because it's possible to match his needs with a suitable family.
Contrary to time-constraining policies in the US, in Israel social workers have more freedom to be very precise and careful in finding the perfect family for every child.
"It's a tremendous privilege to get to know a family and pick a child for that family," says Ament, "and it's a beautiful thing to help a child find the home he never had."
THERE ARE an estimated 80 children across the country awaiting placement in foster homes today, but there aren't nearly enough foster families to satisfy the need.
Unable to conceive children of their own, Sara Porat and her husband Avraham - who sustained a gunshot wound to the head during the Yom Kippur War and is severely handicapped - received their first foster child, Michal, now 12, at birth.
She had been born three months premature and suffered a brain hemorrhage, and was much later diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
"When we first went to see her in the hospital, the nurses prepared us," Sara recalls. "They told us she didn't react to anything and didn't smile, and when they put her in my arms for the first time, I was so nervous that I gave her to my husband. All of a sudden, she looked up at him, lifted up her hands and started playing with his beard and smiling. It was amazing."
Michal's biological mother surrendered her baby to the system, enabling the Porats to adopt her when she was only four months old.
"I'm so happy they adopted me," says Michal, who just celebrated her bat mitzva. "My mother couldn't take care of me for whatever reason - and I'm sure she had a special reason, I'm sure she didn't just give me up so easily. And I'm so glad they adopted me because I love them and they give me so much happiness."
Several years later, Sara and Avraham decided they wanted a younger sister for Michal, but the adoption process had been so difficult and frustrating that they turned to foster care instead - and stumbled upon Rivka.
They would have taken in one or more of Rivka's other siblings as well, Sara says, but they were each placed in different foster homes to ensure their own personal growth would not be compromised by their unnatural dependency on each other. The siblings all meet once every three weeks, once a month individually with their biological mother and once every two months all together.
Sara is adamant that her love for Rivka is no different than for Michal. Because she is not concerned that Rivka will be returned to her biological family, she says she probably won't adopt her because, in stark contrast to the callous adoption process, foster care has been a supportive and enriching experience.
"They care," she says of those who work with Or Shalom. "They succeeded in taking a difficult situation and finding the highest potential for this family to exist - both in the foster family unit and on the level of Rivka and her siblings. They didn't mind that my husband was disabled or that I was older. Everything and everyone was taken into consideration."
In Summit's district, many of the children were abandoned at birth after the parents discovered the baby was afflicted with a serious illness such as Down's syndrome. While Ament admits taking in a physically or mentally ill baby is not an easy task, it is certainly a rewarding one.
"Before we got Michal, I thought to myself that I couldn't take a child with serious medical problems. I imagined walking into a hospital and receiving a chubby, blonde-haired baby," says Porat. "And yet here I am, and here she is - dark hair, dark skin and with CP - and she's really been a gift for us, just as much, if not more, as we have been for her."
The vast majority of children waiting for foster homes, however, are physically healthy but emotionally starved victims of extreme neglect by their biological parents.
"Being a foster family isn't easy but it's the greatest form of volunteering and social involvement," says Leibovitz. "It's giving of yourself all the time - all day, all night - and I think a society is tested by its ability to recruit foster families, these stronger families that help the weaker ones. It's an expression of the empowerment of society and we need many more of them."
Her goal, she says, is to reach at least 2,000 foster families, so that every child designated for foster care can enjoy the opportunity to have a real family.
But becoming a foster family is not always easy either, says Leibovitz, and only eight out of 100 families that apply are accepted. To become a foster parent, families must undergo extensive background checks that examine their criminal and medical records, education level and income. Foster care agencies conduct numerous interviews in their homes and run a two-day course to assess whether the family has the capability to "take a strange child and make him fit into their existing family unit," explains Ament.
Foster care is very different from adoption, she adds, because it is born of a selfless desire to help a child in need, rather than a motivation to have a child become a permanent part of your family.
Although embracing and incorporating a strange child into a family is an enormous responsibility, the agencies accompany the child and the family every step of the way, says Leibovitz.
After experiencing the friendly and supportive atmosphere offered by their foster agency, the Porats are even in the process of requesting a third foster child.
"We don't look at this whole situation like it's the poor children, the bad mother and the amazing foster parents," says Porat. "Rivka's enriched our lives. [Foster care] has been a true salvation - not just for Rivka, and for her mother, but also for us."
Sitting at the table with her family finishing her supper, Rivka pipes up that she's thrilled the Porats found her as well.
"I wanted someone to take me home already," she states, finishing the last of her olives. "When I saw someone was finally taking me, I was so happy because I wanted to have a family."
Foster care has been a very valuable experience for her family, too, echoes Danna, but confesses that had she known how deep her connection to Adam would become, she would have opted for adoption instead.
"None of us regret it," she clarifies, "I don't want other families to think they shouldn't do it because it's very important and I'm not sorry for a second that I did it.
"Sometimes I think to myself, why did I do this? My children are all out of the house, I could be out having fun or traveling with my husband, but I never, ever regret it. This is the life of a human being who needs a family. We love him more than anything, and no matter what happens in the end, he'll always be my child. And there are still so many other children waiting for families of their own."