Desperately wanted: Foster homes for kids at risk

It's not easy looking after 14 children, say the Gabbais, but it teaches you a lot about life.

eyes of children (photo credit: )
eyes of children
(photo credit: )
For Meirav Gabbai, the last few weeks of the school year were a logistical nightmare. Figuring out how to juggle the clashing schedules of her children's end of year parties and ceremonies was a little more complicated than for most parents. Head of a group foster home run by the Orr Shalom organization, Gabbai and her husband, Yigal, are the official guardians of 11 children considered to be at risk, who have been removed from their biological families' care for reasons ranging from abandonment, to abuse, to severe neglect. Caring for so many children is particularly difficult, says Gabbai, when it comes to being involved in each one's schooling - meeting with teachers, participating in family events and staying on top of their academic work. "June is the craziest month for me," she says as we sit in her extended family home in Mevaseret Zion's Maoz Zion neighborhood, west of Jerusalem. There are four similar homes in the immediate area and 25 group foster homes nationwide run by Orr Shalom, which is the largest such operation and is run under contract with the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. "This year, I had two girls in ninth grade who were giving presentations at their end of year ceremonies and a boy about to graduate from high school. They both wanted me to attend their various events, but they were at the same time," says Gabbai. In the end, "they reached an agreement between them that I would attend the girls' presentation and we would have a celebratory party at the home for the boy, who graduated with honors." That was one of many such dilemmas faced by the Gabbais, who have three biological children of their own. The five of them work together to show these children from broken homes how a "normal" family operates. "It's a real challenge. Both partners need to be willing to do the work together. It is very intense and there is no separation between your private life and your work," she says. Some of the children are orphans or from single-parent families, many are children of immigrants and most were severely neglected or even sexually abused by their biological mothers or fathers. This intensity, coupled with the emotional baggage each child brings and the dynamics of running such a large household, might explain why organizations such as Orr Shalom are struggling to find couples like the Gabbais who are willing to take care of the more than 100 children at risk who are currently in desperate need of a stable home. According to Haim Feingold, the organization's executive director, even with recent headlines and media campaigns highlighting the shortage of foster homes, very few suitable families have stepped up to the challenge. He estimates that there are 350,000 children at risk in Israel, 8,000 of whom have been removed from their homes by social services and placed in a variety of frameworks, including in boarding schools, group foster homes and with foster families. For those who have yet to be placed, the Welfare Ministry provides temporary solutions such as after-school clubs where they stay as late as possible and are returned to their families only to sleep. Only those in real danger and distress are removed immediately from their homes, a ministry spokesman said. But that number is growing. Figures published earlier this year by the National Council for the Child point to an alarming rise in the number of children at risk and living in poverty. Thirty-three percent of Israel's 2,326,400 children were considered poor in 2006 and 17% were considered at risk, a 40% rise since 2000, the council said. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently initiated a NIS 200 million program aimed at reducing the number of children at risk, Feingold says a lack of funds is not the issue here. "We have the funds to set up at least five more group foster homes and to financially compensate more than 50 individual foster homes," says Feingold. "I just think that people do not know about this kind of work." "The salary is not bad. We pay the families a fair sum for their work with the children and we give each household a good budget to cover all the costs. We also offer training and teach them how to work in a team environment," he adds. For many people, that is not enough. It might have something to do with the arrangements' impermanence, because in most cases the children maintain a relationship with their biological families. Meirav and Yigal Gabbai, however, say the decision to run the foster home was an easy one. "My parents ran a boarding school when I was growing up," says Meirav, originally from Dimona, "although this is somewhat different because I work and live in the same place." Yigal adds that while the work is rewarding in the long-term, there are no immediate results, which can also deter potential foster families. "A person has to be very ideological to do this work," he says. "At the end of the day, that is what keeps you going... When you see an 18-year-old who has been living with you for six or seven years finally graduate high school with honors, it strengthens you to do it all over again the following year." However, says Meirav, aside from the logistical aspects of going to end of year parties or the seven loads of laundry she was overseeing during our meeting, the emotional side takes a toll on all members of the foster family. "Obviously, I have to protect my own children from hearing or seeing some of the horrors from these other children's pasts," she says sadly. "We try to keep their lives separate from the other children in the house, although sometimes, obviously, they do interact and play together." On the positive side, the Gabbais feel that their current work and living arrangement - which is entering its fifth year - will teach their own children "a lot about life" and will give them a taste for helping others. "I love this work and could not imagine doing anything else," Meirav says..