By RON FRIEDMAN
Two-year-old Guy suffers from slight development retardation due to long-term neglect and severe malnutrition. Guy was removed from his home by welfare services six months ago because his parents could not provide him or his two brothers with a worthy environment. Today, Guy is one of 40 children in desperate need of a foster home.
November 20 is the Universal Day of the Child and Orr Shalom, a non-government organization that provides residential and therapeutic services to children who have been removed from their homes, is calling on members of the public to volunteer their homes and their hearts and consider becoming foster parents for Guy or any of the other children who need a warm environment to grow up in.
Orr Shalom was founded in 1980 and today is the largest organization that deals with foster families, caring for more than 1,300 children from ages 0-18, through a variety of different programs. Working out of offices in Beit Shemesh, Orr Shalom helps children across the country and from all backgrounds.
For the last six months since being removed from his parent's house, Guy has been living in an emergency foster home - a home that is prepared to accept a child at a moment's notice. Children are only removed from their homes as a last resort, usually following a sustained period of abuse or neglect, once all other options have been exhausted, or when a child's life is in immediate danger.
"Many people know about the case that has come to be known as the 'starving mother case,' but all of the 40 children we're looking for homes for are many times worse than that," said Orr Shalom's Erik Rosental. "For us the ground is always burning - we are always in emergency mode."
While Guy has blossomed in the emergency foster home, putting on weight and opening up to people, he is in need of a more permanent home and the emergency foster home needs his spot for other needy children coming in. Children are only meant to stay there for around three months.
Guy never experienced love and warmth before arriving at the emergency foster home. His drug-addicted parents neglected him completely and he lived devoid of attention, human contact and even speech for the first year and a half of his life. Since arriving at the emergency foster home he has become hungry for affection and attaches himself to anyone who is friendly towards him. Nearly every evening, before going to sleep, he is overcome by a burst of laughter that only strengthens once he hears the words "good night."
Sometimes he reverts to reclusive behavior, backing up to walls and avoiding contact, but it passes quickly. Guy loves listening to noises. He is transfixed by human speech and often begins dancing in place when music is played.
Orr Shalom caregivers say that Guy has the potential for normal development and that loving care will do wonders for his cognitive development. What he needs is a warm and loving family that will take him in and invest in his care and upbringing.
Unlike adoption, foster care is designed to be a temporary solution for children-at-risk until their biological parents are able to care for them properly or until a decision is reached about a permanent home for the child, though in some cases the children remain with their foster families until they are grown up.
Anat Dunowicz, executive director of Orr Shalom, explains that in recent years changes in Welfare Ministry policies have seen a shift towards preferring foster home solutions instead of caring for the children in special institutions or sending them to boarding schools.
"Over the last three years we have seen a rise from 15 percent to 23% of children going into foster homes," said Dunowicz. "In other Western countries foster homes are the solution for 85% of the children."
Chantal Hakmon is a mother to six biological children and two foster children. She and her husband Raphael, have been taking care of 10-year-old Eli for three years and seven-year-old Tali for a year and a half. Hakmon said she would recommend the experience to anybody willing to try, but that it came with many unforeseen challenges.
"We raised six children of our own and made sure to seek guidance all along the way, so we thought we knew our stuff when it came to parenting, but with foster children you can never really be fully prepared. The harsh conditions the children grow in leave their marks and their behavior can be very different from children, like ours, who grew up in a warm family environment," said Hakmon.
As an example, she spoke of how her foster child Eli reacted to the birth of kittens to the family cat. "When the cat gave birth in the yard, Eli tried to approach the kittens and care for them. I told him not to touch them because I was afraid that if he did the mother would no longer nurse them. When the social worker came to visit, he explained that Eli's reaction was quite understandable.
"Eli had been forced to take care of his two younger sisters because their mother wasn't home. He simply had no grasp of the natural connection between the mother and her kittens. When I explained to him that he didn't have to take care of the little ones, that the mother would provide for all their needs, he was ready to let go," related Hakmon.
Hakmon said she was sometimes frustrated by the fact that Eli appeared to be a regular 10-year-old, but that developmentally he was sometimes still a baby. "He talks and moves around like a normal boy, but he often reacts to things like a much younger child," she said.
One of the things she always needs to remind herself and the rest of the family is that the foster children are only with them temporarily and that the real hope is for their biological parents to one day get them back, she said. For that purpose, the children remain in contact with their biological parents and the families meet and talk on the phone on a regular basis.
Hakmon said that families that open their homes to foster children have to be solidly united. "It is important that the parents' relationship be strong and that the biological children should be supportive."
She said her own children, ranging in ages from eight to 28, were all on board with the decision and that they got along well with the foster children. "I guess we did some things right in raising them because they are very understanding and have a great desire to give," said Hakmon.
When asked if she would consider taking in any other foster children, Hakmon said that she would if she could. "I hope to retire soon and we have a big house - we hope to fill it up with foster children after our biological kids leave home."
Dunowicz said that the criteria for foster parenting were decided by the Ministry of Welfare and included factors like a reasonable economic situation, good health, enough room to support a child, lack of a criminal record and willingness to work with the welfare authorities and the biological parents of the children.
Foster families receive a state stipend to help with the cost of clothes, food and school supplies and Orr Shalom provides money for extras like after-school activities and toys from funds raised by donors.
Dunowicz said that one of the biggest challenges was finding homes for two or more siblings. The preference of the welfare services and of Orr Shalom are that brothers and sisters remain together so that they can hold on to familial bonds and be better prepared for their eventual return to their biological home. "If people are hesitant to take one child, they are even more hesitant to take two or more," said Dunowicz.
"The Welfare Ministry invests NIS 65 million a year to assist and support foster families. Foster families' willingness to volunteer is unparalleled," said Welfare Ministry director general Nachum Itskovitch. "Fostering doesn't only provide professional and therapeutic care for the children who need it, but it also provides a social and moral example that is second to none in Israeli society," he added. "The Welfare Ministry sees the adoption of these values as an indivisible part of its role and we plan to strengthen the support of foster families in the future."
Orr Shalom calls on anyone who is interested in fostering Guy or any one of the other 40 children in need of warm homes to contact it at (02) 993-6900 ext. 125 or visit its Web site www.orr-shalom.org.il to learn more about ways to help.
All children's names have been changed in the article to protect their identity.
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