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Be FruitfulFeatureLifestyle

‘All of a sudden you become a parent’

Foster caring helps a child in need of a temporary home, but for some couples, it may also lead to permanent parenthood.
Ruby Kraner-Tucci
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A cartoon of a house and a star of david seperated by an olive branch

Illustration: TJI

Published: 27 June 2024

Last updated: 2 July 2024

This is the third instalment of a six-part series, Be Fruitful: Fertility Journeys in Modern Jewish Lives, which explores the complex and sometimes taboo journey to parenthood in the Jewish community.

Sarah* was actively involved in Kosher IVF when she first attended a talk about foster care in the Jewish community back in 2017.

The Sydney-based pre-school teacher was recently married and trying to start a family – she made the decision to sign up as a potential carer thinking “nothing would come from it”. One month later, she got a call. A soon-to-be-born boy was to be removed from his Jewish mother for “safety and wellness reasons” and needed temporary residence.

Sarah and her husband Matthew* were put through intense interviews on everything from their finances to the state of their marriage. A few weeks after his birth, their foster son arrived.

“We quickly built a nursery in our apartment, and the religious community descended on our home and on my classroom with baby clothes, bassinettes, prams, meals – absolutely everything we needed,” she told The Jewish Independent.

“It’s unique when you can nurture a child that you didn’t necessarily give birth to. All of a sudden you become a parent, and your love and devotion for this child is like nothing else.”

Sarah and Matthew's foster son was just a few weeks old when he arrived at their door (Image: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash).
Sarah and Matthew's foster son was just a few weeks old when he arrived at their door (Image: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash).

‘He was our son’

That deep attachment and their child’s evolving needs meant Sarah and Matthew quickly shifted their intention from foster care to adoption.

It was a “horrifically stressful” process that took five years to complete and exposed them to a complex care system that “doesn’t always put children first”.

“From the minute we laid eyes on him, we knew he was our son. It was a maternal and paternal instinct,” Sarah explained.

“We weren’t prepared for the trauma that we would go through in the application to adopt. You've got this innocence going in, but that goes pretty quickly. The red tape, legalities and clunkiness was surprising. We saw a side to the system that we weren't expecting to see, and that was tough.”

Sarah and Matthew’s experience of the adoption system as one plagued by confusion and delays is common.

More than 80% of those involved found the adoption process “complex and overwhelming”, while more than half (56%) encountered “unexplained process delays”, according to the 2017 Barriers to Adoption in Australia report.

“It’s very difficult for a family when a child is removed. As a community, we need to be mindful and do what we can to make sure they feel included and looked after.”

Rabbi Mendel Kastel, Jewish House CEO

One reason is that adoption is no longer common in Australia.

Adoption rates have fallen by 98% over the past 50 years – from nearly 10,000 in 1971-72 to just 201 in 2022-23, with most adoptive parents are already known to the child. Meanwhile, in 2021 approximately 46,200 children were in out-of-home care across the country.

Current policy prioritises family restoration, where, when possible, children are returned to their birth parents or to a kinship placement. Safety risks prevented Sarah and Matthew’s son from returning to his birth parents, though he has a “lot of contact” with his biological grandmother.

‘Step one is not adoption’

As CEO of not-for-profit Jewish House, Rabbi Mendel Kastel supports children in the care system, and also trains and advocates for foster carers in the Jewish community.

Kastel says becoming a foster carer is “a huge mitzvah” but should not be confused with permanent parenthood or a solution to infertility. Instead, he says foster carers should shift their mindset from “this is how I can have a child”, importantly to, “this is how I can play an influential role in a child’s life”.

“Step one is not adoption. There are children who are returned or reinstated with their [biological] families, which is very difficult for the foster families to let go,” Kastel told The Jewish Independent.

“The challenge of not being able to have your own biological child is very difficult, and I’m not sure that [foster caring] would fulfill that for everybody. But it’s a huge opportunity to really make a difference in a child's life and impart your link of the chain onto the next generation.”

Rabbi Mendel Kastel says foster caring offers a "huge opportunity" to influence the next generation (Image: Jewish House/Facebook).
Rabbi Mendel Kastel says foster caring offers a "huge opportunity" to influence the next generation (Image: Jewish House/Facebook).

Kastel says most of the cases he oversees begin with emergency or short-term foster care, which can extend to long-term placements and in some rare cases, adoption.

A critical aspect to Kastel’s role is acting as a representative for upholding the cultural and religious sensitivities of Judaism in the foster care system, particularly when Jewish children are placed within a non-Jewish family.

“If a Jewish child is placed in a Christian family, chances are they're going to participate in Christmas and Easter. But the concern is that when it comes to Chanukkah or Pesach, there are things that are done to be able to respect a child's heritage. It doesn't mean that the non-Jewish foster family is all of a sudden going to become Jewish. They'll continue to do what they do, but it should be about respect.”

Part of addressing this is the creation of a cultural care plan, outlining how a foster child can maintain a connection to their cultural identity, language, spirituality and religion, which Kastel helps to establish.

“It’s about getting an understanding of their mum’s affiliation [with Judaism] and respecting that within whatever foster care placement the child takes,” he explained.

“The mum might like her child to eat kosher, have a bar or bat mitzvah, have a Jewish education, celebrate the festivals, and so forth. These kinds of things would come into the plan.”

Jewish foster carers can also be used for religious respite, which may only involve caring for a child one day per month as an example, so that a Jewish child placed in a non-Jewish home can still celebrate Shabbat or go to shule.

“I never had a conflict with non-biological mothering, I always felt incredibly maternal, and that's never faulted, even after having a biological child.”

Sarah*, Adoptive parent

Kastel adds that Australia’s emphasis on family restoration and practice of open adoption – where there is ongoing contact between an adopted person and their birth and adoptive families – means that in many cases, children still have a relationship with their birth family, providing better opportunity to maintain their connection to their Judaism.

Kastel says the “ideal situation” would be for a Jewish child to be placed in a Jewish family but says the shortage of carers within the community makes this hard to achieve.

“It’s very difficult for a family when a child is removed. As a community, we need to be mindful and do what we can to make sure they feel included and looked after,” Kastel said.

“There's definitely room for a lot more foster caring. We need to have more foster families, and for all different ages, whether it’s teenagers or babies. If people want to step up to the plate even if they don't take Jewish kids but provide a safe home for children in Australia, that is a very noble thing. It's something that's very much needed.”

‘We as a community need to step in’

While Sarah and Matthew are open to the possibility of foster caring again, in the time they adopted their son, they also naturally conceived a biological child, their “miracle baby”. Sarah says biology never played a role in her perception of motherhood, but she is now more aware of the trauma that foster children can bring with them and the additional support they may require.

“I never had a conflict with non-biological mothering, I always felt incredibly maternal, and that's never faulted, even after having a biological child.

“We would foster again but one of the aspects of a child who's gone through immense trauma is that there will be broader needs that develop as the child develops. We are so busy, so more fostering is not on the cards at the moment.”

One unforeseen outcome for Sarah becoming a foster carer is that it importantly helped address the misconception of the Jewish community as one that she says is “fortunate, in a higher socioeconomic bracket and very functional”.

“People should realise that there is suffering in our community. There are babies who are born in situations where, for their safety and welfare, they simply can't be cared for by their biological parents,” Sarah concluded.

“We as a community need to step in and help out because, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child. That is absolutely the case.”

*Names changed to respect privacy wishes.

About the author

Ruby Kraner-Tucci

Ruby Kraner-Tucci is a journalist and assistant editor of TJI. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Time Out, Law Society Journal and Dumbo Feather Magazine. She previously reported on the charity sector as a journalist for Pro Bono News and undertook internships at The Australian Jewish News and Broadsheet Media.

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