By Catherine EnglandIt is one of those phone calls I dread. A social worker is asking if I know any Muslim families who would be interested in caring for a foster child. This one is a nine-year-old boy described as "a Muslim boy of Middle Eastern descent." He needs long-term placement. The last call was for three siblings, Muslim children who needed temporary placement. I dread these calls. As one of the few (if not the only) current Muslim foster home in our area, I am frequently asked if I know of other families who would be interested in caring for a Muslim foster child. Sadly, the answer is most often no.
There are an estimated five hundred thousand children in the foster care system in the United States ranging in age from newborn infants to older teens. Some children are taken into state custody because of abuse or neglect by their birthparents; some enter because of an illness or the death of their parent. Some orphaned refugee children come to this country as unaccompanied minors and are placed in foster care.
Foster parents may care for a child for a short period, perhaps only overnight, or they may care for them for years. While the system varies from state to state, temporary or permanent custody of the child is held by the state or a private agency. Foster parents are responsible for the day-to-day care of the children but social workers and the courts make major decisions, sometimes with input from birthparents.
All states have some system of reimbursement to help foster parents cover costs, usually consisting of several hundred dollars (depending on the difficulties of care and the age of a particular child) per month, medical coupons, clothing vouchers and counseling. The process of becoming a foster parent may also vary from state to state, but much of it is similar. Foster parents typically need to pass background checks, have their home inspected for safety and space considerations, be interviewed and attend training programs. These requirements may seem intrusive but in reality are not terribly difficult.
Foster parenting is not adoption. Michelle Mohamed, a former foster parent, thinks it is important to remember that the first and primary goal of foster care is to protect and care for children while addressing the issues in their birth families that resulted in the child's entering foster care. She says, "The first goal is to re-unite children with their birth families, if possible." She notes that there are many issues faced by the Muslim community that can cause stress and depression in parents of young children or of challenging teens. "Feelings of isolation, of being overwhelmed, and depression are not uncommon for any of us. Unfortunately, many traditional support systems may not be available for Muslim parents here. Extended families, stable, long-term friendships and supportive older relatives may be far away. Foster care can provide a respite when parents feel like they just can't cope anymore, and services are available to relieve some of the pressures traditional supports would have done at one time. If Muslims don't fill the role of foster parents, Muslim foster children will not only be separated from their birth parents but also from their religious and cultural supports."
While recruitment of foster parents is difficult in general (there are more foster children than licensed foster home beds for them), it is especially difficult in the Muslim Community. According to Muslim social workers, the barriers they face in recruiting Muslim foster families are a lack of familiarity and fear of the system, a feeling that it is somehow "un-Islamic," a fear of appearing to take sides against other Muslims, and a fear of the commitment involved.
Most of us hate to think that there are Muslim children in foster care. After all, Muslims can't be "those" kinds of parents. We can't believe there are problems with drugs, alcohol or physical abuse and neglect in our community. If Muslim kids are taken into foster care, it is often believed that Child Protective Services must be unjustly accusing the parents.
According to Dr. Basheer Ahmed of the Muslim Community Center for Human Services in Arlington, Texas, "Muslims tend to blame CPS, but sometimes there is a reason for removal." If so, he says, CPS workers have no option but to remove a child in order to protect them. The sad reality is that Muslim parents are human beings and are not perfect.
A non-Muslim American family had originally adopted a beautiful little girl of Iranian descent, but when the Iranian Revolution occurred the family returned that beautiful little toddler to the State. Because of her religious and ethnic heritage, they no longer wanted her in their home. Will it become even harder in the light of recent events to find good foster homes for Muslim children?
There is no doubt that becoming a foster parent is a tremendous responsibility and a 24-hour a day job. Foster care is not for the faint-hearted. One way or the other, foster children come with issues that the foster parent will have to cope with. While most foster children are normal, healthy children, some may bring with them emotional or physical challenges. On top of that, there are regulations to meet, social workers and court appointed guardians to satisfy, judge's rulings to abide by, and birth families to deal with. Acknowledging this, Molly Daggett, a social worker with Lutheran Community Services says, "There is no way around the inconveniences, they may be intrusive, but the rewards surpass the inconveniences. The chance to give a child a home, to stay within their own culture and religion-how can you measure that?"
Fatimah Yousof and her husband, Ali, changed their life dramatically when they became foster parents to four Muslim children, brothers and sisters. The children had lived in as many as five other homes, in some foster homes they were placed together, and in some they were separated. Most of the homes were not Muslim. Fatimah Yousof learned quickly that emotional problems sometimes are the root of behavioral problems. She advises, "Become familiar with the difference between normal development and problem behavior. Get as much training as possible and prepare yourself. If you are not of the same culture as your children, learn as much as possible about their culture in order to help that child." She further notes foster parents "must be willing to be proactive and involved in counseling and therapy with the children." She also advises those interested in foster care to consider the advantage of working with private agencies since they have more resources and, she feels, a greater stake in success.
Michelle Mohamed's husband, Ibrahim, acknowledges that being a foster parent can be difficult. It is "absolutely not an easy commitment. But it is not about you. It is about the child-providing love and compassion for a child." Mohamed and his wife were foster parents for a little boy whom they eventually adopted, adding to the four biological children they already had. Mohamed also understands the concerns of the immigrant Muslim community. He acknowledges that for many immigrant Muslims foster care is a concept that is foreign to their upbringing. "We can adapt to many things in our life that we didn't grow up with. Muslim foster parents have to have an understanding of how this society works, want to be involved and feel that they can make a difference." Ultimately, he says, "these children are in the category of orphans, they are the beloved of Allah." .
Some Muslims are concerned about maintaining an Islamic environment in their home. How do foster parents meet the requirements of hijab and modesty between non-related sexes and still care for these beloved orphans? Fatimah and Ali Yousof struggled with this issue. They ultimately, and very happily, adopted their four foster children. Their solution is that the mother and girls wear hijab at home and have curtains hung for privacy. "If we didn't do it, we would feel like hypocrites, but it is a part of daily life now, like praying. This is a matter of compromise and being flexible. Not to say that I don't have moments. But it is not a reason not to have any one of my kids. The amount of blessings far outweighs any inconvenience." She wants people to remember that "your intentions are all for Allah. He will help you."
Muslim communities must develop systems to help families at risk for disruption, but also provide Muslim homes for children when needed. To help overcome the hesitancy Muslims may feel over religious issues, Islamic scholars need to study the foster care system in relation to Islamic teachings and inform the Muslim community in how they can accept the responsibilities of caring for Muslim foster children within the guidelines of Islam. The leaders of Muslim Communities in North America must familiarize themselves with this issue and become advocates for Muslim children in the foster care system. Dr. Bashir Ahmed feels community leaders must be proactive. "The Qur'an says, Ô take care of orphans.' It is our responsibility to care for them. We must keep raising the issue."
A number of years ago, I met a Muslim family who had adopted a beautiful little girl of Iranian descent. A non-Muslim American family had originally adopted her, but when the Iranian Revolution occurred the family returned that beautiful little toddler to the State. Because of her religious and ethnic heritage, they no longer wanted her in their home. Will it become even harder in the light of recent events to find good foster homes for Muslim children?
Each potential foster parent must look into their own hearts and decide if they can make this commitment. Difficult and important issues revolve around foster care. But as I watch my two year-old foster son proudly move up and down next to my husband in Salah, or listen to my four year old daughter trying to verbalize her struggle to understand who she is as a Muslim and what it means in relation to the rest of the world, I know that this is the right thing to do. There are good and loving non-Muslim foster families working for all children in their care. However loving and capable, they cannot help our children be Muslims.
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