Wednesday, November 07, 2007

California needs more Muslim foster parents

Community needs Muslim foster homes
Eshmawi, Roqaya. In Focus, Oct. 8, 2007.

LOS ANGELES – Seven years ago, Humera Hameed and her husband decided they wanted to become foster parents.

"We had heard about Muslim children who were taken away from their Muslim families and put into Christian homes where they had bad experiences," she said.

"My husband and I were very touched by this. We thought about what would happen to our children if they were put through the same situation. It changed our outlook on foster parenting."

Two years later, the family welcomed two children into their home, a 14-year-old Muslim boy and his 6-year-old Muslim sister.

When the boy first came to live with them, they could tell he was bright and talented, but he wasn’t doing very well in school, Hameed said.

"He really picked up his grades afterward," she said. "He was very talented in music, so we had him join music lessons at school, and we encouraged him as he practiced."

The boy and his sister lived with Hameed’s family for a year before they were returned to their mother.

"Whatever you do, you’re just a foster parent," Hameed said. "It’s what the system thinks is best for the children. At that point, it was decided that the mother was ready to have the children back, so they went back to her."

Family Solutions, a nonprofit agency licensed by the state to certify foster parents, is currently searching for foster homes for several Muslim children.

Also collaborating are New Star Family Center, UPLIFT Charitable Corporation and ACCESS California Services – nonprofit agencies that offer social services to the community.

When children in the area are first taken out of their homes, they are placed in Orangewood, a temporary shelter, until a foster family can be found, said Tori Mohmand-Farhad, programs director for Family Solutions.

"Depending on how long it takes to find them a home, they could be there for up to a month, which is the maximum allowed," she said, adding that the shelter welcomes children ranging from newborns to 18-year-olds.

While Mohmand-Farhad said it is fortunate that not many Muslim children are removed from the care of their families, she added that it does happen a few times a year, and her agency currently doesn’t have Muslim foster families.

"Unfortunately, the only time our community is able to come on board is when there’s a crisis," she said.

"Right now, these kids are in the system, and we need to find homes for them. We went out to one of the masjids and found families who are interested and who will go through the process of becoming certified."

Through ongoing recruitment, she said, she hopes more Muslim families will become certified.

Foster parenting is when an individual is interested in providing stability for a child who has been removed from the care of his or her family due to a situation in which the biological parents are no longer able to care of the child. According to experts, this is many times due to abuse or neglect.

When a child is taken out of the home, the first option is for relatives to care for them, Mohmand-Farhad said.

In the case of Muslim children, if that’s not possible, the agency tries to place them with a Muslim family in the community.

"But if no one steps forward, then the child is placed with whoever can take them," she said. "In foster care, no religion is supposed to be imposed on the children, but it’s still always nice to have your own religion or your own culture available to you."

Shaikh Yassir Fazaga, imam and religious director at the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, Calif., said the Muslim community is obliged to care for foster children.

"This is a communal obligation," he said. "If enough individuals have done it, than the community as a whole fulfills the obligation. But if we don’t have enough foster parents, then as a community, we have to re-evaluate the situation."

Fazaga finds the Muslim community responsible for providing care to foster children regardless of their religious beliefs or upbringing.

"From an Islamic perspective, we definitely have to extend a helping hand to these children, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim," he said.

According to Family Solutions statistics, 50 percent of foster children will be reunited with their biological families after the parents have completed a court-mandated plan, while the other 50 percent become eligible for long-term foster care or adoption and are often adopted by their foster parents.

The role of a foster parent or family is unique, Mohmand-Farhad said. "You give these children structure by letting them know you’ll be there, that they’ll have three meals a day, that they’ll have a bed to sleep in, and that they’ll wake up and see the same parents."

While it can be emotionally or physically draining, she added, it is also rewarding and allows individuals to make a difference in someone else’s life.

Hameed said she and her husband found foster parenting fulfilling. "We really enjoyed doing homework with the children and taking them to activities."

There is a dire need to take care of Muslim children who have been neglected, she added. "There’s so much out there you can do. It’s very easy, too. Having another child won’t put that much extra work on your part."

Fahima Sheren, coordinator at ACCESS, describes foster parenting as similar to adoption, "except that the child doesn’t become yours."

The foster parenting process can be long-term or short-term, she said, adding that there have been families who have fostered a child for as little as a week while others have fostered a child until he or she turned 18.

The county, which has custody of the children, decides if they are to return to their biological parents or if they should be taken away permanently, Sheren said.

Certification for foster parenting takes, at most, six to eight weeks, Mohmand-Farhad said.

It includes filling out paperwork, 30 hours of training, fingerprinting for background checks and taking First Aid/CPR classes.

Interested individuals should have space available in their homes to care for the children, Mohmand-Farhad said.

No more than two to three children can share a room, a bed must be available for each child, and children ages 5 or older cannot share a room with children of the opposite gender.

Muslim foster families are often harder to find because the Muslim community is not as aware of foster care as mainstream America, experts say.

"The understanding is not out there in the Muslim community," said Owaiz Dadabhoy, president of UPLIFT. "We need to put the information out there, let the community know there are Muslim children out there, and let people know that this is another way to help."

He cited the recent case of two Muslim children being placed in a Christian home and taken by the foster parents to Christian services.

The biological parents didn’t want their children in the Christian home, and approached their local imam and ACCESS, Dadabhoy said.

"We also got involved, and we eventually found a couple of Muslim families who would like to help out with this," he said.

Fazaga pointed out that Muslim children placed in a non-Muslim foster home will inevitably be subjected to morals and behaviors that may be accepted by the non-Muslim family but not by Muslims.

"Islamically, these things may not be acceptable for the child. It impacts the Islamic identity of the child," he said.

Elena Meloni, one of five founders of New Star Family Center, which addresses social issues in the Muslim community, has been a foster parent for seven years.

"We cannot go to our community and talk about this without setting an example," she said. "So my husband and I decided that what we need to do is become foster parents and host children."

Through her work, Meloni said she discovered actual cases where Muslim parents had neglected their children.

"Initially, I was very upset because I thought the Department of Children and Family Services was out to get our kids – Muslim kids – and that all they wanted to do was break our families," she said.

In cases of neglect that leave Muslim children in need of foster care, Meloni said the community needs to play an active role.

"It’s hard to open up our homes to other children, but they are just children, and we have to do it," she said. "If we can’t save our own kids, how can we expect others to save our kids?"

Mohmand-Farhad added that some Muslim families may be hesitant to become involved in foster care because they feel a level of risk when inviting an outside individual into their homes.

"Once you become a certified family, you have another family member coming into the house, as well as social services checking in the child, or the child might have a mentor or an attorney who comes into the home," she said. "There are a lot of different people involved with the child, and people need to be willing to do that."

While addressing temporary situations, Dadabhoy said UPLIFT also aims to create an infrastructure that will allow an organized and proper way of addressing long-term issues.

"It shouldn’t be haphazard," he said. "The community should know where to go when a need arises."

Dadabhoy said there should be a focus on certifying Muslim families for foster care as well as communicating with counties to ensure they will inform the appropriate agencies when Muslim children are in need of foster care.

"We’ve already struck a relationship with the county of Los Angeles," he said, adding that when the county has a Muslim foster child, they contact New Star Family Center to try to place the child with a Muslim family.

Meloni has also been in talks with Orange County.

"They’ve finally realized that they need to partner with the faith communities," she said. "It has been overlooked for too long."

Dadabhoy said the case of the two Muslim children placed in a Christian foster home was a jumping off point for the issue of foster care.

"When we find out about a problem, we’ve got to resolve the problem, but we also have to build for the next case," he said.

To do that, the agencies are collaborating to visit several masjids and host sessions to inform families about the issue.

Dadabhoy has already circulated e-mails among the Muslim community regarding the two children placed in a Christian foster home and has received enormous response.

"It goes to show that when there’s a crisis, people do come out. With whatever kind of support we need, people will volunteer their time, money and effort to help out," he said. "It’s just a matter of putting those issues out there and letting people respond."

Meloni said she’s hoping the community will continue to participate and provide homes for foster children.

"I feel very strongly that all of our kids should be in our homes," she said. "They don’t belong in any other homes."


Blogger Faisal Mahmood said...

Informative article. Is there any data available that can show us how many muslim kids are right now in christan foster homes as of end of 2012.

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