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Coronavirus has trapped children with their abusers; let’s get them out

Wendi Sklaver and her husband, Sam, considered becoming foster parents for more than 10 years. But with four biological children and busy lives, it seemed impossible. Until Sklaver discovered last year that her synagogue, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, was forming a cohort of foster families.

That community effort, Sklaver said, made the daunting seem doable. The couple joined other families at Wilshire in getting training and licensed, and since October 2019, they have fostered eight children (and counting) for emergency respite periods anywhere from a few days to a few weeks..

The Sklavers are among 20 families, and Wilshire one of four synagogues that have explored, progressed, fostered, adopted and flourished through our organization, Second Nurture, which uses the strength of community to help children in crisis.

A hidden effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been that child victims of abuse and neglect are forced to spend more time with their abusers, with fewer avenues to call for help. Children in abusive situations are being seen less often by adults outside their households who might have intervened.

When teachers, social workers, clergy, and other mandatory reporters — or concerned neighbors — see children out in the open again, there will be calls. Many, many calls. We won’t know the extent of this intensification until restrictions lift, but we do know that there will not be enough licensed foster parents to handle the needed placements.

Social workers are already struggling to place children waiting for a safe, loving environment. “I get calls from social workers looking to place kids and I just don’t have the families for them,” said Cathy Allan of Los Angeles County’s Children’s Bureau. “I say no to requests for 15 children every day.”

This is a point of deep frustration for us at Second Nurture — we have more synagogues “on deck” but not the organizational bandwidth to develop them. It’s like the lifeboats are all there, but we don’t have an air pump to inflate them.

The shortage is most intense for children needing short-term care, like the ones Sklaver has embraced. “We need adults who aren’t looking only to adopt,” Allen said. “ We also need people who just want to give back, to help stabilize a child, give them the security they need to transition and build trust for their next, long-term family.”

“Providing emergency care was very appealing,” Sklaver added, “because we would have kids up to 21 days and that felt manageable.”

Imagine a traumatized child entering an unknown family (since finding kinship care is not always possible). What a terrifying experience for a child who has been removed from their family. How can we make the unthinkable as healthy as possible? Our solution is families who are not only formally trained, but are part of a community, where foster kids are part of a world in which there are other kids like them, where people are not shocked by their presence and stories, but, in a sense, in it with them. This bridge, from trauma to just, loving and healthy solutions can change kids’ lives.

Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family and a Community partners with synagogues in Los Angeles to promote foster care and adoption among their memberships. Our partner synagogues invite people to explore fostering as well as adoption from foster care, formingh a cohort of families through every stage — from considering foster care, through the licensing process, while fostering children, and/or adopting kids.

What is so exciting about Second Nurture’s model is that in building cohorts in pre-existing communities, we start foster and adoptive families off with the support and services that can otherwise make foster care feel isolating. The families listen and offer support to each other, and Second Nurture, along with the synagogue leadership, do our best to respond to needs through bringing in professional agencies and organizations uniquely poised to help. In addition, the wider synagogue community offers support — donating professional expertise, meals and goods. We have seen that making foster care and adoption part of the fabric of the community strengthens the entire kehila, as foster and adopted children and their families see themselves as an organic part of what it means to be Jewish.

Sklaver, who described herself as “very Type A,” said the setup helped her “be the type of person that would take things as they come.”

“This was a big lesson for me in just…. I’m going to take the first class and see how that feels, and then I’m going to take the second class, and then I’m going to fill out the paperwork and see where that goes,” she said. “Then I got fixated on just, ‘Let’s just get our first placement and see how we feel about it.’”

November is National Adoption Month, and Second Nurture is adding a new path to our programming. We are imploring anyone who can do so to get formal approval to become foster families in order to provide emergency shelter for the post-COVID-restrictions influx of children. So many children will be in need of a safe, loving place to be while social workers and others make thoughtful, healthy long-term plans for those kids.

Kids who, in that very vulnerable, interim time, will need thoughtful, loving care to best grow in that time—and beyond: to develop tools, as much as possible, for healthy lives. As Jews, we know what it has meant for strangers to take risks, step up, and protect our kids until we can safely be reunified or another long-term plan can be made. Now, we can do the same.

Rabbi Susan Silverman is the founding Executive Director of Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family and a Community, and the author of the memoir, Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World. James Cohen is a member of the Second Nurture board of directors, and a proud foster and adoptive parent.

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