I know a little bit about adoption because of information I have picked up from family and friends. I know nothing about foster parenting, which is why I was interested in seeing Instant Family, a film which depicts both the process of becoming a foster parent and the reality one faces once one becomes a foster parent. I realized that gleaning information from a Hollywood version of foster parenting is not totally reliable; but, nonetheless, it would give me an idea of the complexities that people face in the foster parenting world.
Pete and Ellie Wagner have been married for several years and have no children. They feel a void in their lives and, after some soul-searching, decide to explore foster parenting. Foster parenting may lead to adoption or may just be a temporary way to provide at-risk children with a stable and safe environment.
Two social workers, Karen and Sharon, introduce the Wagners, along with other parent wannabes, to the world of foster parenting, which considers diverse parent models including, among others, a gay couple, an interracial couple, and a very religiously devout couple.
After attending a fair where they can meet kids whom they may want to adopt, Pete and Ellie decide to provide a home for Lizzie, a teenager from a broken home. But there is one catch: Lizzie has two younger siblings, Juan and Lita, so the Wagners would have to foster parent three kids, not one.
In spite of the potential problems about which they are warned by Karen and Sharon, Pete and Ellie decide to give it a try. Very soon, things get hectic and Pete and Ellie begin to rethink their decision. Being part of support group for foster parents helps, but it does not solve the daily problems that occur.
Just when life at home is settling down, the Wagners receive word that the children’s birth mother, Clara, may again assume custody of her kids. Pete and Ellie, who are interested in adopting the kids, now have to come to terms with their mission as foster parents; namely, their goal is to provide a safe and stable environment for the children even if it does not lead to adoption.
Judaism places high value on taking care of the physical and educational wellbeing of children, especially if the kids are not one’s own. It is one of the highest forms of chesed, loving kindness.
Nowadays, in the contemporary therapeutic milieu, the ideal goal is to keep kids in the parental home if at all possible. However, if the child is at risk of severe bodily harm, sexual abuse, or other violent behavior, then foster care is appropriate. The operative word here in Hebrew is rodef, pursuer. Shelley Berger, director of Ohel, a Jewish foster care institution in New York City, states: “a threat to a child is paramount. It’s a case of rodef, a pursuer of life that must be stopped.”
Ohel does its best to place each child in a home that matches the needs of the child. The primary reasons kids go into foster care is because their parents are involved in substance abuse or the parents are teenagers, too young to care for children of their own. Within the Jewish community, the prime reason for foster parenting is parent mental illness, where parents can’t care for their children and wind up neglecting them. Foster care provides a chance for the child to be in a stable, caring environment while parents have an opportunity to get their own lives back on track.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, head of a Jewish outreach organization in Arizona, is the founder of Yatom, a Jewish foster care initiative. Yatom means orphan in Hebrew, and Yatom attempts to bring more families into the foster care orbit, its raison d’etre being to protect children, those most vulnerable in society.
Yanklowitz and his wife have four biological children and have fostered six kids. I asked him about his own experience with foster parenting and this is what he said: “Without a doubt, being a foster parent is a feeling unlike any other. There is a special, intimate, spiritual bond that you create with a child who is not biologically your own, yet, in many ways, is an irrevocable part of the family. My family has been fortunate enough to foster vulnerable children and, though the process has its challenges, we have come away knowing that we’ve made a difference in a child’s life even if they won’t remember us.”
Instant Family is both a serious and hilarious look at foster care in America. While its depiction is cartoonish at times, it does reveal major challenges in the foster parenting world. It is a film worth seeing and worth thinking about.