When it comes to concern for children's welfare, foster parenthood is where the rubber meets the road. Removed by state agencies from homes broken by drugs, crime, abuse, or neglect, foster children are placed with private families for short or long-term care until a family situation stabilizes, or until adoptive parents can be found. These children come freighted with problems, both psychological and practical, and make extraordinary demands on the emotional and physical resources of those who care for them.
When foster care works, it's because of those, like Zmirah Rosenthal, who feel that "someone has to care for the children." Over the last 17 years, Zmirah has taken in over 60 children. Jewish tradition has it that in every generation there are 36 tzaddikim, righteous people, for whose sake the world survives. Zmirah Rosenthal may be among them.Aish.com interviewed her while she was visiting her daughter in Los Angeles.
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Why do you take in foster children? Did anything in your upbringing prepare you for this?
I have no idea. I just do it. My parents always had people in the house, so I guess that's where I get it from. We had an open door policy and everybody was welcome. I was always the one who brought home lost dogs, lost cats, lost children. All our friends were able to come and it was great.
How many children do you have?
I have five biological children, four girls and one boy. We have a 5-year-old that is going to live with us forever. We can't adopt him because he has many special medical needs that we can't afford to give him, so if we adopted him he would lose a lot of the services that he gets as a foster child. We are thinking of adopting another one, age two. He's a wonderful child and very bright, but he's also drug and alcohol addicted, so we don't know what's going to happen later on. It comes out a lot in his behavior but we can't give him up. He's a very special child.
How many foster children do you take care of?
We've had 65 kids over the last 17 years.
At any one time it's usually four or five. We've had 65 in the past 17 years. Plus right now we're working with a 19-year old single mom and looking after her children: an 18-month-old and his 6-month-old brother. So they come and go, and stay with us for weekends and longer and whenever. There's those two makes 67, and one more makes 68.
Some of them stayed for a long time. There was one who came for a weekend and she stayed for five years.
In what ways do these children have special needs?
We've become specialized with medical problems. We had one Downs Syndrome child that needed open-heart surgery.
There was one small girl who needed oxygen all the time because she had chronic pneumonia and she wasn't an easy child. I was constantly taking her to the hospital. Finally I asked one of the doctors why I couldn't get oxygen for her at home. So I got an oxygen tank with a 40-foot tube so she could socialize rather than being bed-ridden. Soon enough she started crawling and sitting. Then she could sit in the high chair in the kitchen, eat her meals and be part of the family.
How did you get involved in this vocation?
It started by accident. I met a woman waiting for the bus. She had a little three year old with her and it ended up that her two older girls were very friendly with my daughter at camp. We made a close relationship, and then I discovered that the mother was schizophrenic. The mother tried to kill her children and commit suicide. When I heard the kids were in foster care, I found the social worker and arranged to have them come stay with us, because they were Jewish kids who'd been placed in a Catholic home.
There was one who came for a weekend and she stayed for five years.
When we first moved to Canada, after three days my daughter Tali came home and said, "Mommy, can a friend of mine come and sleep over? Her mother's getting married again." I said, "Sure, but doesn't she want to go to the wedding?" And Tali said, "No she doesn't like this husband." I found out this was husband number three or four. We've had this child since she was age nine, and she considers us her family. She was in Israel for a couple of years, and then she said to my husband, "I want to come home." He said, "So come home." Tali arranged for the ticket, and she's been with us since.
Have all your foster children been Jewish?
No, mostly they're not Jewish. It doesn't matter. The social workers know we do not answer the phone on Shabbat. The parents know to leave a message and I'll get back to them after Shabbat. If it's an emergency on Shabbat, the social workers know they can just come to the door.
Do your own children resent so many other people in the house?
It was sort of a family decision to go back into fostering, but I made sure the foster children were not the responsibility of my own children. I would ask them to help when I needed it. I would ask them to baby sit without getting paid.
My kids always got what they needed, and if I wasn't paying enough attention to them they would come stand in front of me and say, "I need your attention and I need it now." And they would get it. Because with so many kids, you have to find a way to make it work. I mean, at one point I had 10 kids in the house including my five -- a total of five children under the age of three.
We had a 3-year-old, a 2-year-old, an 18-month-old and a 2-day-old. The newborn was from a Vietnamese family, and two hours after I brought him back from the hospital, the father showed up at the doorstep with the three year old, and said, "Here." It was great. I loved it.
Foster children often return to their biological parents, or are placed in permanent adoption. How do you deal with the emotional attachment you build?
It's really, really hard, even when you've had them for a couple of days because I get attached straight away.
We had a 2-year-old who had been with us since she was a week old. She was going to be adopted by a family, and I told the social worker that the family needs to first get to know this child, and the only way they can do that is by moving in with us. She said, "They can't move in with you." I said, "Sure they can." So the parents and brother moved in for a week. It was great.
This child used to call me "mommy." Before the adoptive family came to stay with us, I showed her pictures of them and said, "This will be your new mommy, this will be your new daddy, this will be your new brother, and this will be your new bedroom." I went with the new mom to pick her up from day care and she saw me coming in. She made a beeline for me, but then when she saw the woman standing behind me, she went around me and went to her. It hurt a little, but I felt I had done a good job in getting her to know her new mom.
During that week, she was still calling me "mommy," and then one day she stormed into the kitchen and said, "Where's my mommy?" I said, "She's in the living room." I knew then she had switched. So it was good to have them in the house. It's about the kids. You have to do what's good for the kids.
How do you have time for all this?
I don't know, because at that time we had five kids under the age of three and I was also running a day care with 17 kids. They were coming and going at all times.
I had kids that were dropped off early in the morning and we'd go to school at 11:30 and then I had kids to pick up at 12:30. I used to take all the kids with me, but there were just too many to walk around with. That's when I decided I should get some help.
I love doing the cooking but I've stopped baking bagels.
How many hours of sleep do you get at night?
Who does all the cooking?
I knew you were going to say that.
But I love cooking. I bake bread and things like that. I've stopped baking bagels. I don't have time to stand and boil the bagels. So no bagels.
I feel the same way.
I've been trying for a while to make good pasta, but it's not working. So I just buy pasta.
Do you ever feel resentful of all the work you put in?
No. Everything in life is attitude. If you see it as a problem, it's be a problem. But if you don't see it as a problem, it's not. It's all attitude. Plus my husband is a great help. The only thing that gets on my nerves is whining. I can't stand whining.