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Daniel, 11, comes home from school without the snake skin he found on the way. "We thought the snake might come back," he says, as 7-year-old Irit breaks away from the doorway to reach up her arms and throw them round Bilha Ben-Yosef's waist.

Ben-Yosef doesn't seem to mind the prospect of a snake coil in the house. Briefly explaining the shedding process, she pats Irit's dark hair and tells Daniel, "If it was only the skin, you could have brought it."

Bilha and Shimshon Ben-Yosef are raising eight children crowded into a five-year spread book-ended by Daniel and Irit, in addition to their three biological sons - aged 17, 21 and 25 - who do not live with them. Daniel and Irit (not their real names) were taken out of their parents' care and put into the hands of the Ben-Yosefs via a foster care program called Neve WIZO, a project of the Women's International Zionist Organization and the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, which provides most of the financing.

The children who have been placed in the four Neve WIZO homes are 32 of the approximately 9,500 children in the country the state has removed from their families, deeming their parents incapable of raising them, according to the ministry. The houses, which were donated by the South African Zionist Federation about 20 years ago to replace the group homes in which WIZO used to place such children, are located in the center of the country. Like many aspects of the project, the location of the four homes is considered confidential, even though the foster parents say the community is well aware of the homes, and the biological parents stop in for visits.

About 80 percent of the children who have been removed from their parents' care have been placed in group homes and the rest are being raised by foster parents, says Shalva Leibovitz, national coordinator for foster care at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry.

However, Leibovitz prefers the family model of foster care that is also favored by the United States, which places about 80 percent of children removed from their families with foster parents, and Europe, which places about 60 percent with foster parents. The percentage of institutionalized children in Israel has gone down from 85 percent two-and-a-half years ago, but Leibovitz says that's not enough, especially for children under 10 years old.

"When you have to take a child out of a home, the best thing is to "provide a structure as close to a family as possible," says Leibovitz, adding there is still strong support in Israel for the group-home approach.

`Scared, frightened, neglected'

Many of the children in the WIZO program come from families in which poverty, drugs, mental illness or neglect were main features, and many of the children enter the program "scared, frightened, neglected," says Yardena Nof, who runs the project. Some of the children, she says, have speech impediments, learning difficulties or suffer from insecurity, and some may be used to getting only a bag of Bamba for dinner. "Sometimes we ask, `Is it good for you here?'" says Nof, who is also a social worker. "[And they'll say,] `It's wonderful! I have food!'"

But Neve WIZO doesn't usually accept children with very severe problems or those older than nine, and prefers to take children who are not likely to be returned to their parents so as to ensure continuity and stability, says Nof. The children usually stay in the program about 10 years, and siblings are placed in the same home, she says.

Aviva Kozokaro, another foster mother in the program, tells how one of "my kids," a boy about 10 who came from a poor home, continues to be worried that he won't have enough to eat. "Everyone else is sitting around the table laughing," says Kozokaro, whose foster brood runs between the ages of 9 and 15, but "the whole time he's focused on his food." The boy, she says, is also embarrassed by his background. "He's very afraid that he won't have enough food, he's very afraid that people will say he's poor."

According to the National Council for the Child, the number of children living in poverty, both Jewish and non-Jewish, rose in 2003, bringing the number to about 700,000. Neve WIZO has also seen an increase in the number of children social workers are referring to the program over the last half a year, says Nof, with 12 to 14 children receiving referrals in the last two months. Nof is unable to take anyone else at the moment because the houses are full.

Besides fear of hunger, other common problems include violence and stealing, which the foster parents are quick to say are consequences of a traumatic childhood rather than signs of a criminal mind-set.

While Kozokaro says she hasn't encountered much stealing, Ben-Yosef says in her house it's not unusual for clothes or money to suddenly go missing. She tries to preempt the problem by buying children lots of clothes when they first arrive so they have no reason to take more. When children - usually the new arrivals - do steal, she says, she teaches them that it's not acceptable, and that if they want something, they should ask. If someone needs something, she says, "we almost never say no here."

Ben-Yosef, who appears relaxed - almost implacable - uses the kind of discussion solution the social workers want to hear prospective foster parents suggest when they are interviewed for the position. Orit Raz, a social worker who has been with the program more than six years, says she usually asks prospective parents what they would do in various situations, such as when a child refuses to go to sleep on time. Rather than allowing the child to go to bed whenever he wants or slapping him for refusing to go to bed, it's "more acceptable," says Raz, to speak to the child about the importance of sleep and the need for rules, to find out what the child wants and to come to an agreement together.

Good foster parents are hard to find, says Nof, and tend to be in their 40s or 50s like Kozokaro, 48, and Ben-Yosef, 50. Younger parents tend to have less time. Parents with young children bring them into the foster home, as Kozokaro did with her 10-year-old twin boys when she left her job as a nursery school teacher and became a foster mother almost seven years ago.

Kozokaro and Ben-Yosef applied for the job out of curiosity, after seeing newspaper ads asking for warm and open foster parents, and have stayed out of satisfaction. Ben-Yosef, who used to work as a journalist, went for an interview nearly three years ago because she was thinking about writing an article about the type of people who decide to become foster parents. In the course of the interview, she decided to become one, packed up her old life in two weeks and hasn't looked back.

When Aviva and Yossi Kozokaro first saw the ad, they were looking for a change and decided to give foster parenting a try. "We went with it, and we haven't been sorry," says Aviva Kozokaro, a heavyset woman with a warm smile. "After a while, you see that you can finally do something and not just sit on the couch and read [about the problems in] the newspaper. You can educate children so they'll be like everyone else in society and maybe they'll be able to get to the stage of being able to help others."

Mother cooks, father works

In an attempt to provide a model of a stable family life, the project has tried to create a world that seems to have been copied-and-pasted straight from 1950s America. The mother is always home when the kids come back from school, and is never too busy to make lunch or dinner. Most of the fathers work part of the day, but when the professionals involved with the project discuss the foster families, they mention the mother so much, it's easy to forget the men play a role, too.

"I'm not trying to hide that the women here are more dominant, more central," says Raz. The goal, she says, is to follow a "family model" - "a child comes home and he smells the smell of fresh food," a child "sees the mother when her hair isn't combed as well as when she looks elegant." Ultimately, the hope is that the foster care graduates will join the army, get jobs and know how to raise families of their own. "How do we learn to become parents? From our own parents."

The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry technically views the WIZO project as a small group home rather than a regular foster family, but it is really more of a hybrid between a dormitory and a family home, says Leibovitz. "It has the advantages of a family although it's not a family, and the advantages of a group although it's not a group home," she says.

The Ben-Yosef home looks a lot like an ordinary home: It has a fruit bowl on the living room table and a set of candlesticks on top of the TV. In the bedrooms upstairs, the three boys have Lion King bedspreads and a Lamborghini poster on their wall, while the younger girls prefer to decorate their room with a hamsa and a cat poster, and the oldest girls have put up a sign on the door saying, "Please knock when the door is closed."

But other parts of the house look like they could be part of a school. The row of hooks covered by jackets and school supplies, complete with name tags, would not look out of place in a classroom. The wall along the staircase leading to the bedrooms is adorned with a birthday board, where the members of the household place their happy birthday wishes on the appropriate day. The playroom/study room is lined with 10 identical desks (two of them topped with computers) that are filled with children's books, dictionaries and stacks of toys and games, including Hebrew Scrabble, a plastic microphone and a yellow bulldozer.

The foster parents also get resources many biological parents can only dream of. There's a regular housekeeper so the parents don't get too worn out scrubbing up. Two tutors come three times a week, social workers stop by at all hours to help the parents as well as the children, psychologists come as needed, and Labor Ministry supervisors conduct periodic checks. The foster parents at the four houses also give each other constant support; if a father has to get medicine for one of his kids, he'll also fill the prescriptions for one of the other houses.

Both Ben-Yosef and Kozokaro say that in certain ways they end up doing more for their foster children than the biological ones because of the rules that govern their caretaking. For instance, Kozokaro recently took three of her foster children to the doctor a couple of hours after they began coughing instead of waiting a few days to see if they got worse, as she would have with her own children. The foster parents are also obligated to take the children for blood tests once a year and dental checkups every few months. They each do a major food shopping twice a week, spending about NIS 1,400-1,500 a week, says Kozokaro, and using two shopping carts at a time if she needs cleaning supplies as well as food. They also go clothes shopping with each foster child once a month.

All these services are "pretty expensive," says Nof, who refuses to divulge a specific amount. According to the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, the average monthly cost of providing for a child in a foster home is NIS 3,200, and it costs about NIS 4,500-4,600 for a child in a group home, says Leibovitz. She says that despite widespread government budget cuts, she is not aware of any planned cuts to foster care.

The average foster home, in which parents take in up to five children, does not generally have the same level of support as the Neve WIZO project, says Raz. The result, she says, is that the standard is less predictable: "It can be wonderful, but it can be terrible." Leibovitz acknowledges there have been a handful of cases of abuse by foster parents and says her department is working on ways to prevent such incidents from taking place. Nof notes that there has never been a case of abuse in the Neve WIZO project.

The biological parents come to spend time with their kids once every three weeks (except in situations where doing so would endanger the child), leaving the usually swarming houses relatively quiet. Asked what they do in the empty house, Ben-Yosef and Kozokaro say they use the break "to breathe," and spend time with their biological families.

But while Bilha Ben-Yosef is on duty, she continues to play an old-fashioned model mom like June Cleaver. She smears some peanut butter onto two pieces of white bread for Irit and places it neatly on a blue-and-white plate. When Irit hears Ben-Yosef saying she is 7 years old, she speaks up from her seat in the kitchen. "Seven and four months," she clarifies, and gets up to give her foster mother another hug.