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M., a 6-year-old boy from the Haifa area, is on the waiting list for a foster family. According to a social services report, he is "very sweet" and has a slight developmental delay, but a good potential for rehabilitation. However, he has been badly neglected; his mother is an alcoholic and has been classified as lacking the ability to be a parent.

M. is one of several dozen children across the country, aged 3-7, who have been waiting for a long time for foster families to take them in. Organizations in the north and center of the country that deal with such cases say there has been particular difficulty this year in locating suitable families for the children on the waiting list. Most of the youngsters have been physically and emotionally neglected, and some have been physically or sexually abused by biological family members and removed from them by court order.

The reason for the lack of foster families is related to gradual changes the Social Welfare Ministry has been implementing over the last few years, which aim to transfer children at risk to foster families rather than institutions. Ministry spokesman Nahum Ido said that in the past three years, the number of children taken out of their homes has dropped from 10,000 to 8,500, but the number of children going to foster families has risen by 14 percent - to 1,800. This change reflects the prevailing trend in Western countries.

One of the children in limbo is 6-year-old D. According to the case history provided by Matav, a nonprofit organization that runs foster services in the north, D.'s father is a drug addict and his mother works as a prostitute to get money for the drugs. D. was found wandering around the street, neglected and bruised, and was removed from his home by court order. Since then, he has been living in an emergency care center and waiting for a family to accept him.

Unlike with adopted children, the biological parents of foster children are their legal guardians.

"If the biological parents can be rehabilitated, the child goes back to them after their rehabilitation process," said Idit Lerner, a social worker and counselor for Matav.

In the past year, there has been an increase in the requests Matav has received from social welfare bureaus to locate foster families for children at risk.

"There is a large number of children, and there are not enough suitable families that are capable of meeting the needs of these children," Lerner explained. "These are children with complications, which somewhat deters the families."

Another difficulty, she said, is finding families prepared to take in siblings that the welfare authorities don't want to separate.

"The damage that results from putting a child in an unsuitable home is critical for the child, who is liable to experience abandonment again," said Lerner. "That would destroy him or her altogether."

Families that want to take in foster children are examined for their suitability, readiness and ability to meet the needs of the children and to raise them. Families that are found to be capable undergo training to enable them to cope with foster children.

"Israeli society is not sufficiently aware of fostering," said Anat Donowitz, who is in charge of this field for Orr Shalom, a nonprofit organization that provides homes for children at risk.

"The uncertainty is horrible," she said about the difficulties children face when they are awaiting a new home. "They come to us and ask, 'What, they don't want us?' 'When will they take us?' And it frustrates us terribly."