Adopting a Different Approach Toward Helping At-Risk Kids

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For the first time in 161 years, the local conversation about what to do for and about at-risk Jewish children doesn’t center on a single Jewish organization.

For the first time in 161 years, the local conversation about what to do for and about at-risk Jewish children doesn’t center on a single Jewish organization.
The people behind the newest group in the effort to help these children and their families is JAFCO (Jewish Adoption and Foster Care), which opened its local branch in 2014 after 21 years in Florida — where they initially encountered many of the same obstacles and skepticism they’re facing here.
“Our goal is to keep families together when and if possible,” said Rana Bell, director of Northeast development at JAFCO’s Bryn Mawr office, which has only recently been licensed by Pennsylvania to place children from troubled family situations in foster homes. “If not, it’s to provide children with a safe home and support that family as it goes through rehab. A lot of times when we talk about this within the Jewish community, people feel it’s not happening. The truth is, these issues — whether they’re drug abuse or mental health problems — are happening no matter where we live, no matter who we are.”
The welcome wagon, however, must’ve gotten lost, because JAFCO, which spent seven years laying the groundwork for its expansion through the efforts of Cherry Hill native Bell, has hardly been received with open arms. Some have openly questioned what the new organization is doing here, citing a duplication of services with other agencies.
JAFCO officials, though, stress the uniqueness of their work, as well as their willingness to work with other agenices.
While those other groups encompass a realm of services and work not only with children and families, but with adults, older adults, people with disabilities, Holocaust survivors and the LGBTQ community, JAFCO’s sole focus is on families with adoption and foster care issues. JAFCO does not charge a fee for its services, nor does it provide financial support.
According to JAFCO, the  hope is eventually local agencies can be partners of sorts, which gradually became the case in Florida.
“We’re open to finding a way to work with” others, said Bell, who’s been with JAFCO 16 years, the first seven in Sunrise, Fla., where JAFCO has a children’s village that houses 50 residents. “We feel very strongly about co-existing.”
JAFCO founder Sarah Franco was even more conciliatory.
“I wonder if the opening of our office might’ve been misconstrued,” mused Franco, who migrated south from frozen Halliburton, Ontario back in the late 1980s and never left. “The bottom line is … we have one focus we feel would not get served” elsewhere. “From a community perspective, one concern was that JAFCO coming would confuse the community. But I don’t want somebody to feel nervous calling either of us.”
Bell, who spent seven years in the area essentially as a fundraiser gauging local interest before JAFCO decided to open a regional office here, said JAFCO is focusing on “more voluntary, private care.”
“We help families prior to the state or county involvement in maintaining Jewish foster homes if and when a Jewish child is in need of placement,” she explained. “Our mission — and the reason JAFCO was created — was because down in South Florida, there was a lack of places for abused and neglected Jewish children. So when Jewish children were removed from their homes, they were placed in non-Jewish foster homes. They were lovely homes, but those kids lost a piece of their identity. We started a very small organization 23 years ago because of that lack. We feel it’s an important piece children shouldn’t lose.”
Working with her is Rachel Levy, who has a personal connection to the organization’s mission. “I have a lot of adopted people in my family, which led me to foster care at 23,” said the 32-year-old Cheltenham native. “That took on a life of its own and became my passion professionally.
“All foster care agencies serve children from 0-to-18,” she continued. “The older ones are fully aware of what’s going on. It’s an enormous trauma. What’s important to remember about a child in foster care is that no matter what level of abuse they experience at the hands of the original caretaker, they adore, love and cherish those parents. Even if they’ve been horribly abused, they do not want to be removed from those parents. Sometimes, depending on the level of abuse, the child won’t realize it’s not normal.
“They’ll recognize certain types of abuse as love, because they don’t know anything else. There’s a lot of isolation when it comes to abuse, and the child is certainly prompted not to talk about the abuse outside the home.”
JAFCO, then, tries to act as a sounding board, so that the child feels safe enough to express his or her concerns. Being a fully funded, private agency that offers its services at no cost makes JAFCO appealing to distressed families looking for help, especially since doing so may allow them to circumvent any state investigation, unless the child abuse is too severe to ignore.
“The two leading risk factors for child abuse in our country are drug abuse and mental health issues,” said Levy, who’s maintained an interest in Jewish causes since she first went to Israel with Birthright, eventually becoming a Birthright NEXT leader.
“If we can engage the family early enough — if somebody is having an issue with alcohol, drugs or mental health — we can possibly prevent a disruption from happening. If that family cannot rehabilitate themselves while we’re in the home, we’ll have foster care available.”
Since seeing her son raise $6,000 doing a mitzvah project that enabled Jewish children at JAFCO’s Florida facility to have a Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Gladwyne native Jill Lapensohn has been in their corner.
“I think there will always a need for the services JAFCO provides,” said Lapensohn, a member of JAFCO’s Northeast board.
“If they can help just one child in need, that’s a win for everybody.”
Contact: [email protected] 215-832-0729