Noor and Hamza Ahmad were out for the evening while a neighbor was watching their kids. They were in a terrible car accident where Hamza died on the spot and Noor was in a coma. The Ahmads have no immediate family in the United States. So what happens to their children?
“The children will be placed in the temporary custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services until a relative or other appropriate guardian can be identified,” says Amina Saeed, attorney at law and president-elect of the Muslim Bar Association. “In such a case of dependency, unless the parents have specified their guardianship preferences in a valid will, the children will remain in the Department’s custody until a permanent placement can be found or until the mother recovers.”
Single mother, Fatima’s children stay with a babysitter while she works two jobs. There is a one-hour period where the children are alone before Fatima gets back. The siblings have a fight, the older child calls 9-1-1 and Fatima is charged with neglect for leaving her children unattended.
A young couple takes one-month-old Sarah to the Emergency Room for a head concussion. Her parents claim that they dropped her accidentally. As mandatory reporters, the physicians feel the story does not add up. The Department of Child and Family Services takes the baby on basis of abuse.
These three cases have different causes (dependency, neglect and abuse). However, their result is the same: children are placed in the temporary custody of DCFS and sent to group homes or foster homes.
“It is important to understand that the system is overburdened as it is,” says Saeed. “DCFS is not out there to take children away from Muslim families and place them with families of other faith traditions. The law does provide, however, that children can be taken into protective custody when there is imminent risk of harm.”
Difference between foster care and adoption
Foster care is a temporary arrangement where the child stays with another family until he returns to his own parents or is placed in a permanent home. The child attends public school and the state pays the foster family for the child’s food, clothing and medical care. The amount varies from state to state and on the age (or special needs) of the child.
“We need to educate the community that fostering is not a lifelong commitment; it’s a temporary need,” said Shireen Salman, director of Domestic Violence Programs at the Arab American Family Services in Bridgeview. “Foster families can indicate gender or age preferences. I have a child right now that needs a Muslim foster home and we do not have a home for him.”
Later on, if the child becomes available for adoption, then if the foster family chooses to, they can apply to become adoptive parents and complete all requirements.
Why do kids need foster homes?
“Domestic and sexual abuse are the leading reasons for children being separated from their families,” says attorney, Abdul-Malik Ryan. “Unfortunately, however, this is a taboo subject in the Muslim community and so it is often not discussed.”
Either Muslims believe such heinous acts do not take place in our community or are afraid of speaking up. Some women are taught never to disclose the faults of their husbands no matter what. However, according to U.S. law they have a responsibility to protect their children. If they fail in that regard, they can be accused of neglect. Therefore, they must speak up, if not for themselves, for their children. Some minority groups are afraid of their visa status and feel the state will deport them if their abusive husbands are imprisoned.
The situation can be very hard for children who have never lived outside of their community. “A 14-year old Pakistani girl was adamant to be placed in a Pakistani, Muslim home but we couldn’t find her one,” said Alpa Patel, supervising attorney for the Cook County Public Guardian Office. “We could only find an African-American Muslim licensed foster home.”
Why are there not enough Muslim foster homes?
There is very little awareness about foster care in the Muslim community. “Robert Harris, the Public Guardian encourages Muslims and other minorities to sign up so that we have licensed families ready when the need arises,” said Patel. “But, minority communities need to make it a priority.”
“One of the concerns Muslim families have with foster children is the ‘mehram’ issue,” explains Saeed. For a Muslim woman, a mehram is a close family member in front of whom she does not need to wear a hijab. Her mehrams would include her husband, son, father, brother and so on. If she accepts a 14-year-old boy who is not related to her, she and perhaps her daughters will not always be able to roam around as freely in their homes. The simple solution would be to go through the licensing process and specify the age groups or gender that you are willing to accept.
“Foster families are not required to say yes to every child sent their way,” said Salman. They can outline preferences and only accept girls if they have daughters of their own or only accept very young children.
“The aim is to reunite the children with their family and parents are given several chances,” says Shamim Sufi, licensed clinical social worker with Hamdard Health and Human Services in Addison and Chicago.”But if the parents do not undergo the required counseling or rehabilitation, then their rights are terminated.” DCFS does try to focus on permanency and they try to keep siblings together, but it is not always possible. Foster children with siblings in the system are entitled to visit each other at least twice a month.
Muslims need to be cautious that anyone can call the DCFS hotline as a hate crime as well. “Not all calls to the DCFS hotline are authentic,” said Ryan. “People can place fake calls to get back at a Muslim or minority family. However, the courts can decide if it is a case of prejudice or real abuse.”
What happens when they turn 18?
Technically, a foster child “ages-out” of the DCFS system when they turn 18. Research at Pew Charitable Trusts has shown that more than 25 percent of youth in foster care end up in jail and more than 20 percent will be homeless before age 25. Only 20 percent of foster-care youth nationally will seek education beyond high school, and fewer than 3 percent will graduate from college. The Muslim community needs to award scholarships to deserving students so that they graduate from the foster care system with dignity and a degree.
The need for foster homes is real. The Muslim community has several masjids and zabiha meat stores in the Chicago area. It is time we focus on social services for our generation and the generations to come.