By Catherine England
It is one of those phone calls I dread. A social worker is asking if I know
any Muslim families who would be interested in caring for a foster child. This
one is a nine-year-old boy described as "a Muslim boy of Middle Eastern
descent." He needs long-term placement. The last call was for three siblings,
Muslim children who needed temporary placement. I dread these calls. As one of
the few (if not the only) current Muslim foster home in our area, I am
frequently asked if I know of other families who would be interested in caring
for a Muslim foster child. Sadly, the answer is most often no.
There are an estimated five hundred thousand children in the foster care system
in the United States ranging in age from newborn infants to older teens. Some
children are taken into state custody because of abuse or neglect by their
birthparents; some enter because of an illness or the death of their parent.
Some orphaned refugee children come to this country as unaccompanied minors and
are placed in foster care.
Foster parents may care for a child for a short period, perhaps only overnight,
or they may care for them for years. While the system varies from state to
state, temporary or permanent custody of the child is held by the state or a
private agency. Foster parents are responsible for the day-to-day care of the
children but social workers and the courts make major decisions, sometimes with
input from birthparents.
All states have some system of reimbursement to help foster parents cover costs,
usually consisting of several hundred dollars (depending on the difficulties of
care and the age of a particular child) per month, medical coupons, clothing
vouchers and counseling. The process of becoming a foster parent may also vary
from state to state, but much of it is similar. Foster parents typically need to
pass background checks, have their home inspected for safety and space
considerations, be interviewed and attend training programs. These requirements
may seem intrusive but in reality are not terribly difficult.
Foster parenting is not adoption. Michelle Mohamed, a former foster parent,
thinks it is important to remember that the first and primary goal of foster
care is to protect and care for children while addressing the issues in their
birth families that resulted in the child's entering foster care. She says, "The
first goal is to re-unite children with their birth families, if possible." She
notes that there are many issues faced by the Muslim community that can cause
stress and depression in parents of young children or of challenging teens.
"Feelings of isolation, of being overwhelmed, and depression are not uncommon
for any of us. Unfortunately, many traditional support systems may not be
available for Muslim parents here. Extended families, stable, long-term
friendships and supportive older relatives may be far away. Foster care can
provide a respite when parents feel like they just can't cope anymore, and
services are available to relieve some of the pressures traditional supports
would have done at one time. If Muslims don't fill the role of foster parents,
Muslim foster children will not only be separated from their birth parents but
also from their religious and cultural supports."
While recruitment of foster parents is difficult in general (there are more
foster children than licensed foster home beds for them), it is especially
difficult in the Muslim Community. According to Muslim social workers, the
barriers they face in recruiting Muslim foster families are a lack of
familiarity and fear of the system, a feeling that it is somehow "un-Islamic," a
fear of appearing to take sides against other Muslims, and a fear of the
Most of us hate to think that there are Muslim children in foster care. After
all, Muslims can't be "those" kinds of parents. We can't believe there are
problems with drugs, alcohol or physical abuse and neglect in our community. If
Muslim kids are taken into foster care, it is often believed that Child
Protective Services must be unjustly accusing the parents.
According to Dr. Basheer Ahmed of the Muslim Community Center for Human Services
in Arlington, Texas, "Muslims tend to blame CPS, but sometimes there is a reason
for removal." If so, he says, CPS workers have no option but to remove a child
in order to protect them. The sad reality is that Muslim parents are human
beings and are not perfect.
A non-Muslim American family had originally
adopted a beautiful little girl of Iranian descent, but when the
Iranian Revolution occurred the family returned that beautiful
little toddler to the State. Because of her religious and ethnic
heritage, they no longer wanted her in their home. Will it become
even harder in the light of recent events to find good foster homes
for Muslim children?
At this point there are no statistics as to the number of Muslim foster
children. It would be natural to assume, however, that as the number of Muslims
in North America has grown, so has the number of Muslim kids in the foster care
system. Anwar Khanam of the Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services in
Wooddale, Illinois, has found that there is "a lot of need" for foster parents,
but to the Muslim immigrant community it is "a new idea, they don't fully
understand." She observes, "We need to be more open-minded. There is a dire need
for Muslims to open their homes to foster children. It is a service to
There is no doubt that becoming a foster parent is a tremendous responsibility
and a 24-hour a day job. Foster care is not for the faint-hearted. One way or
the other, foster children come with issues that the foster parent will have to
cope with. While most foster children are normal, healthy children, some may
bring with them emotional or physical challenges. On top of that, there are
regulations to meet, social workers and court appointed guardians to satisfy,
judge's rulings to abide by, and birth families to deal with. Acknowledging
this, Molly Daggett, a social worker with Lutheran Community Services says,
"There is no way around the inconveniences, they may be intrusive, but the
rewards surpass the inconveniences. The chance to give a child a home, to stay
within their own culture and religion-how can you measure that?"
Fatimah Yousof and her husband, Ali, changed their life dramatically when they
became foster parents to four Muslim children, brothers and sisters. The
children had lived in as many as five other homes, in some foster homes they
were placed together, and in some they were separated. Most of the homes were
not Muslim. Fatimah Yousof learned quickly that emotional problems sometimes are
the root of behavioral problems. She advises, "Become familiar with the
difference between normal development and problem behavior. Get as much training
as possible and prepare yourself. If you are not of the same culture as your
children, learn as much as possible about their culture in order to help that
child." She further notes foster parents "must be willing to be proactive and
involved in counseling and therapy with the children." She also advises those
interested in foster care to consider the advantage of working with private
agencies since they have more resources and, she feels, a greater stake in
Michelle Mohamed's husband, Ibrahim, acknowledges that being a foster parent can
be difficult. It is "absolutely not an easy commitment. But it is not about you.
It is about the child-providing love and compassion for a child." Mohamed and
his wife were foster parents for a little boy whom they eventually adopted,
adding to the four biological children they already had. Mohamed also
understands the concerns of the immigrant Muslim community. He acknowledges that
for many immigrant Muslims foster care is a concept that is foreign to their
upbringing. "We can adapt to many things in our life that we didn't grow up
with. Muslim foster parents have to have an understanding of how this society
works, want to be involved and feel that they can make a difference."
Ultimately, he says, "these children are in the category of orphans, they are
the beloved of Allah." .
Some Muslims are concerned about maintaining an Islamic environment in their
home. How do foster parents meet the requirements of hijab and modesty between
non-related sexes and still care for these beloved orphans? Fatimah and Ali
Yousof struggled with this issue. They ultimately, and very happily, adopted
their four foster children. Their solution is that the mother and girls wear
hijab at home and have curtains hung for privacy. "If we didn't do it, we would
feel like hypocrites, but it is a part of daily life now, like praying. This is
a matter of compromise and being flexible. Not to say that I don't have moments.
But it is not a reason not to have any one of my kids. The amount of blessings
far outweighs any inconvenience." She wants people to remember that "your
intentions are all for Allah. He will help you."
Muslim communities must develop systems to help families at risk for disruption,
but also provide Muslim homes for children when needed. To help overcome the
hesitancy Muslims may feel over religious issues, Islamic scholars need to study
the foster care system in relation to Islamic teachings and inform the Muslim
community in how they can accept the responsibilities of caring for Muslim
foster children within the guidelines of Islam. The leaders of Muslim
Communities in North America must familiarize themselves with this issue and
become advocates for Muslim children in the foster care system. Dr. Bashir Ahmed
feels community leaders must be proactive. "The Qur'an says, Ô take care of
orphans.' It is our responsibility to care for them. We must keep raising the
A number of years ago, I met a Muslim family who had adopted a beautiful little
girl of Iranian descent. A non-Muslim American family had originally adopted
her, but when the Iranian Revolution occurred the family returned that beautiful
little toddler to the State. Because of her religious and ethnic heritage, they
no longer wanted her in their home. Will it become even harder in the light of
recent events to find good foster homes for Muslim children?
Each potential foster parent must look into their own hearts and decide if they
can make this commitment. Difficult and important issues revolve around foster
care. But as I watch my two year-old foster son proudly move up and down next to
my husband in Salah, or listen to my four year old daughter trying to verbalize
her struggle to understand who she is as a Muslim and what it means in relation
to the rest of the world, I know that this is the right thing to do. There are
good and loving non-Muslim foster families working for all children in their
care. However loving and capable, they cannot help our children be Muslims.