The Knesset passed Israel’s first foster care law Tuesday. The law, which took two and a half years to formulate and pass, represents the first attempt to legislate the foster care system in the state’s history. Until now, foster care was subject only to regulations internal to the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.
The law was dedicated to the memory of Dafna Meir, who was murdered by a terrorist at the entrance to her home in the Otniel settlement on January 17. Meir was the mother of six, including two foster children.
The foster care law was introduced as a private Knesset member’s bill by Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar, with the support of MK Eli Alaluf (Kulanu) and MK Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid), who was inister of Welfare and Social Services in the last Knesset.
There are currently 10,000 children in Israel who have been removed from their homes by the courts or by social service authorities. Only one quarter of them have been placed with foster families. The rest are in boarding schools and other residential facilities. This ratio is the opposite of the situation in most Western countries, where most such children are in the foster care system.
Unlike adopted children who are willingly given up by their birth parents and given permanently to an adoptive family, foster children are removed from their original homes for varying lengths of times, and their ties with their biological families are not severed. Some foster children stay with foster families for short terms, while others stay until they become adults.
The new legislation brings about many changes to the system with the intention of better protecting the welfare and interests of foster children.
The law, which must be fully implemented by the Welfare Ministry within nine months, also protects the rights of biological parents and foster parents. It grants foster parents legal authority for the welfare of their foster children, a right they did not have previously.
Under the new law, foster parents will now have legal status at court proceedings, where they will be able to express their opinions about what is best for their foster child. They will also have the legal authority to make routine decisions regarding the child, such as whether they should get a haircut or go on a school field trip — all issues which were previously legally up to the biological parents.
The law also dictates that a body be set up to issue licenses to to foster parents, which will have to be renewed every three years.
It calls for the establishment of a foster children’s commission that will serve as an address for the children’s complaints and concerns about their placement and care.
“This is a festive day for the State of Israel,” said Dafna Meir’s husband Natan as he watched from the visitor’s gallery as the bill was passed in the Knesset. He was joined by tens of other foster families who had also come to show their appreciation for the new legislation.
Meir told The Times of Israel that his late wife would have been very happy about the passage of the foster care law.
“We spoke about the law. Dafna knew that it was being worked on. She would have been very excited to see it passed,” he said.
Dafna Meir was herself a sort of foster child. Having been removed from the care of her biological family, she lived in boarding schools from the age of eight. Beginning when she was 13, a host family regularly took her in during holidays and school breaks.
“My family growing up was also a host family,” her husband said. “We took in a lot of American teenagers who were between the ages of 15 and 18. Some of them stayed with us for a long time.”
Even before Natan and Dafna got married, they decided that they would become foster parents after they started their own family.
Meir, now left to care on his own for two foster sons (brothers ages 5 and 7) and four biological children (ages 10 to 17), said he had heard that many families had newly applied to foster children in the wake of his wife’s murder.
“This, of course, doesn’t bring back what is missing, but it does bring some light,” he said.
This kind of interest is exactly what Orit Amiel, director of foster care services at the Summit Institute, is hoping for with the passage of the new law.
“The law clarifies things, which leaves us to hope that more people will step forward,” she said.
Summit is one of five organizations charged by the Welfare Ministry with placing children in foster care since the system was privatized 15 years ago.
Coincidentally, it was 15 years ago that Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child, first started lobbying members of Knesset to pass foster care legislation.
“He’s been walking around with a proposal for a law in his briefcase all this time,” Elharar told The Times of Israel.
The new law is a major step forward in “giving every child in Israel an equal chance,” Elharar said in an emotional speech at the Knesset plenum prior to the vote, but it won’t change things overnight.
Amiel noted that “because of Israel’s history, with so many children coming to the country as Holocaust orphans or on Youth Aliyah programs, boarding schools and youth villages are normative here. There are currently 75,000 Israeli kids — apart from the at-risk ones — being educated in boarding schools.”
“We are hoping that when people see the legal protections provided by the new law, more will come forward to apply to be foster parents. Despite the popularity of boarding schools, research shows that foster care is the best option for a child psychologically and emotionally,” she said.
Meir pointed out that biological parents will be pleased with the new law, as well.
“It sets up a strong system that biological families can rely on. These are families who need to know they are giving their kids over to a good place,” he said.
Meir encouraged families to take on the challenge of foster care.
“It’s hard, but it’s the best thing you can do in life. Your biological children pay a price for it, but they get other things instead. They learn to be generous and kind,” he said. He expressed certainty his own children will become foster parents when they grow up and start their own families.
“Some of them are already talking about it,” he said.