The strictly Orthodox community is suffering from a serious shortage of foster carers.
Now that Norwood has ended its foster service and another charity is threatening to stop its respite provision, the future looks bleak for children in need.
One in five disabled children in Hackney are from the strictly Orthodox community and there is a constant demand for respite care, where the child is cared for temporarily to help out the parents.
Out of the 141 approved foster families available in the borough, only three are from the Charedi community — just two per cent, despite 29 Charedi children assessed as requiring respite care.
Chaya Spitz, who works for the Interlink Foundation, which provides support to Charedi charities, said that the shortage is a serious problem in the community.
She said: “There are some services that just don’t exist for Orthodox Jewish people because of their special needs for a service that culturally and religiously matches them.
“The provision for overnight respite virtually doesn’t exist for the Orthodox community.
“There have been attempts over the years by organisations to increase the pool of foster carers. Not only has this not been successful, but it’s got worse.
“This is because the regulatory requirements are becoming stricter, especially when a child abuse case occurs.
“It is also because of the nature and invasiveness of the vetting process and because most people in the community have very large families and there are certain requirements for an extra child.”
Despite the demand for foster families, Norwood has terminated its service.
David Harris, director of operational services at Norwood, said that Hackney Council had stopped asking the charity for the use of their foster carers.
He said: “Local authorities became more inclined to recruit their own carers because it’s cheaper. They were not asking us for carers as often.
“The regulations were getting stricter and our carers were getting older and didn’t want to go through it all.
“Our dilemma was keeping a service going with all the requirements, against a background of little demand. It led to the decision to cease the service. From a business point of view we realised it simply wasn’t worth it.
“We depend on requests from local authorities but they have not been
making a significant demand on our service.
“The requests we did get were to place older children and it is very difficult to recruit people from the Orthodox community who have the space and capacity to take on a teenager from a difficult background.”
Another source of help for the community, Step by Step, is also facing problems.
The charity, which provides support to families of disabled children with after school clubs, playschemes and trips, is threatening to stop providing its services as a response to the council calculating its input by determining how much help is given by the wider community.
Chippy Flohr, manager of Step by Step, argues that help from a charity should be considered as an addition, rather than an alternative to help given by the council.
She said: “Hackney asks families what help they receive from voluntary organisations and then subtract this from the help they give.
“For example, if they assess a child as needing 10 hours of help and they already receive five from Step by Step, then they’ll only give five.
“But we feel the support we give should be additional support, not part of the support, or they should pay us for the support we provide.
“And we’re not getting one penny from them. They are taking the benefits of a voluntary organisation for their own use.
“We told them we will close our doors if they continue.”
But Isabelle Trowler, Hackney’s assistant director of children’s social care, said that it was perfectly justified to use a charity’s service.
She said: “It is our duty as a local authority to take into account what a family can draw on from extended family networks and community networks.
“We would then see what additional help they would need from us.
“There no entitlement or set amount of service that any child is entitled to. The assessment process is about looking at the whole context and very often there are organisations in the voluntary community sector which are excellent at providing support, and that’s what they are there for and funded to do.
“I hope that they don’t stop their services. It would be very sad if families lose out.”
But Ms Flohr believes the reasons are more suspect, which the council strongly denied.
Ms Flohr said: “They know how committed we are. They are taking advantage of the fact we are a very close-knit community and will support each other.”
Mother of six Leah Stern decided to take matters into her own hands after struggling to find help for her severely disabled daughter, Yitty. She said: “I found it very difficult and wanted to place her with a Jewish family, but we couldn’t find anywhere, so I sent her to Israel with my in-laws. She’s been there six years.”
Desperate to bring her daughter home, Mrs Stern decided to create her own residential respite home, Bayis Sheli.
“I can’t find anyone here to look after her,” she said. “That’s why I’m building this home. I’m desperate to bring her back and my children are missing her dreadfully. No one understands the pain in having to send away your daughter, especially someone who is sick.
“The only place that can look after her is a home. My dream is to have her back and have her in this home.”
Bayis Sheli is due to open in April 2011 in Stamford Hill with 12 bedrooms.
But Hackney has not supplied any funding for the home, and is adamant that the solution to the shortage is for the community to work more to recruit foster carers. It has asked a strategic group of community members to help.
Ms Trowler said: “There will be a very small number of children where residential care is the right placement for a child. It’s fairly rare where a family context is not a better context and it’s much more expensive to support residential care than foster.
“We need to really, really try to find families that want to be foster carers.
“There are families in the Charedi community who foster. There is an interest there and that’s something we want to build on.
“The strategic group needs to work with the community and the rabbis so we can break some of the barriers and build up a relationship of trust, where families aren’t so fearful of our involvement in their lives, so that the community wants to support that kind of assessment.”
But Ms Spitz said that this suggestion is not appropriate for the community.
She said: “It’s a great shame Hackney haven’t shown more interest in Bayis Sheli. They should be paying for it and we’re taking legal advice about their duties. They are not interested because they think we should be recruiting foster carers.”
Hackney will be meeting the strategic group in January to discuss progress but it appears there will be a stalemate until some of these major issues are faced.
“They are not willing to understand the needs of the Charedi community,” Ms Spitz said.
“They feel the solution is to get more foster carers, and because residential care is a more expensive solution, there is an unwillingness to go down that path. They think speaking to our rabbis will somehow make the problem go away.”
In Manchester, a similar shortage has been reported, although more than double the number of Charedi families are available for foster care than in Hackney.
The Manchester Jewish Federation works in partnership with local authorities and currently provides seven strictly Orthodox families with foster and respite care.
Shelley Lewis, children and families social work team manager, said: “There is a shortage of families coming forward.
“A lot of Charedi families don’t want the training and intensive assessment. The training is mixed and sometimes takes place on a Saturday and it’s not culturally appropriate. We want to match the exact level of Orthodoxy with the family and that’s where the difficulty is.
“The Charedi community is growing so the situation has got worse because there are more children needing help and the eligibility criteria are higher from local authorities.
“One solution would be for an important person in the community to endorse foster caring and encourage the community.”
But like Hackney, Manchester is also planning a residential respite unit at the Heathlands Village care home.
“It’s just more of a reliable service,” Ms Lewis added.