The foster mum whose killing changed Israel

Murder of Dafna Meir has woken up Israelis to huge need for foster families


The murder of Dafna Meir at the hands of a Palestinian teenager in January touched Israelis more than almost any other death in the current violence. But now, as Ms Meir is mourned, a message of hope is emerging from the pain.

"It's sad to say but the tragedy of her death has done a lot of good to fostering in Israel," says Yoni Bogot, executive director of the Summit Institute, a Jerusalem-based children's charity and fostering agency.

Ms Meir died at her home in the settlement of Otniel while trying to prevent a terrorist from attacking her biological offspring and two foster children. She herself was a foster child, and championed the cause of fostering in her words and actions.

The massive attention on this aspect of her story has prompted greater awareness of Israel's desperate need for foster families, says Mr Bogot.

The scale of the problem is huge, he adds. "In the West, there are about 20 per cent in residential care and 80 per cent in foster care. Here, it is roughly the other way around, with only 25 per cent in foster care." This means that around 7,500 of the 10,000 children removed from their homes are in institutions.

A gathering of British Jews got a first-hand insight into the life of at-risk Israeli children a fortnight ago, when Sasha Zipkin, who spent her first years in a home of drink, drugs and neglect, addressed a London fundraising dinner for Jewish Child's Day.

Ms Zipkin, now a 20-year-old soldier, remembers her biological parents' home as a place where "everything was broken," where things smelled of drugs and alcohol. "You would open the door and there was nothing - no electricity, nothing in the fridge," she says. She and her sister were forced to steal food and endured abuse - she speaks of being banished to a corner for a whole night.

Remembering how she accidently cut herself on the broken glass from a window smashed by her father, she says: "I went to school with an injury I got two days earlier, and when I was at school that was the first point when anyone took care of it."

This all ended when she was eight. "I remember the day like it was yesterday. A social worker knocked on the door and told me that I was leaving. I was shocked and sad." Her father was in the home, but did not go to say goodbye.

Her foster family, she reflects 12 years later, has become everything that a biological family is meant to be. "Nothing is different, we just don't have the same last name, that's all."

Ms Zipkin was placed with her family by Summit, an organisation that receives Jewish Child's Day donations. Summit also placed Karin Amar - now a 25-year-old student - whose mother was unable to care for her due to mental health problems. Ms Amar said that the foster mother had become "my family for all purposes" - and more than three dozen other children she fostered have similar feelings for her. "She took care of so many children I can't even count."

As for why fostering rates are so low in Israel, Rachel Szabo-Lael, an expert from the Engelberg Centre for Children and Youth in Jerusalem, has a surprising explanation. She argues that the history of Israeli boarding schools and children's residences - the places that absorbed Holocaust-survivor children and even produced some of the country's leaders - are seen as decent places to grow up. "There is no stigma," she says.

Dr Szabo-Lael said that the Jewish emphasis on family can also cause parents of at-risk children to prefer care centres over a foster family, which they can see as usurping them.

While these cultural factors are ingrained and difficult to challenge, politicians believe that legislation has the power to have an impact on fostering. Karin Elharar of the Yesh Atid party introduced a law, approved in February, to make fostering less intimidating for families. Before the law, foster families found it hard to run children's day-to-day lives, needing, for example, a biological parent's approval for such routine activities as a haircut. They also had to keep receipts for the foster child's expenses in what Ms Elharar calls a painstaking and "terrible" process that left them out of pocket for weeks.

The new law formalises the rights of biological and foster parents, gives foster families legal authority for the welfare of foster children, and provides up-front stipends. The law could tip the balance from the majority of at-risk children being institutionalised to the majority being fostered, she said.

And what does she call her legislation? The Dafna Law. "It was immediately clear to me that I should dedicate the law to her." When it was passed, Dafna's widow, Natan, was in the Knesset's public gallery, watching with approval.

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