People often ask me how I come up with ideas for my articles. I tell them that all my articles are the result of Divine Providence – typically inspired by a random comment by someone standing in line with me or suggested by a reader or editor. But for some of them, I take sole credit. Take this article: I first learned about JAFCO (Jewish Adoption and Family Care Options), quite serendipitously, from Cece, a sweet, vivacious woman I had the pleasure of sitting next to on a Superior Tours bus last summer, as I traveled to my mini-high school reunion in Manhattan. Cece just couldn’t stop talking about JAFCO, and when the Florida snowbird found out I’m a writer, she encouraged me to visit the JAFCO Children’s Village in Sunrise, Florida, and write about it. So I did. Now, I can’t stop talking about it!
“JAFCO was started in 1992 to fill an unmet need in our Jewish community,” explained Linda Sachs, JAFCO’s community outreach/program coordinator/child support specialist. “People didn’t think that Jewish families had problems. They didn’t think there was abuse or neglect and so didn’t think we had to be concerned with all that.”
It was JAFCO’s founder and executive director Sarah Franco who recognized the need. Ms. Sachs explained: “We realized that Jewish children who were being placed in foster care had so many losses and so many things going on, they needed to hold on to a piece of their identity. We wanted to create Jewish foster homes in a Jewish atmosphere. That is really where we began, but it is our privilege now to partner with the whole child welfare system and serve children of all ethnicities and backgrounds.”
From a tiny one-room office, 23 years ago, JAFCO has grown into a beautiful, $6 million, 5.6-acre gated residential community, filled with lush lawns, palm trees, flowers, a swimming pool, bicycle path, basketball court, and playgrounds. The campus houses the Jewish Children’s Village, the Emergency Shelter, and administrative offices. Up to 52 children can be accommodated: 16 in its Emergency Shelter, and 36 in six beautifully-furnished, ranch-style group homes.
The Children’s Village provides a safe, loving home for children aged 5 to 21 who are not able to safely live with their families. The Emergency Shelter is open 24/7 to offer a short-term, safe, loving placement to children, aged birth to 12, who have been a victim of abuse, neglect, or abandonment; children are placed here by State protective investigators, often in the middle of the night, or by parents and family members who themselves are in crisis.
Each of the group homes in the Village has six bedrooms and six-and-a-half baths, so that each child has his or her own private bedroom and bath. The children are encouraged to decorate their rooms so they feel “at home.” Loving house parents are in the home 24 hours a day and act as parents – preparing meals, driving the children to school (they attend 17 different schools!) and activities, arranging for doctor appointments and visits with friends and family, doing homework, and going on outings. Homework tutors are available as well.
After dinner, the children do their chores and homework and have time to relax. The children receive a weekly allowance based on their age. They have their own private therapist; group therapy and independent living classes are also offered. They can participate in activities in the community, if they choose. There are piano and guitar lessons, as well as cultural activities, such as theater and concerts. Older teens may work part time in local area businesses and will learn to drive at 18. College and vocational planning starts at age 13, to ensure that each child has every opportunity for a successful future.
Children as young as five may reside at the Village until the age of 21, while they attend college, work part-time, and participate in therapy. JAFCO will support them until the age of 24 if they are in college, drug-free, and leading a healthy lifestyle. It even helps them move into an apartment or college dorm and prepares them for independent living. When we toured one of the group homes, the children were at school, unlike in the Emergency Shelter, where a few toddlers were enjoying a video.
“What our children get when they are here is just like an extension of family; we are their family: their aunts, uncles, and grandparents,” says Ms. Sachs. “The children come to us with a lot of trauma and pain. They look very broken, very sad, and need a lot of help when they arrive. It is our job to help them get through that to a place where they can rebuild their own self-worth and their identity. That is done with a lot of support. It is not an easy path. We work on positive reinforcement. We are a corrective experience here; everything is earned. We try to create the most typical kind of life, given the challenges the children face.”
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Before beginning the first-Wednesday-of-the-month tour I took in February of JAFCO’s glatt kosher campus, our group watched a moving video, called “Words from the Heart,” in which some children from across the Jewish spectrum and beyond were featured. They shared some of the circumstances that brought them to JAFCO and how the private, non-denominational, non-profit organization saved them in their time of need.
The video opened with a young boy, a child of JAFCO, who revealed:
At night, every time I look at the moon, I wonder where my mom is. I know every time when I look up at the moon, she’s looking at the moon, too, so we’re not that far away from each other. I hope my reflection of love goes onto you, and your reflection of love goes onto me. I know I cannot be with my mom; she needs to get better and I hope she does, and that’s what I would love.
Another child explained,
My dad sold drugs; my mother used them. Once I turned 5, my mom wanted to put me up for adoption. Once I was at JAFCO, they put me right away into a loving family. Basically, they are helping me with college now, too. I’m getting a lot of financial aid through JAFCO and JAFCO has just been there through thick and thin. It’s been there for me 24/7, whenever you need them...there are on-call beepers, when you need to get in touch with them you can, without a problem.
Yet another child shared,
My mom and dad got divorced when I was about four, and about four years later my mom died from a heart attack, and I didn’t know what I was going to do…. JAFCO helped me; they solved my problems. They talked with me, they listened to me, and gave me a lot of loving care.
One of the most poignant segments of the video showed a 13-year-old boy at his bar mitzva held up high on a chair, as his adopted and extended JAFCO family danced joyously around him.
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Over 1,000 children have found safe shelter at the Jewish Children’s Village since it opened 13 years ago, and over 5,000 children have benefited from JAFCO services. In 2014, JAFCO expanded its mission and services to meet the needs of all developmentally disabled children in the Jewish community – including those with autism, intellectual disabilities, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and Prader-Willi syndrome. This division of JAFCO is housed in a beautiful, new state-of-the-art Children’s Ability Center on a separate campus nearby. It offers family support, child enrichment, and respite care. That same year, in its first expansion effort beyond Florida, JAFCO opened JAFCO Northeast Communities office in Philadelphia, beginning with only two staff members. It currently serves the Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey communities, and can provide foster care services in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The JAFCO Jewish Children’s Village and the Children’s Ability Center are the only centers of their kind in the U.S. Jewish community. The organization owes its growth and success to the dedication of many JAFCO volunteers, the generosity of philanthropic supporters, and the private fundraising events that supplement funding provided by the State of Florida. Today, the staff has grown to 100, with an annual operational budget of over $7 million.
Aside from referrals from the police, courts, or State agencies, JAFCO, unlike most child welfare agencies, also gets private referrals from rabbis, grandparents, family members, and the individuals themselves.
“When families come into contact with us, our first goal is to keep the family together,” explained Ms. Sachs. “Our social workers provide support in the home, whether for concrete needs, parenting skills, or help in employment. Once we learn that that family is not doing well together and it is not safe for the children, we work with our partners in the community and in the system. The case is discussed together with the court over a long period of time; children are not abruptly removed from their home. When they are removed, these children go to JAFCO.”
The family then has 90 days or up to a year to get in compliance: i.e., to enroll in a substance abuse program or parenting skills workshop, or create a suitable environment for the child. If those things are done, the team makes recommendations to the court, and the judge decides whether the child will be returned to their custody or the parents’ rights terminated. Because JAFCO does supervised visitations, it is able to weigh in, and its opinions are highly respected.
In addition to providing shelter, JAFCO is committed to providing foster care and adoptive services for its children. If a foster placement is possible, a family member or close community friend is the first choice. Married couples or single individuals interested in foster care and/or adoption must first complete an eight-week pre-service training program offered by JAFCO, followed by a complete background investigation, including a physical and psychological evaluation. Although JAFCO children can be adopted by non-Floridians, foster care homes must be located within 30 miles from the birth mother. When foster care or adoption is not possible, the child typically goes to JAFCO’s Emergency Shelter. Although they are there for short-term care, sometimes, when there are sibling groups or hard-to-place children, children may unfortunately be there for an extended period of time.
My tour of the JAFCO campus and meeting just a few of their cordial staff members and volunteers was an emotional, eye-opening, bittersweet experience. It is sad that there is a need for these services in our greater Jewish community, but it is comforting to know that there is a beautiful, warm, loving safe haven for these children until they are placed in a suitable foster or adoptive home. Actually, the care and concern that JAFCO has for its children doesn’t end there. Many a chassan and kallah have walked down to their chupah accompanied by their extended JAFCO family!
To learn more about JAFCO, visit www.jafco.org or call its Florida office toll-free, 866-JAFCO-KIDS ,or its Philadelphia office, 610-525-1040). JAFCO is a licensed adoption agency. If you are interested in adoption, or have a child you wish to place for adoption, email JAFCO’s Adoption Specialist, Rebecca Salus: Rebecca@jafco.org.