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An interfaith effort to protect foster care children

14 December 2011 General 10 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

Abdulrahman, born in 2004 to Muslim parents. When the state placed him with a non Muslim family, the child's faith and name were changed without permission from the birth parents. Even visits to religion services were not permitted.

Abdulrahman, born in 2004 to Muslim parents. When the state placed him with a non Muslim family, the child's faith and name were changed without permission from the birth parents. Even visits to religion services were not permitted.

By Dr. Aref Assaf/ NJ Voices

Can the State force the change of a child’s religion? An opinion piece I wrote on the relevance of the religious dimension of foster care children has formed the foundation for an important legislation in New Jersey. The columnwas the result of a painful interview I had with the parent of a Muslim child who tearfully related the details of how his son, after being placed with a Christian family, had his faith changed and his name was no longer ‘Abdulrahman” but “Joshua.” Even before the father lost his parental rights, the conversion process was fully underway despite the stern objection of the birth parents.

That such a conversion of child’s faith would occur under the watchful eyes of the state is a case of deliberate negligence at minimum. Delving further, I discovered that our current laws give no credence to the pivotal role of religion in a child self-identification and sense of self worth. The State has in effect become complicit in furthering the trauma and anxiety of children under its care.
The piece argued that the foster care laws were either misunderstood or misapplied. I argued that a “change to New Jersey laws, we hope, will affirm rather than abrogate the duty of parents to choose and maintain the faith of their biological children because such a right is a natural one superseding those of the state. We should no longer accept the religious preference to be the right of the child only because children are inherently dependent on their parents for physical, moral, and spiritual fulfillment.”
I spared no effort to plead my case to those who cared to listen.

It was the good will of Imam Mohammad Qatanani, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, which led to a most fruitful relationship with Assemblyman Gary Schaer from Passaic (D-36). Asm. Schaer and I held many and long discussions (and with the support of our staff). The collaboration culminated in the drafting of legislation, (A-4354) which, if passed, will provide a foundational legal precedent that ensures the continuity of the child’s religious traditions. The bill will “permit agencies and courts to place a child in a setting of a different religion only with a written statement from the child birth parent or legal guardian.”

Before our Governor Christie can sign a bill into law, it will require the approval of both chambers of NJ Legislature. The Assembly Bill will soon have companion bill in the NJ Senate. We are thrilled that Senator Tony Bucco (R-25) has formally agreed to act as the key sponsor of a similar bill early next year to coincide with the new session of the Senate. We also know that other Assemblymen and Senators have expressed their readiness to sponsor and vote for the bill when introduced.

It is worth noting that a prominent Jewish agency, Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, Inc, that helps children has also come aboard to support the effort. Several other ethnic and religious groups have joined our efforts as well. The legislation is, after all, faith-neutral and it will protect children of all faiths. From the start, CAIR NJ, the Council on American Islamic Affairs was a formidable supporter of the initiative.

The expected law will not be retroactive and thus it will not help the child whose fate has so touched me. It will, I hope, prevent other children and their parents form enduring such pain.

The significance of all these efforts is not lost on me escpaillcy during this holiday season. Here you have elected politicians from both major parties lending their heartfelt support for amending the current laws to benefit all citizens. Here you have a Muslim reaching out to a Jew, and so passionately supported by a Christian and people from other faiths- but all are citizens of the United States, joining hands to lessen the trauma wrought upon our little citizens. These moments sustain my faith in America and its ability to refocus its moral compass when injustice is rendered.

Dr. Aref Assaf is President of American Forum and an Advisory Board Member of The Council on American Islamic Relations, NJ. Reach him at

Original post: An interfaith effort to protect foster care children


  1. What?? You think this is a great bill? Do you know what life is like for a child in long term care who cannot get foster parents because of some rule? They move from group home to group home as age and time limits of stay are exceeded. When they cannot get into a group home they are sent to a Psychiatric hospital or anyplace that has a bed for them to sleep in. There is no continuity of care and no fixed adult they can cling to for any length of time. This happens because the Social worker has to place them somewhere or take them home themselves so they will look to any placement to keep their caseloads under control and their own home empty.

    Leave the system alone for the children whose parents have lost all custodial rights, the people that foster these children usually adopt them as they become Foster/Adoptable and have the same rights as any biological parent. The laws may vary in state to state but for children who are short term care the Foster Parents must consider the child’s religion and allow him or her to attend the church of their belief if they go to church at all.

    If you’re going to go down this road just set up a priority that children are placed with people with like minded religious preferences first if they are available, if none are let them have a home. I realize your intentions are good in regards to placement or religious preference but you have not looked at the consequences of your actions. Just remember the odds of these children getting any religious training while in group homes is small simply because the children enter a survival mode bonding with other children rather than adults (though they will seek their attention.)So they will not go to church or they will go but their motivations will be outside of religious learning. In addition they will have no adult to discuss their questions with as the workers in the group home or shelter will not be able to council them on religious questions.

    Note: for people that do not believe the child will be sent to a
    Psychiatric or children’s hospital it is easily justified as these children are frequently depressed and exhibit behavior problems. Of course they have been removed from their family so this is expected but it still serves as an excuse to send them if no other placement is available and thus before you know it the child is getting therapy and placed on drugs to control depression, aggression, ADHD or all three.

  2. Here is a sweet story about a 12 year old boy who was placed in a group home from the time he was born. The care was great and he bonded well with the child care workers as there is very little turnover in this religious run staff. The trouble is the boy turned 12 and the home only works with Birth to 11. He thought the rules would not apply to him because the workers there loved him and he would get to stay. Instead on the day after his birthday he was brought to a children’s emergency shelter I was running and he was devastated, he did not understand what had happened to him. For some reason the social worker was not prepared and the boy did not have a placement which is why he ended up in an emergency shelter. He still did not have a placement after his 15 day limit at my shelter so he went to a shelter about 30 miles away that had 10 day placements. I kept up with him as he broke my heart and he ended up in a children’s hospital but later got a bed in a facility he could stay for a year as their facility worked with troubled children. I lost track of him after that. Just note he was not a troubled child before his eviction at 12 he just became one due to treatment and the necessity of finding him a place to stay.

  3. The whole system needs overhauling, and the religious background of a two-year-old is a low priority. Perhaps the Muslim communities could work with the state to train Muslim parents in foster care.

  4. If a child has been put up for adoption to the State — whatever the reason — the birth/biological parents generally lose their rights to determine the name, religion of the child, or who the parents can be. There is nothing particularly discriminatory or wrong about that. If the State allows for the parents to make certain conditions, then that should be allowed assuming there are parents willing to receive the child in a timely manner. I don’t see why this is particularly an issue that impacts only Muslims or is harmful for the child whose parents have given him up for adoption. Maybe I’m mistaken, I don’t know. But in the past these kinds of added requests from the biological parents would not have been permitted. Times do change, but if the child has been placed in a loving home, irrespective of his name change or religious conversion, it would be far more damaging psychologically to remove that child from the foster parents both for the child and the foster parents and family. That has to been considered.

  5. I think that if a person isn’t willing to respect the religious identity of a child, then they shouldn’t be foster parents. If you are fostering, your goal shouldn’t be to convert them to your preferred religion. Your goal should be to help a child maintain some sense of normality until they are returned to their family–because that is SUPPOSEDLY the state’s goal for every child, whenever possible.

  6. Well, simply the fact that they forced the child to convert AND change his name is completely wrong. Granted, parents have limited rights when they lose their children, but FOSTER parents, the same people who are part of that same system that raises children to be broken and hurt adults, should have even LESS rights than parents. This isn’t a matter of religion, it’s a matter of self-determination, and these particular foster parents conveniently forgot that children have rights as well, and shouldn’t be allowed the powers of CHANGING that person’s life and destroying his identity!

  7. Ms. Miles, I do agree with you, we need more foster parents but I would hope Muslim Foster parents would agree to take children other than just Muslim. The current system is so abusive even though it is not meant to be so and has many good people working within it.

    Ms. Alshamsa, for children in limited foster care that are to be returned to their families their religious preferences must be respected. For children in long term care that are not being adopted their religious preferences must be respected. Once a child is Foster Adoptable and is placed in a home that is adopting them then the Foster parents have more say in the child’s religious activities.

  8. I don’t think it should be an issue if the foster parents are of a different religion. However, if this report is true and the boy was not allowed to attend a Muslim facility, then THAT should be a concern.

  9. I agree, the ENTIRE system needs rehauling, however, as a Muslim convert who is also a foster parent,I would prefer the safety and security of the child be paramount, and when possible, the religion of the child be considered. There are not a lot of muslim foster parents available. I do not think changing a child’s name until custody is granted is acceptable.

    Also, basic respect of other religions is needed. I had a 14 year old muslim foster daughter who came to live with me because her christian foster parents (who treated her great BTW) insisted she attend her church. She offered to wait in the car, do homework, etc. But despite the mutual affection, they would not accept her belief or consider mediation. We need to keep kids safe and we need respect for kids’ belief systems, especially when they are older.

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