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.
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
was 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
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
Here is a video of another travesty that befell an American family. Ultimately
Click here for the draft copy of the Bill