The long way home
Left in institutional limbo, some children wait years to find the joys of family life, writes Katie Lau
Patrick Chi-chung Hekman's story is something of a marvel to social workers who worked on his case. Patrick was 13 before he was adopted and given a new life in Michigan - unusually old for adoption because older children are less likely to be embraced by another family.
Now in senior high school, living an all-American life, he is relishing having a family, being a brother to two younger sisters and having a mother tell him what to do.
'A family was always what I wanted and being adopted is the best thing that could have happened to me,' says Patrick, who is in Hong Kong to attend a mentor's wedding.
But Patrick wasn't an orphan, although he lived in a children's home for eight years from the age of five. He is among those youngsters left in limbo by parents who put them in care for various reasons. Some placements are temporary while the adults resolve personal problems, but dilemmas arise when they dither over giving up parental rights - for 11 years in one case.
The Social Welfare Department funds more than 100 residential care centres, including nurseries, reception, small-group and children's homes, for youngsters whose families are unable to look after them.
'These children can be found anywhere, depending on their age and needs, because they move from one home to another as they grow up,' says Chris Wong Sum-yee, of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. Run by non-government groups, the homes accommodate more than 3,300 children - full capacity, according to Wong.
Under Hong Kong law, children up to the age of 18 can be put up for adoption. Those over three tend to encounter more difficulties with local adoptions, which are handled by the Social Welfare Department. That's why older children may be put up for overseas adoption, which are co-ordinated by two charities, Mother's Choice and International Social Service (ISS).
If the parents' decision to give up a child is made too late, it can jeopardise the youngster's chances of finding happiness with another family. 'We're not encouraging them to give up their child, but it's in the youngster's interest if they decide as early as possible,' says Cho Wing-chong, supervisor of adoption at Mother's Choice.
'The older they get, the harder it is for them to win acceptance as a member of another family,' says Grace Ma Pang Yim-wan, director of inter-country adoption for ISS's Hong Kong branch.
'It also takes an extraordinary amount of courage for the child to adjust to a change as radical as living in a foreign country,' says Cho.
Estimates of the number of children caught in limbo are difficult because government figures don't take the waiting period into consideration. 'Statistics don't reveal the circumstances that led to children being placed in foster homes and what they went through before being adopted,' says Loletta Lo Yin-fun, a senior social work officer with the Social Welfare Department.
Patrick, who turns 18 in November, hasn't lost the toothy grin displayed in a photograph taken when he was eight, pinned up at the Mother's Choice office along with those of other adopted children.
His cheerful smile reflects a positive and forward-looking attitude. Although he can't remember his birth parents, Patrick has learned not to dwell on past unhappiness.
'I've asked myself what happened,' he says. 'Sure I felt alone, especially at Christmas,
when I was the only kid in my room.' But he's mature now, he says, and knows how to discard unhappy thoughts.
Still, he has fond memories of weekend visits to his Hong Kong grandparents' house. 'I'd sleep between them on the bed. The bathroom and kitchen were connected and I used to sit on the toilet to watch my grandmother cook,' he recalls.
In learning to fit into his American family, Patrick says the hardest part is building trust with his adoptive parents. 'It's a big thing. I have to muster up the courage to start the conversation,' he says. 'It's a combined effort and we're both willing to jump out there.'
Children who have had a rootless life are often unable to feel wanted. 'They usually have attachment issues and it's hard for them to trust people and build relationships,' says Cho.
Perhaps the most extreme example Cho encountered was a baby girl left in a home when her parents separated. Despite promising social workers to visit their daughter weekly, they never did. Yet they didn't give her up until she was 11. She was adopted by an American family two years ago.
Even so, social workers say each case is different and parents aren't necessarily to blame. It's natural for parents to take time deliberating whether to sign the papers giving up their child, Lo says.
'The decision isn't simple,' she says. 'Some parents place their children with others because they hope to sort out their problems first, be it relationship disputes, illness or financial difficulties. 'As long as they express a wish to keep their child and show that they care, we must do our best to help them.'
The child's welfare is a primary concern, but 'we have to strike a balance between what's best for the parents and for the child because parental rights are human rights as well', says Lo.
Conservative values may contribute to parents' hesitation about agreeing to adoption. 'There's the worry that you might be seen as being heartless. It's important to understand these parents' needs and provide advice and support ... adoption only applies when there's no better alternative,' says Cho.
'Hopefully, the emotional void left by the absence of parents can be filled by the family adopting them.'
In Patrick's case, the reasons for his birth parents' abandonment remain a mystery, but he's grateful for the choice they made.
'I'm not sure if what they did was right, but it's a piece of a puzzle that makes this beautiful picture, which is my life now,' he says. 'I've never felt hatred or frustration for my birth parents; I just don't know them enough. I'd like to think of them as friends. If I ever see them, I'd say, 'Thank you for deciding to have me'.'