Make yourself at home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am


Leung Yuk-yin had enrolled her son in kindergarten in the early 1990s when she saw a television commercial calling for people to sign on as foster families. The recruitment drive rolled out at just the right time. Her boy was settling in nicely in the nursery, so the housewife from Tuen Mun suddenly found herself with time to spare.

'I like babies, and I enjoy the feeling of being a mother, so I made the call and got started,' she says.

Leung, who has taken 14 children under her wing over the past two decades, finds the effort fulfilling even if it's still something of a wrench when they have to leave her nest.

'In the beginning I didn't know how to handle that, and I missed the child badly. But now I have learned to adjust,' says Leung. 'When a child leaves, I give myself a week to feel sad and worry. I still cry, but after that I tell myself to move on and do something to cheer myself up.'

Still, she stays in touch with many of her former charges. A visit to the home of a little girl she fostered for almost two years was especially memorable. The taciturn birth father left the flat abruptly and came back with a bouquet of roses to express his gratitude.

'These experiences keep me going,' says Leung. 'I want to do something meaningful, and take care of children who are in need of help.'

According to the Hong Kong Social Welfare Department, Leung's family is among 966 households in Hong Kong providing children with shelter and support while they await adoption or while their birth families are unable to care for them properly.

But the city still faces a shortage of foster parents - government statistics show there are about 200 children at present awaiting foster homes. Non-profit group Mother's Choice estimates that most face an average wait of about two months, during which the children are placed in children's or emergency homes or remain with troubled birth families.

Welfare groups are finding it difficult to sign up appropriate foster families, partly because of the increasingly complex nature of family problems. Providing a good home is not always enough. Recruits must not only care for the child, but also deal with problems that have their origins with their birth families.

'In the past, the reasons [for families seeking foster care services] were relatively simple,' says Peggy Lee Pui-chun, a social worker with Mother's Choice, a community association that provides support to children and women needing help because of unintended pregnancy or domestic conflict.

'It was often because a family member fell sick or parents divorced, leaving the child with inadequate care. Nowadays, the problems are more diverse. For instance, some parents are drug abusers or teenage parents who are relatively immature and can't handle their own problems. Their motivation as parents is also significantly lower.'

Leung concedes that dealing with a foster child's parents is sometimes the hardest part of the process. Young mothers often call her for advice on matters which range from romance to housekeeping.

'Sometimes, I feel that I not only have to take care of the child, but also counsel the mother. It's like taking care of the child's whole family,' says the foster parent.

'Where possible, I treat birth parents as friends. But some foster parents may not want to do that.'

Fostered children may also be emotionally troubled. Some seek attention by challenging authority, others bottle up their pain and present a silent mask. Infants may act up in response to a sudden change in their environment by refusing to eat.

'We keep hugging and comforting them, and telling them that it is a safe here,' Leung says. 'But you can't force older kids to communicate. You have to wait until they are willing to open up on their own.'

Because she loves babies, Leung initially decided to take in very young children. But she began to rethink her role as a foster parent after her mother and father died within a few years of each other.

'I was already a grown-up but the pain of loss was still immense,' she says. 'So I wondered how children who were being separated from their parents felt. It must be a lot more difficult for them.'

Since then, Leung has fostered children from a variety of backgrounds. Some suffer from developmental problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. Leung has also cared for the children of drug abusers and lawbreakers.

The support of her husband, who didn't want his name used, has been critical. Although he is away most of the day, he helps with household chores and oversees the child's homework when he comes home. 'I also listen to my wife's complaints,' he quips. 'There are good and bad times. Fostering a child requires the family to work together.'

Fostering can be draining emotionally and physically. Some families only begin to realise the magnitude of their task after an initial honeymoon period.

'In the beginning, things often work okay,' says Lee, of Mother's Choice. 'But after a while, some family members may find that fostering a child is not what they expected. There are times when family members can no longer accept the situation and the placement has to be terminated prematurely.'

Disagreements between couples over how to raise foster children can lead to difficulties. Other problems can include adolescence. When a youngster reaches adolescence, he or she may become difficult and some foster parents may find that hard to handle.

In Britain, foster families may be paid a substantial subsidy, social workers say. But foster parents in Hong Kong are more like volunteers, although they receive about HK$3,000 to cover a child's monthly expenses. The time that a youngster spends with a foster family varies considerably. Social workers will meet to review individual circumstances from time to time.

The current emphasis in foster care here is on providing the best care and service for the child. Yet foster parents may face their own difficulties with parenting issues or adapting to a different lifestyle, says Dr Lau Yuk-king, a professional consultant in the Chinese University's social work department.

'There's a misconception that foster parents are super-parents,' Lau says. 'In fact, many foster parents find themselves in a difficult situation after taking in a child. They don't have the authority of birth parents, but they must shoulder parental responsibilities.'

That's why foster families should receive more professional support and training. Issues include how to deal with a youngster's emotional swings, or learning to let go. No matter how much you love the children, they will eventually return to their birth parents or be adopted by another family, Lau says.

'Fostering is more than just a job. It is about building relationships. You need to put your heart and emotions into it while anticipating separation,' she says. Lau also contends the fostering system could be more effective if channels were built in for more communication between foster and birth families.

'Social workers and foster parents often see the birth parents as incompetent, and there's little link and collaboration between the two families,' she says. 'This mentality only reinforces the birth parents' negative image of themselves as incapable mothers and fathers.'

Instead, foster families can be encouraged to seek advice from birth parents, whose experience could help them better understand the child. At the same time, foster parents can act as facilitators to help birth parents rebuild their relationship with their child. Foster parents can also teach them better parenting skills.

Some couples in Hong Kong may hesitate to become foster parents because of deep-rooted cultural issues. The notion is a radical departure from the traditional Chinese concept of 'raising children to have support in old age'.

'It could be difficult for some people to accept that after spending so much time and effort on a child, in the end he would leave you,' says housewife Zoe Lai. She and her husband, retired civil servant Peter Mann, decided to foster a child when they discovered they could not have children of their own.

'Fostering makes me feel as if I was having a child, and this in a sense fulfils our wish of being parents. Also during the process we can give something back,' says Lai.

When the couple took in a five-year-old boy about four years ago, they radically altered their lifestyle to cater to his needs. They were enthusiastic travellers, but they settled down to become devoted parents. They even moved house so that the child could live in a better school district. 'Generally speaking, adoption is more for the parents, but fostering is more for the well-being of the child,' says Mann.

The boy bonded quickly with the couple. He went to Lai shortly after his arrival and asked her to be his mother. 'You could sense his yearning for a home and parents,' Lai recalls. 'He asked me to become his mama, and you could see the pain in his eyes, which had a maturity well beyond his age.'

Mann fondly recalls Sunday mornings when he would take the boy to a neighbourhood park. He would read the paper while the child played. 'Nothing can compare to the joy you can get from a child,' he says.

But within a couple of years, they learned that he would be returning to his birth family, whose circumstances were on the mend.

The couple spent almost a year after they received the news preparing themselves and the child for the separation.

'Bit by bit, we let the child realise that he would be leaving. It was a team effort, involving everyone in the house, the social worker and staff at the Social Welfare Department,' Lai says. 'I have done my part, and the child must enter a new stage that is beneficial to his life. It's sad, but it is also the best arrangement within the circumstances.'

Their foster child was reunited with his birth family last summer.

'We still miss him, but you gain consolation in the fact that he is happy,' Mann says. 'We have had the opportunity to meet him a couple of times since he left us, and we can see that he's happy. Fostering is more for the child, not for us.'

Showing you care

The Central Foster Care Unit of the Social Welfare Department has many criteria for ideal foster parents:

- The couple should be 25 years old or above. They should be in good health. One of the parents should be a full-time carer at home. The couple should preferably have a stable lifestyle, an adequate and safe living space, and be educated to primary school level.

- Foster parents receive HK$3,074 as monthly allowance for the child's expenses, in addition to a one-off grant of HK$1,516 when taking in a child.

- There are 11 non-governmental organisations, such as Mother's Choice, the Hong Kong Christian Service and the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society, that supervise foster projects in collaboration with the Social Welfare Department.

- Social workers welcome applications from couples even if they do not meet all the requirements as long as they are fond of children and are able to care for a youngster. Having a full-time foster parent at home to look after the child is one of the more important considerations. Couples interested in becoming foster parents can contact the unit at 2573 2282.