City Weekend

Hong Kong ‘orphans’ face a lonely life in homes of heartbreak

Most ‘orphans’ in the city have at least one living parent, but they cannot care for their children because they face poverty, marital strife or drugs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 December, 2016, 11:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 December, 2016, 11:02am

About 85 per cent of Hong Kong’s “orphans” have at least one living parent, and yet they live in institutions.

The living room is cozy and peaceful. On the dinner table, steam rises from eight bowls of food, filling the air with a tempting smell. On the couch, children chat and watch television, just like they would in an ordinary home.

But 10-year-old Alex and his “brothers” and “sisters” don’t live in an ordinary home. Mistakenly referred to as orphans, these primary school pupils are the latest victims of the city’s social problems.

Michele Chan, a social worker at St Christopher’s Home, revealed that only 15 per cent of the children currently living in institutions were parentless.

“There is no ‘pure’ orphanage in Hong Kong,” she said. “Most of the kids living in our small group homes still have families, and yet they can’t stay with their parents due to inadequate family care.”

The main family-breaking problems throwing children into the Social Welfare system are not only the growing wealth gap plaguing the city, but also drug addiction, marital conflict and abuse, according to Chan.

Marriage breakdowns involving parents from Hong Kong and the mainland are another factor. Alex’s mother, as one of 1.34 million people living below the poverty line, is not in a sound financial state, while his father is not in the picture. Chan said: “We don’t even know who he is.”

In this regard, a study by Kelvin Cheung from the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the University of Education shows that the number of single-parent families in Hong Kong has increased by 137 per cent in 20 years, from 34,538 in 1991 to 81,705 in 2011.

According to the Society for Community Organisation, which is involved with vulnerable people, one in four children lives below the poverty line and one in five does not have enough food each day.

Chan refers to the moment when children are reunited with their families as the most valuable part of her job. “No matter how loving our care may be, the best place for a child to be is with his family,” she said.

“The worst moment is when you see a child leaving our care thinking they’ll finally get to stay with their families,” Chan confessed. “And then you see him forced to come back.”

Alex said he had been in the social welfare system since he was seven, and had to think long when asked about the memory he cherishes the most.

Chan said this way of living was confusing for children below the age of 10, as they did not know “what will happen tomorrow”. For the older ones, she said, it would be tormenting and would seriously affect the development of their personality.

Alex, no different from other 10-year-old children, loves playing with Gundam robots and enjoys physical education above all other school subjects, but Chan has concerns regarding his future.

“Many of our children have special educational needs. Some of them suffer from traumas, attention deficit disorder and autism,” she said. “We don’t even have enough research being conducted to know how many of these kids end up living a good life once they leave.”

Chan said children living in residential care needed a stable and loving environment to rebuild their trust towards the adult world. “They also need education, not only through schooling but also in terms of exposure and experiences,” she said.

Alia Eyres, CEO of foster and adoption agency Mother’s Choice, said that there were currently “more than 4,000 children” living in residential care, and hundreds more on waiting lists.

“Residential care is meant to be temporary, yet children end up staying in care for years,” she said. “And the consequences of ageing out of the system are significant.”

“We need people to get involved,” Chan said, pointing out that private donations help them with the expenses which the government does not cover. “For example, we have to rely on donations to pay for the air conditioning. Summers in Hong Kong tend to get pretty hot.”

Chan said that people can volunteer by sharing their time with the children. “People can help them with their homework,” she said. “Or if they have special skills, they can teach them how to play an instrument or give them a haircut. That would be really helpful.”

The most important part of volunteering was regularity, she stressed. “It’s a psychological matter,” Chan said. “These children don’t need someone who disappears on them yet again.”

After a long pause, Alex’s eyes lit up as he recalled an occasion he cherished most. “There was one time one of my mother’s friends gave me a Gundam box,” he said. “He stayed for a bit and played with me.”

What is an economic orphan?

An “economic orphan” is a child with at least one living parent, but who is relocated to an institution because the parent is incapable of financially supporting the family. Also referred to as “left-behind” children, they represent just one part of Hong Kong’s parentless youth. Many others enter the system because of abuse, addiction or abandonment.

The city has also seen a rise in the number of mixed children being born. The father is usually a Hongkonger and the mother a Southeast Asian domestic worker, a social worker said.

Due to immigration laws, the offspring of such relationships often have no identity and are thus denied access to local health care or education.

Within the system, real orphans and economic orphans face different fates. While the former await adoption, the latter can only hope to be reunited with their birth families.

However, social workers insist there is no real difference between how the two groups are treated. The only difference, they say, is with regard to the orphans’ varied backgrounds.