Hong Kong foster system ‘on brink of collapse’

Number of children needing temporary homes being inflated by drugs, mental health problems and broken-down relationships, say carers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2016, 1:38am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2016, 1:38am

Hong Kong’s foster care system is on the brink of collapse as the number of children from broken homes outstrips the number foster families willing to take them in, according to carers.

Social workers and carers responsible for placing children in safe and secure homes said this mismatch is stretching the system to the limit.

Failed relationships, a rise in mental health problems and drug abuse among poor Hong Kong families are key factors blamed for the rising demand.

“We need to increase the number of foster families or the whole system will collapse,” said Londy Chan Choi-lin, director of foster care agency St Christopher’s Home, who has been rehoming children for over ten years.

Finding children temporary homes has always been difficult in this densely populated city. But the problem is getting worse, as children need longer stays away from home than before. This creates “jams” in a system that has not been reformed since 1995.

Chan described how the system has turned on its head in the ten years since she started.

“For every one child, there used to be three families,” she said. “Now, for every three children, there is one family.” The lack of options means the number of times a child will have be moved because of a “poor fit” increases.

This piles further harm onto children who have already been through considerable hardship and emotional or physical abandonment, exacerbating the developmental problems and behavioural issues that come with growing up in a state of neglect.

“If we don’t find them adequate families they will have to go into institutions, and we all know that is not a good option for children,” said Chan.

“This problem will carry on into the next generation, and the one after that … and the whole society will bear the cost.”

Traumatised children requiring protection from abusive family situations are jamming the most urgent entry point into the system, with 213 children admitted into emergency placements at the end of 2015, staying far longer than they are supposed to as social workers struggle to find more long-term fits.

An estimated 3,500 children are in full-time residential care in Hong Kong at any given moment, according to the CEO of Mother’s Choice, one of the main foster and adoption agencies, though hundreds more are on waiting lists, forcing many to withdraw applications.

“Residential care is meant to be temporary yet children end up staying in care for years,” CEO Alia Eyres said, adding that the consequences of aging out of the system were “significant”.

“These children are more likely to suffer from long-term developmental delay, have emotional and behavioural issues and substance abuse, drop out of school and if they’re a girl. The chances are great for a crisis pregnancy”.

According to the Social Welfare Department, 936 children were in foster care at the end of 2015. It reported a monthly average waiting list of 21 children seeking foster care between April and December last year.

The department could not give comparative figures from the previous decade and would not comment on claims that the system was in crisis.

Fostering is the service usually extended to children below the age of ten requiring a temporary home. Children above that age are most likely to go to group homes.

Small group homes are estimated to have an average waiting list of about 300 to 400, according to unofficial estimates. Government figures put the average wait list for all residential childcare services at 397 at the end of 2015.

Families going through difficulties need better support to offset the number of breakdowns and vulnerable children, said Dr Mooly Wong Mei-Ching of Chinese University’s Department of Social Work.