‘Heart-wrenching’: as Hong Kong loses foster parents to ageing and emigration wave, at-risk children lack family support

  • Social Welfare Department says 7.4 per cent of foster homes left the service in 2022, while 306 youth were awaiting foster care as of October
  • City’s social workers urge more people to help care for these vulnerable children, many of whom have left challenging environments such as domestic violence or drug abuse
Sue Ng |

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As of September, Hong Kong had 874 children in foster homes, but many are still awaiting foster care service. Photo: Hong Kong Family Welfare Society

As a young child, Gigi* had a vague awareness that the parents who raised her were not her biological relatives. She called her foster mother “Fei EE”, and every Saturday, she would visit her birth parents.

It was only in primary school that she learned she had been placed in residential family care soon after birth. But having grown up with three other members in her foster family, the 27-year-old didn’t feel like she received less love than anyone else.

“Apart from not living with my birth parents, I felt no difference [from other children]. Instead, I feel like I have one more father and mother,” said Gigi, whose foster family encouraged her to regularly visit her biological parents.

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Even after foster care service ended when Gigi turned 18, the family still let her stay, as they worried she would struggle on her own.

Fei EE had even prepared gold accessories for Gigi’s future trousseau before passing away in 2020.

“They took care of me as if I was their daughter ... I learned most life skills from them, like discipline and manners, which shaped who I am today,” said Gigi who is now an office clerk. “They are like my own family. I cannot imagine what my life would be if I was not in foster care.”

Not enough foster care families in Hong Kong

Of the 10 residential childcare services under the Social Welfare Department, foster care is the only one that provides family care to under-18 children whose parents cannot care for them due to special family circumstances.

Foster parents look after these children until they can return to their birth home, be adopted by a new family, or live independently.

As of September, Hong Kong had 956 foster households and 874 foster children in placement. Often, it takes time for social workers to match these youngsters with homes. Still, as of October, 306 youth were awaiting foster care service.

Children awaiting foster care placements are often put in childcare centres. Photo: Shutterstock

However, the city has recently seen more foster families quit because of old age, and the emigration wave has worsened the situation.

“The number of foster families who ceased the service in 2022 accounted for about 7.4 per cent of total foster homes,” the department told Young Post, noting that it was a slight increase of 2.9 per cent from 2021 figures.

Some of the city’s 11 foster care agencies expressed concern over this drop.

Last month, Hong Kong Christian Service (HKCS), which coordinates about 20 per cent of the city’s residential family care services, released survey results warning that the coming years could see even bigger losses in the city’s foster homes.

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Conducted between April and June, the study found that 18.5 per cent of HKCS’s 118 foster families said they would leave the service in three years. Reasons included health issues, emigration and stress due to childcare.

The foster care service at Hong Kong Family Welfare Society (HKFWS) also saw a 10 per cent decrease in the number of its foster families, said senior manager Ada Luk Yuet-wai. “This year, the trend is more obvious with more people leaving the city.”

“Since over 90 per cent of our foster parents are 50 years old or above, they are getting older and have poorer physical conditions,” Luk said.

‘The most vulnerable in society’

“The decrease in foster homes means we can help fewer children,” said Luk, who has been working with Hong Kong families and children for more than 20 years.

The social worker stressed the importance of foster care: “[Foster children] are probably the most vulnerable in society ... They come across challenging environments, such as domestic violence or drug abuse ... which may cause some of them to have developmental delays.”

Among HKFWS’s 176 foster children, more than 65 per cent were aged below nine while 40 per cent had special educational needs.

Hong Kong Family Welfare Society is one of the 11 foster care agencies in the city. Photo: Handout

Even though children waiting for suitable foster homes are placed in childcare centres, Luk noted that group living settings were not ideal for young children.

“Residential family care is indispensable, especially for younger children, as they are at the age of attachment that requires a stable carer,” said the social worker.

“We believe that the function of the family cannot be replaced ... In foster care, children stay in a typical family with not just the main carers but [they] grow up with the sons and daughters in the family. It gives them a sense of security and further helps with their developmental needs.”

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Lin*, 61, followed her sister in becoming a foster parent 25 years ago and has since cared for 12 children with diverse needs, such as intellectual disabilities and visual impairments. “My family was very supportive of my decision as they also agreed it [foster care] is meaningful to help these unfortunate children,” said the housewife.

Despite having raised two of her own children, Lin still found fostering stressful at times because the youngsters might require extra care and attention.

She recalled looking after a five-year-old girl with a burn injury for two years.

Lin (right) has fostered 12 children with diverse needs. Photo: Handout

“Whenever I cleaned her wounds, I was so nervous and worried that I might do something wrong ... I feel a heavier commitment when mothering foster children as I have to be responsible to [their biological parents].”

Over the years, Lin has kept in touch with some of her former foster children. Currently, she is taking care of a six-year-old girl with an intellectual disability who came to her home when she was just six months old.

“The biggest reward as a foster mother is to see their improvement – learning something new and growing bigger every day ... I will continue being a foster mum until the day that my body cannot handle it,” said Lin.

Support needed to sustain these services

As committed foster parents age, foster care in Hong Kong faces a problem with succession because there are not enough young parents joining.

Carrie Kong, chief supervisor of HKCS’s foster care services, worried about how the agency would sustain its work. Currently, less than 20 per cent of foster parents in HKCS are aged below 50. “If we see someone in their 30s apply for the service, we feel encouraged,” said Kong.

The supervisor urged the government to help sustain the city’s foster care services by improving community support and raising the allowances given to foster homes.

At present, foster parents receive a monthly maintenance grant of HK$6,530 for each child they take care of, as well as a monthly incentive payment of HK$4,898. If they are looking after children with special needs or those under the age of three, they are given additional payments.

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However, Kong stressed that this amount was not sufficient to cover tuition fees, extracurricular activities and medical expenses, and many foster parents often paid for these costs themselves. Increased subsidies would encourage more parents to join the services while also improving foster children’s development.

While potential foster parents should have experience in childcare and adequate living space, Kong shared that a fondness for children was of the utmost importance.

“Some young couples can also consider applying to be relief house parents, helping foster parents take care of children on the weekends,” she said.

“It is heart-wrenching and frustrating to see children in need that fail to be placed in a home ... Those kids are here in our society, and they need care from a family.”

*Full names withheld at interviewees’ request

Learn more about Hong Kong’s foster care services here.

Get the word out

Trousseau 嫁妝

an outfit of clothing for a bride

Vulnerable 脆弱的

(of a person or population) needing supportive or protective social services and community resources because of advanced age, poverty, disability. etc

Indispensable 必需的

absolutely necessary, essential, or requisite

Attachment 依戀

an emotional bond between an infant or toddler and primary caregiver

Intellectual 智力的

possessing or showing intellect or mental capacity

Succession 接任

a number of persons or things following one another in order or sequence

Heart-wrenching 令人心痛的

causing or involving great sadness or distress; heartbreaking

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