"All you need is a big heart and room in your home" - Foster care in Singapore
Sometimes all a child needs is love and security. Sometimes that love and security can come from total strangers, who then become family. Read about the wonderful families that have opened up their homes and hearts.
“I could have gotten into a gang or dealt with drugs,” says 30-year old Mary*.
But she didn’t. In fact, she has gone on to become a successful financial advisor.
So, what was it that kept her off that dangerous path?
“The fact that I was taken in by a foster family,” she says without hesitation.
Mary is one of 5000 children who have been fostered across Singapore since 1956 under the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) Fostering Scheme.
Mary had to be placed in a foster home because her birth father had a mental condition which made him unable to control his temper and in addition her mother had depression. Says Mary, “Both of them at that time were unable to care for me and that was when my uncle and aunt decided to put me in the fostering scheme.”
She was just three months old then. Today, three decades later, she continues to live with her foster family – her bond with them is so strong.
For Mary, there is no doubt that had she not been placed in a foster home, her life would have been very different.
And all credit for her success, she says goes to her foster mother. According to Mary it was her foster mother who was the disciplinarian in the family. She instilled in Mary, and all other children, rules such as going to bed by nine, memorising time tables, doing their sums, making the bed or keeping their shoes in the right place.
Mary is clear that it was these habits that were instilled in her since she was a young child that have moulded her into who she is today. Over the years, she has come to share an extremely close bond with her foster mother.
Growing up differently
In the growing years though, there were some hurdles that Mary had to overcome in trying to explain her life as a foster child to classmates.
“It was quite a challenge for me to explain to my friends why my foster family is Indian and I am Chinese. My mum would wear a saree when she came to my school with a packed lunch whenever I stayed back for enrichment classes. Hence, to simplify my story without having to go through the hassle of explaining about my own natural family, I would tell my confused friends that she was my adoptive mother. It was perhaps a concept easier to understand than fostering,” she shares.
Mary has grown up with a very unique sense of family.
She grew up with five brothers and two sisters, who range between the early 30s to early 50s in age now. However, over the years, she has had more sisters and brothers to play with than she could count.
This is because her parents have been foster parents to more than 40 children.
So what is it that prompts people like Mary’s foster mother and other families to open up their homes and hearts to children who are not their own?
Creating bigger, happier and unique families
For Audrey Lourdes Thomas, it was her son Jarryll’s request for another little brother or sister with whom he could share his toys that led to her signing up for MSF’s Fostering Scheme in 2004.
Audrey would walk Jarryll to kindergarten and while waiting for him to finish his classes, would spend her time reading in the neighbourhood library. It was during one of these visits to the library when she chanced upon a brochure about the MSF Fostering Scheme.
In the eleven years since then, she and her husband have fostered 10 children.
She is currently fostering a 10-year-old boy, BJ*, who actually came to her as a tiny and premature baby. She remembers the struggle they had to feed and him and her constant worry that he was not getting enough nutrition. But other than that concern, it has all been smooth sailing.
There are of course active steps that a foster family needs to take to make children feel at home. According to Audrey, when the foster children first come to your home, they are usually wary, apprehensive and scared. She says, “So it is up to us, as adults to show them that it is safe and that they can trust us. It takes a while but it’s very rewarding!”
For Audrey the decision to foster has been the right one. “It presented the best opportunity for me to remain as a full-time mother and at the same time, help a young child in need,” she says.
Foster mummy says…
Another foster mother, Susanna Daniels’ journey has not been much different. Her decision to become a foster parent goes back all way to 1999. That was when she first came across an advertisement in the papers inviting applicants for the MSF fostering scheme.
“I showed it to my husband who readily agreed that we should volunteer as foster parents. We both love children even if they are not biologically our own. We want to give the children, a loving and caring home, and the temporary shelter they need over their heads until they are able to return to their natural parents.”
Over the past 15 years they have fostered five children. She and her husband have four children of their own – three sons, ages 24, 17 and 12 years and a daughter age 22 years. At the moment they have three foster children living with them.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.
Unique families and strong sibling bonds
While taking care of a child is joy in itself, for Susanna, the most wonderful thing about fostering is to watch all her children, biological or foster, be protective of one another. She says, “they behave as brothers and sisters to one another. Although my eldest son does not show it much, you can tell he is attached to his baby (foster) sister. He works shift hours and when he is at home, he takes time out to play with his baby sister.”
Audrey sees the same thing in her home. Today her foster son BJ is hale and hearty and her own son, who is now 17 remains the ‘buddy brother’ of BJ. Both are close, says Audrey, “Although BJ is our foster child, all of us love and care for him as though he is one of us.”
The strength of the sibling bond is felt by foster children themselves as well. According to Mary, her relationship with her foster mother’s four children felt, “very normal for me, as if we were related by blood. My elder foster siblings act as my confidante.”
She adds, “My mother also cared for other foster children, so I had younger siblings from time to time. I remember I would come home from school to play with the babies and younger children – it was fun for me to help my mother care for them.”
The lives for children who do not get fostered is not quite the same.
Life outside a foster home
According to the Spokesperson from MSF Fostering Service, children who need fostering are usually, “children whose parents or guardians are of ill-health and cannot look after them. Some children have also been abandoned, neglected or ill-treated by their parents or guardians.”
However, not all children get taken in for fostering. Says the Spokesperson from MSF Fostering Service: “As much as possible, we hope to place children in need with their relatives as a first option. The second option would be to place them with a suitable foster family. In cases where this is not possible, we would place them in a home.”
The Spokesperson adds, “the children’s homes are still an institutional environment and not the most natural environment that our children can grow up in.”
How foster family helped
Mary realises that she has been fortunate. She says that she is very lucky that her uncle and aunty decided to put her in the fostering scheme. “Without this scheme, I might have been placed in a children’s home, where circumstances would have been very different such as the boarding school-like environment and without a family to turn to.”
Also, Mary’s experience of staying with her foster family for such a long time is not entirely unusual in Singapore. Susanna welcomed their foster daughter Anne* into their home when she was just a month old. Today she is 15 and still with them. Their foster son who is also 15 years old, came to them when he was seven months old.
In Singapore, unless children are reunited with their natural families or adopted, they tend to stay one with one family, unlike in other countries. A child on the Fostering Scheme keeps his / her own identity and continues to be a legal child of his/ her natural parents.
There are currently 317 foster families caring for 346 foster children.
The sweet sorrow of separation
All foster parents say that it is not the taking care of the foster children and integrating them into the families that is the problem – it the separation from them when they are ready to go back to their stabilised natural families or are adopted.
Says Susanna, “One of my foster daughters came to us when she was a three-months-old baby but was adopted when she turned 2.5 years old. It was heart wrenching to see her go.” But adds, “As a family, we have learnt to deal with it especially since she was moving to a permanent home and to a family who would love and care for her as much as we had been doing.”
Mary recounts her own foster mother’s response to separation, “Mom would cry whenever she said goodbye to them but a few weeks later, we would have a new foster child in our home again.”
But this is not a deterrent.
Susanna’s advice to parents considering signing up to the fostering scheme is “Take the chance to create relationships that last a lifetime”. She says, “If you have the heart to volunteer your services, as well as room in your home, just go and make a difference in someone’s life.”
And perhaps Mary sums it up best when she says, “To the potential foster parents out there, you would be doing a great deed by providing a safe home for these children to be able to grow in.”
She herself is “looking forward to the day where I have my own family and children and at the same time, becoming a foster parent myself as well.”
Who can become a foster parent?
To qualify to become a foster parent, you need to fulfill the following criteria under the the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) Fostering Scheme:
– A resident of Singapore
– At least 25 years of age
– Medically fit to care for children
– Household income of at least $2,000 a month
– Preferably married couples
– Preferably experienced in caring for and living with children, with strong parenting skills and commitment to the well-being of the child
– Willing to ensure a child-safe environment
The number of foster children one can take on depends on the living space in the foster parents’ home and their personal capacity to care for the children.
Foster parents are provided an allowance of $936 monthly for each child they care for. If the child they are caring for has special needs, this amount is raised to $1,114. The allowance covers the child’s daily necessities, for instance food, clothing, education, pocket money and transportation.
The MSF stresses that those who are interested in becoming a foster parent should first seek the consent and support of everyone in their household.
The public can find out more about the Fostering Scheme by calling the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) at Tel: 6354 8799, or visit the MSF website, www.msf.gov.sg/fostering to find out more.
*Pseudonyms have been used for privacy protection.