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Friday, February 28, 2014, 09:01
Finding someone who cares
By Li Yao

Finding someone who cares

Finding someone who cares

Hong Kong faces a long struggle finding homes for kids from troubled families, badly in need of foster care. Those at the centre of foster care programs hope better public education will encourage more families to open their homes to kids in need. Li Yao writes.

Yuki Chuen, 45, offers no hesitation in declaring that her only daughter is better off living with a foster family.

“Mrs Yik takes better care of my daughter than I did,” Chuen offers high praise for the foster mother, Ana Yik, who has been helping to look after Chuen’s daughter, Tung Tung, now 8, since January of last year.

Chuen sees improvements all around in Tung Tung’s disposition, her attention to personal hygiene and her personal health regime. Tung Tung’s mood is noticeably brighter. There are fewer outbursts of temper and her characteristic restlessness, stemming from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), appears to have abated.

Chuen recalls the heartbreak she and her husband suffered after signing the agreement to send Tung Tung to a foster family. Seeing the girl’s remarkable progress since that life-changing decision, Chuen is thinking of residential care, or better still, foster care if it is available, for her 13-year-old autistic son, Wai-pang.

Chuen sent Tung Tung to foster care to protect the girl from her son’s verbal abuse and generally bad influence. Brother and sister squabbled constantly over everything. Chuen suffered nervous breakdowns after her efforts to disentangle the warring siblings proved futile. She has been taking anti-depressants for four years.

Her program to focus exclusively on her son, with the daughter away in a foster home, has not worked well. Wai-pang has grown into a rebellious teenager. Chuen is becoming increasingly frustrated and she’s begun to doubt her competency to take care of an autistic child. Foster appeals to her, especially if there is someone out there with the skills and patience to address the special needs of an autistic boy, but Chuen knows that finding a place for him will be difficult.

Insufficient emotional support

A lot of children in foster care have experienced abuse or other traumas in their natural families. Those children need foster parents with very special skills, who can provide some measure of therapy for them. The problem is that after being placed in foster care, these children often repeat the behavior patterns they have experienced in the past. That complicates the process to building a positive relationship with the foster carers, said Liz Fletcher, a UK-qualified child and adolescent psychoanalytic psychotherapist, who now works in Hong Kong.

A child from an abusive family may unconsciously draw the foster carers into repeating the same abusive treatments towards himself, because that is what actually makes him feel more secure. It is hard for him to trust anybody not to be abusive to him again, Fletcher added.

“The foster carers need support to understand the behaviors of a child with a terrible family history, behaviors that may be very confusing,” Fletcher said. The child might behave as if he is completely rejecting the foster carer, but what he wants is in fact to be reassured that he is not going to be put out on the street. “The behavior is often opposite to what he really wants inside,” she theorized.

Without knowing of these complex thought processes, foster parents may believe the foster child is going out of his way to be difficult. But these acting out behaviors are often beyond the conscious awareness and control of the foster child, who unconsciously recreates family dynamics and interactions, Fletcher said.

“It is like a cycle of rejection. The foster child feels rejected by his original family. In turn, he might try to get the foster family to reject him,” she explained.

Many children have lived with more than one foster family. These children usually have more difficulty trusting people, and Fletcher believes this will have impact on their personality development, on their adult life, like forming friendships and romantic relationship, and on the way they relate to authority figures. They may feel inferior, and may suffer from mental health problems, like anxieties and depression.

Fletcher said the lack of available emotional support from child psychologists and psychotherapists is one main reason why many foster families in the UK are struggling so much.

University of Hong Kong researcher Jean Chow agrees, and points out there is also a lack of child psychologists and psychotherapists in the support networks available to foster parents in Hong Kong. Chow made the statements in her doctoral thesis published last year on measuring foster parenthood satisfaction and foster parent retention.

Based on questionnaire responses from some 600 foster parents in Hong Kong, Chow found that even though there are foster carers motivated to look after special-needs children, they lack the special training and sufficient support from fostering organizations. There is an absence of any differentiated policy for providing additional support and services to foster children with special needs. These factors create inhibitions that discourage foster parents from taking on children with difficulties.

Foster family shortage

Social Welfare Department statistics show there are 919 children under foster care across Hong Kong. The foster family pool comprises 938 registered families. The government spent HK$115.6 million on foster care services in the 2012-13 fiscal year, and increased the budget to HK$130.7 million for 2013-14.

The number of children waiting to enter foster care has remained close to 30, constantly, in recent years. The majority of children given placements have become concentrated in the New Territories. As of March 2013, there were 656 children living in foster families in the New Territories, nearly 16 times the number of children in foster homes on Hong Kong Island, and more than three times the number in Kowloon.

The sharply irregular distribution of families willing to foster means there are limited options for children in need when it comes to matching them with foster families. Some kids have been required to suspend their schooling because they moved into foster homes too far from their schools, said Jenny Yu, a senior social worker at the fostering organization, the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society.

Cheung Kwok-che, the lawmaker representing the social welfare functional constituency, has taken note of the shortage. He said the government should raise public awareness of fostering through public education programs. Cheung also suggests the society at large shows greater appreciation to foster parents, and increase the amount of allowance to foster parents from HK$4,037 a month per child to HK$5,000 to cover the child’s living expenses.

The UK government has survey results in the past years showing children taken care of by the State have significantly poorer educational outcomes in English and maths than peers growing up in normal families. The latest report issued in 2013 found that about half of all children in care were considered at-risk in emotional and behavioral health.

Cheung said he expects Hong Kong to conduct similar surveys and offer the public a clearer picture of what is working in the foster care system and what needs to be done.

Hong Kong’s solution to the foster parent shortage is to allow qualified foster carers to take in more than one child at a time. Ana Yik, who looks after three girls from two families, has been a foster mother to more than 10 children in the past 25 years.

One girl, Mui Mui, came at the age of seven into Yik’s care. She stayed for eight years. Mui Mui’s father died from drug abuse. Her mother was imprisoned for drug trafficking. During her stay in Yik’s home, Mui Mui enjoyed a few undisturbed childhood years, but remained resentful of her mother’s unsavory past.

In 2009, the birth mother got out of prison. The girl went back to live with her. Now 19, Mui Mui remains close to Yik, calls regularly, usually to complain about the tensions she feels at home. Mui Mui started her first job as a real estate agent not long ago. She wants to save her money and get out on her own. “I told her to smoke and drink less, and be careful not to overspend,” Yik said.

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