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A look at the foster care system in Singapore

A timeline of how MSF's fostering scheme has evolved in the last five years.

The push for foster homes

A government push launched five years ago has helped to raise the number of foster parents in Singapore by almost 80 per cent, yet public awareness on fostering remains low. More work is needed to plug this shortage of foster parents as more children enter the foster care system.

BY GRACIA LEE

Pick a few people off the street and ask if they have heard of fostering, and you may get some quizzical looks.

 

“Looking after the elderly?” a few may guess.

 

“Dog-sitting?” others may suggest.

 

“Housing exchange students!” one will most definitely assert.

 

It appears that Singaporeans are still generally unaware of fostering, despite the slew of recruitment and publicity efforts that has helped grow the pool of foster parents by almost 80 per cent since 2014.

 

In a street survey of 100 people, almost half said they did not know what fostering was. Only 15 said they would seriously consider it.

 

Such low public awareness poses a challenge to sustaining the growth of the number of foster parents — especially as more children enter the foster care system and raise the demand for foster homes.

 

THE SHIFT TOWARD FOSTER HOMES

The government’s motivation for the fostering scheme has always been tied to the belief that children grow up best in a caring family environment.

 

Fostering is placing vulnerable children in another family temporarily — from a few weeks to more than 10 years — until their natural families are ready for them to return home.

These children range from newborns to 18-year-olds who have been seriously abused, neglected or abandoned. Others have parents who are in jail, chronically ill or dead.

 

But if no suitable kin or foster family is found, a child is placed in one of the 21 children’s homes here.

 

Before 2014, only about 30 per cent of the children in the state’s care were in foster homes, while the rest were in children’s homes.

 

To facilitate the push for more children to be in foster families, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), which oversees the fostering scheme, launched an $8 million, three-year recruitment and publicity pilot scheme in 2014.

 

As part of this scheme, it appointed four voluntary welfare organisations — Boys’ Town, Epworth Community Services (formerly MCYC Community Services Society), Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura (PPIS) and The Salvation Army — to set up fostering agencies. Prior to this, MSF was the only official fostering agency.

 

These new agencies help to ramp up publicity and recruitment efforts, as well as manage volunteers. They also have teams of social workers and counsellors who care for and support foster children and parents alongside MSF.

 

The move has reaped results. In 2018, 45 per cent of children — or 535 children — in the state’s care were in foster families, according to ministry statistics. In the same year, there were also 498 foster parents, the largest pool the fostering scheme has seen in its 63-year history.

The number of foster parents and children over the last nine years.

THE SPARK

While the successes of the pilot scheme have been celebrated in the local media, few know that it was a heart-rending story that first spurred this push.
 

It was 2007. Mr Jason Wong, a prisons officer of 17 years and the initiator of the Yellow Ribbon Project, which supports ex-convicts’ reintegration into society, was getting ready to start his new job at the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), which is now MSF.

 

He was to be the director of the Ministry’s rehabilitation, protection and residential services department.

 

One morning, as he was browsing through the newspaper, he came across an article about a 16-year-old boy called Krishna who had been sentenced to reformative training for two violent robberies.

 

Krishna. The name rang a bell.

 

Back in 1996, Mr Wong and his wife, Donna, spent their Monday nights volunteering at a children’s home, singing songs with a group of four- to six-year-olds. Part of this group was five-year-old Krishna, a chirpy and energetic boy.

 

One night, he was unusually quiet. Sensing something was amiss, Mr Wong sat him down on a swinging bench and gently asked him what was wrong.

 

“Mummy is back in the DRC,” little Krishna said, referring to the drug rehabilitation centre. He burst into tears. Taking the sobbing boy into his arms, Mr Wong’s heart broke. He had seen many men and women in jail, but this was the first time he had witnessed the pain of their children up close.

 

Could this be the same boy?

 

After doing some checks, his hunch was confirmed. He found out that Krishna had remained in a children’s home all his life. His mother never went back for him. He had never known his father.

 

Mr Wong, 55, who also fronted the Dads for Life movement and is now the chairman of charity Focus on the Family, said: “When I heard that, I told myself that this is no longer just a job. I must do my best… so that all the children, whether abused, whether in foster care, whether in children’s homes, will not end up in prison.

 

“Because Krishna graduated from the children’s home to prison.”

 

THE VALUE OF A HOME

Research backs Mr Wong’s assertion.

 

In 2017, researchers at MSF synthesised 23 research studies done around the world about the outcomes of children in residential and foster family care.

 

The meta-analyses found that children in foster families were less anxious and depressed, and felt safer and more satisfied with their care settings and caregivers.

 

The study, which sample consisted of more than 13,600 children in foster care systems over the past 20 years, also found that children in residential care, which includes children's homes, had higher levels of hyperactivity, delinquency and aggressive behaviour.

A children’s home, no matter how well-run, cannot replicate the “therapeutic elements” found in a family.

— Dr Yong Ming Lee, assistant professor at NIE's department of psychological studies

However, Dr Yong Ming Lee, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education's department of psychological studies, emphasised that being in residential care may not cause behavioural difficulties.

 

More likely, she added, it is because children who exhibit more severe symptoms of trauma are placed in institutions so they can receive more intensive professional care.

 

Nevertheless, while it may be necessary for some children to be in an institution for a time, it should never be their permanent home, she said.

“That’s not a place where children should grow up,” said Dr Yong, who worked as a psychologist at a residential home for children and adolescents in the United States for three years.

 

A children’s home, no matter how well-run, cannot replicate the “therapeutic elements” found in a family, like stability, individual attention from parents and the opportunity to develop long-term relationships with family members, she said.

 

Such long-term relationships are hugely beneficial for a child: “It means they can expect people to remain in their lives, they can trust them, and they themselves will remain in other people’s lives. They know they will not be rejected at a whim. They know they need to be accountable for their actions.”

 

On the other hand, in residential homes, staff members come and go in daily shifts or when they leave their jobs. “There is a lack of continuity, and that's damaging for young children,” she said.

 

Backed by research and fuelled by Krishna’s story, Mr Wong entered the then-MCYS determined to improve the children’s homes sector and do more for at-risk children, including giving more attention to fostering.

 

Before he left the Ministry in 2013, he set up a separate department dedicated to children in care, allowing for more manpower and resources to place children in foster homes. Previously, the fostering scheme had been under the larger rehabilitation, protection and residential services department, which included juvenile and destitute homes.

 

The pilot scheme was launched the next year.

A DIVERSE POOL OF FOSTER PARENTS

Even though there are now more hands on deck, the Ministry still hopes to continue increasing the pool of foster parents.

A bigger and more diverse pool is required to ensure the best possible foster child-parent match, said Mr Alvin Goh, director of MSF’s Children in Care Service.

“By attracting enough people to join the fostering scheme, MSF is able to… (give) them a better chance of being placed with the most suitable option in accordance with their needs,” he said.

 

He added that when placing a child with foster parents, MSF considers a variety of factors, such as the profiles of the foster families, proximity of the child’s school to the home, and the skills and capabilities of the foster parents to meet the needs of the child, including physical, psychosocial and spiritual needs.

The demand for foster parents is more pressing now, as more children have entered the foster care system in recent years. Since 2014, the number of children in the foster care system, which includes those in foster families and residential homes, has increased by almost 15 per cent to stand at 1,166 in 2018.

 

This is in line with the sharp rise in the number of reported child abuse cases over the past five years. In 2018, there were 1,163 reported cases, more than three times the 381 cases in 2014.

 

An MSF spokesperson attributed this rise to more rigorous screening tools and training for social workers, educators and healthcare workers on spotting abuse, as well as increased public education on detecting and reporting family violence.

 

In less serious cases, family service and child protection specialist centres step in to offer these families counselling and guidance. The more severe abuse cases are referred to the Ministry for investigation. In about 25 per cent of these cases, the affected children are removed from their families and placed into the foster care system, said MSF.

The number of child abuse cases in Singapore has been on the rise. An MSF spokesperson said this could be due to more rigorous tools and trainings in place to spot abuse. 

HARD GROUND

While there are more children in need of foster parents, the rise in the number of foster parents has slowed down in the past few years.

 

After the launch of the pilot scheme in 2014, the pool of foster parents grew by 75 in the following year. In 2018, however, there were only 42 more foster parents compared to the previous year.

 

Responses from the street surveys of 100 people showed there was a general reluctance towards the idea of taking in a foster child.

Results from a survey conducted  with 100 respondents. Source: All Roads Lead To Home

Almost half, or 45 people, said they would not consider it at all, while another 40 said they would be open to it only if they had the space, time and money.

 

About 1 in 5 said they were already up to their necks in their own family and job responsibilities, while another 20 per cent said they had neither the time nor emotional capacity to take in another child, especially one that is not biologically theirs.

 

A few younger interviewees said they did not plan to have children, much less foster one, while those with older kids felt they were done with raising children. “I think I’ve had my fair share of kids,” said one 44-year-old project manager with two teenagers.

 

A 64-year-old retiree, who is married with two adult children and a young grandson, admitted he would rather “do my own things”. He added: “I prefer to contribute in other ways, like giving money, and leave the taking care of the kids to those who are professional and more capable of it.”

 

Four said they were afraid of the emotional turmoil that they would have to deal with when it is time for the child to return to their natural families.

Mr George Wong, a sociology researcher from Nanyang Technological University who specialises in policies in Singapore society, said this general sentiment may be due to structural and cultural factors.

Firstly, he said, there is a lack of public talk and awareness about fostering.

 

“Even though it’s a very good scheme by MSF, the problem is that a lot of the information out there is very basic. There are few platforms where potential foster parents can raise any questions they may have and have them answered by experienced foster parents,” he said.

 

There is also some stigma attached to fostering, which may be seen as an alternative family strategy for those who cannot have children or have failed to adopt, he added.

People think, ‘Why would I want to foster a kid when firstly, I can have my own, and secondly, there are many other ways in which I can do charity?’

— Mr George Wong, a sociology researcher, on common sentiments Singaporeans have about fostering.

Furthermore, foster parents must shoulder heavy responsibility and commitment, and also have to open up their home, which is regarded as a very private space here, he said, adding that foster parents are also not given benefits like childcare leave.

“People think, ‘Why would I want to foster a kid when firstly, I can have my own, and secondly, there are many other ways in which I can do charity?’”

Nevertheless, Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development, said it is important to invest in the next generation: “Our children are our future… Giving them a safe, stable and nurturing family environment will help them grow well and fulfil their potential.”

 

He added that in the next few years, MSF will continue to focus on recruiting and strengthening support for foster parents, to meet the needs of the foster children.

 

“More importantly, we hope that with increased awareness of vulnerable children, the community can look out for one another. This is so that children need not be removed and can grow up safe with their natural families.”