Homeless at 18
While the fostering scheme protects children and young persons from neglect and abuse, not all youth get the help they need.
BY BRENDAN CONCEICAO
Jade* shivered and shifted in her sleeping bag. It was past midnight as she tried to get comfortable at a mosquito-infested playground near her home.
Nights like these are familiar to the 20-year-old. She has been kicked out of the house countless of times since she moved back from a children’s home two years ago.
While most 18- to 21-year-olds in Singapore are still reliant on their families, some vulnerable youth like Jade are pushed into a life of difficult independence when they age out of the alternative care system.
At present, the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) fostering scheme protects vulnerable children and tries to reunite them with their families until they turn 18.
While most manage to return to their families, there are others who do not.
In some cases where safety concerns persist and reintegration is not viable, some teenagers begin living on their own. In other cases, natural families may break down again after reintegration, leaving these youth without the protection and support of their family and the foster scheme.
While there are no public statistics on how many teenagers age out of the scheme each year, these teens, as well as youth who are too old for the scheme, say it is arduous and challenging to be out in the world alone.
Jade was 18 when her social workers began preparing her for reintegration.
But she was reluctant.
“I wanted to extend my stay (at the children’s home) for as long as I could,” said Jade, who has a National Institute of Technical Education Certificate (Nitec) in beauty and wellness, and now works as a part-time cleaner.
“But I have a family, I have a home, so I couldn’t stay there.”
Jade first entered a children’s home when she was 13, after being sexually abused by her biological father for two years. She initially delayed seeking help as she was afraid that no one would believe her.
“I was scared that my mother would stand by my father. My siblings would all say that I was talking nonsense. So I didn’t dare to share,” she said.
She finally confided in a school counsellor, who lodged a police report. A medical examination proved her claims right, and also found that she was pregnant. But, as she had predicted, her family did not believe her, she said.
“They thought I was lying and talking nonsense. It was very hurtful,” she added.
Her pregnancy was terminated and Jade was put in a children’s home after being discharged.
She said it was a rough five years at the home — especially in the beginning, when she was bullied by other girls. Despite being unhappy at the children’s home, she was more worried, still, about returning home.
She had grown apart from her three younger siblings while she was away. Her relationship with her mother, which had improved when she was in the home, also grew strained as the day she was to return inched closer.
When she finally moved back home, things initially seemed fine.
But five months later, her mother threw her out of the house after flying into a rage.
Jade believes her mother blames her for putting her father in jail. These incidents have become more frequent, and she claims she now gets thrown out about once a week.
The playground is a second home for Jade*, 20, who claims she gets thrown out of her house by her mother about once a week. The part-time cleaner spends the night here and returns home only when her mother and siblings are out.
With nowhere else to go, she usually spends the night at a playground and only returns home when her mother and siblings are out. The exception was when a couple from a community-led initiative took her in for a night.
Her longest stay at the playground lasted a week, she said.
She is even more afraid of when her father is released from jail in a few years.
“I'm scared of when he comes out, if anything will happen to me again,” she said. “But I believe he will turn over a new leaf.”
STRIKING IT OUT ALONE
In select cases where a child in the foster care system cannot return to an immediate or extended family, MSF may make arrangements for the child to remain in foster care till he or she turns 21.
However, there are foster children who choose to live independently upon turning 18, although according to the director of MSF’s Children in Care Service (CIC) Alvin Goh, they make up “only a small number”.
For these teenagers, MSF supports them with “information and life skills to help them prepare for independent living from when they are about 16 years of age”, said Mr Goh.
The Ministry will also connect them to relevant community services — such as Family Service Centres and Social Service Offices — to assess what financial assistance schemes they can apply for, as well as link them up with community programmes that provide resources like mentoring services for youth.
But Dr Yong Ming Lee, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education's department of psychological studies, said that without social support from a family, it is extremely difficult for these young people to strike it out on their own.
Having a family is important no matter how old you are, she stressed.
“Everybody, even teenagers and adults, benefits from having close long-term connections and relationships with people around them.
“When you reach 18, you still have your parents, your mom, your sister and your extended family to check in on you and offer support. But these kids in foster care may not have these long-term relationships at all, and more so for kids in children’s homes,” said Dr Yong, who worked as a psychologist at a residential home for children and adolescents in the United States for three years.
Everybody, even teenagers and adults, benefits from having close long-term connections and relationships with people around them.
— Dr Yong Ming Lee, assistant professor at the National Institute of Education's department of psychological studies, on the importance of family
Apart from facing a lack of social support, these youth, who are often in the midst of pursuing their education, also struggle to support themselves financially.
A check on one-room rental listings on classified advertising website Gumtree revealed that the average monthly rent costs $300, while the cheapest hostels, at $19 a night, amount to $570 monthly.
While the government has urgent-care financial packages in the form of stipends of up to $700, they are typically short-term and are more tailored for households instead of individuals.
While some age out of the system, others are too old to even enter it.
Azerael, who only wanted to be known by his first name, found himself homeless at 18 when both his parents, who are divorced, migrated to Malaysia and left him to fend for himself.
Over the next six years, he struggled to put a roof over his head. For the two years he was serving his National Service (NS), he lived in camp and would only leave to do laundry at a friend’s home every Sunday.
After NS, he rented a bunk in a backpackers’ hostel for about $350 a month. He also worked full-time as a retail assistant with the hope of saving enough money to enrol in a nursing course at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). But his meagre $800 salary was only sufficient to pay off his daily expenses, and he struggled to save even $100 a month.
“I was feeling hopeless and sad… because I couldn’t progress, I couldn’t do what I wanted. I was limited (financially), and this limitation didn’t allow me to do anything,” said Azerael, now 25.
He eventually enrolled in the course and paid for it using his savings, with the help of several government and community bursaries. Yet money remained tight.
Once, he was told to remove the tattoo on his hand or face expulsion from ITE. Unable to afford a laser tattoo removal procedure, he desperately scrubbed away at his flesh using salt and a brush, leaving a huge scar that remains today.
Azerael, 25, desperately scrubbed off the tattoo on his hand with salt and a brush after his school threatened to expel him if he did not remove it. He did this as he could not afford to lose his place in the nursing course that he had saved up for.
He spent the next few years moving between the homes of friends and extended family members, depending on their kindness for temporary accommodation, so he could save money for school. Even then, he found himself sleeping on the streets on more than one occasion.
Visits to the Housing Development Board (HDB) to enquire about special assistance schemes, as well as to his school board for temporary housing proved futile, he said. Being underaged, he did not qualify for the HDB’s various housing plans. Subsidised accommodation on campus was also too expensive for him.
“I felt like I didn’t have anyone, or a real family. It was like I was always staying at a stranger's place.”
When asked why Singaporeans remain unaware of youth who are homeless and in need of help, Azerael, who is now a first-year nursing student at Nanyang Polytechnic, said: “That's the Singaporean mindset — what's my problem is my problem, what's not my problem is not my problem.”
I felt like I didn’t have anyone, or a real family. It was like I was always staying at a stranger's place.
— Azerael, 25, on life when he was moving between houses.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Not all children in foster families, however, face the same tough fate.
Director of CIC Mr Goh said most foster teens who turn 18 stay on with their foster families until they complete their education or are financially independent and can seek other housing options.
In such cases, MSF will continue to support the foster family until the child turns 21.
Madam Fong Wai Kheng, 63, has continued to foster two of her foster children, Rachel* and Mark*, who are 20 and 17 respectively. She has fostered 18 children over the past 18 years, and has two biological children who are now adults.
Madam Fong said of Rachel, who has been with her since the girl was seven: “I take care of her like I would my own children. I don't treat her differently just because she's not my biological child.”
She is also prepared to care for the both of them even when they are too old to be supported by MSF at 21. She said: “As long as they need me, I will continue caring for them so long as my health permits.”
FILLING THE GAP
Recognising the inevitable limitations of systems to catch those who fall through the cracks, Mr Kenneth Thong, 47, and his wife, Adeline, 39, have been advocates of providing community support.
The Thongs have opened up their home to more than 40 troubled and homeless youths between 16 and 26 in the past 12 years — even leaving their jobs to commit to the initiative.
“We see that (age group) as a very critical moment in a person's life, as it’s just before they become adults. It is when they would need stability, community and caring adults who can walk them through that period,” said Mrs Thong, a former school counsellor.
Their church community shares resources — like money, food and furniture — with the Thongs, who house six youths in their home and provide them with food, shelter and a listening ear when they need it.
Naz, who only wanted to be known by her first name, sought solace at the Thongs' home after she became pregnant and fell out with her family. Mrs Thong (centre) was present at the 19-year-old's delivery last year and has supported her through her journey as a young mother.
Many of those who have lived with the couple come in with stories similar to Jade’s and Azerael’s.
One of them is Alice*, a chirpy and enthusiastic 15-year-old. She first entered MSF’s foster care system when she was two months old, and was placed with a foster family for the next nine years.
When her stay with her foster family came to an end, Alice was transferred to a children’s home, where she stayed for four years before being transferred to yet another institution.
As her 16th birthday approached, Alice was prepared to be reunited with her father. But he passed away suddenly, leaving her with no kin to go home to.
When the Thongs came to know about her situation, they took her in and gave her a home, for which Alice is grateful. She does not know where she would have gone otherwise, she said.
“I’d always hoped to be happy and I'm finally . I don't want it to stop.
“It felt weird at first because I’d been so angry and numb, but now everything is so happy,” said Alice, who is studying for her N-levels and aspires to be a social services youth mentor.
For youth like Alice, finding a safe and stable home may have completely changed the trajectory of their future for the better, which is what the Thongs had set out to do.
Mr Thong said: “There’s a role for the community — we can fill gaps that systems cannot fill. Big machinery can go far and go strong, but it cannot reach into the tiny nooks and crannies. People can.
“This is our people. If we’re not gonna take care of them, then who will?”
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.
Update: In June, Azereal was reunited with his mother, who returned from Malaysia, and now lives with her, his stepfather and younger sister in a two-room flat. The family is also receiving financial help from MSF.
Individuals who require financial assistance or other social support can approach MSF's Social Service Offices or call the ComCare Hotline at 1800-222-0000.