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Foster parents soldier on despite the pain of letting go

Saying goodbye to a child they have grown to love as their own is heartbreaking, but foster parents say grief is part and parcel of the commitment.


Even though Ms Joy Shuo always knew that her foster child was bound to leave, the grief she felt that day still overwhelmed her.


Two-year-old Amy* had been with them since she was a month old and Ms Shuo’s family of six had come to love her as their own.


But after 26 December 2015, they would never see her again.


On that day, Ms Shuo pulled her car up to a stop beside Amy’s parents.


It was time. Taking in a deep breath, she got out of the car with the child.


“The moment the car door opened, my first daughter burst into tears,” said Ms Shuo, 40, a homemaker. Her other three children cried too.


Ms Shuo bid goodbye to Amy as quickly as possible, aware that any resistance would put her natural parents in a difficult situation.


The ride home was silent.


After this incident, Ms Shuo questioned if fostering had been the right decision for her and her family.


“The pain hit me harder than I thought and it was hurting my family,” she said.


Her eldest son, Titus, who was seven at the time, had told her he could not “cope with the pain” of losing a foster sibling. Her mother, then 76, had wept quietly in the room as Amy prepared to leave.


Yet when another call for help came shortly after Amy’s departure, Ms Shuo said yes to embarking on the journey all over again.


And again.


And again.

After a child is returned to his or her natural family, foster parents usually do not see the child again unless a private arrangement is made with his or her natural parents.


While this separation is a heart-rending struggle for foster parents, many of them, like Ms Shuo, have not let it stop them from fostering more children.

Ms Joy Shuo (centre), 40, and her husband, Daniel (third from left), 43, began fostering in 2012 and have fostered four children to date, two of whom — Catelyn and Jedidiah — they later adopted. (Children from L-R: Titus, 17, Catelyn, 8, Jedidiah, 3, Melody, 16, Megan, 10, Mary Beth, 15.)


Maintenance superintendent Sivachandran, 59, and his wife, Anita, 57, are also well acquainted with the                of letting go. In the last 16 years, they have fostered 23 babies, most of whom were waiting to be adopted.


But the grief of saying goodbye to one child, which Mr Sivachandran, who goes by one name, was particularly close with, remains etched in his mind.


Sam*, the couple’s third foster child, had been with them for more than a year when the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) found a couple who wanted to adopt him.


But when the time came to leave with his new family, Sam clung desperately onto Mr Sivachandran’s leg and refused to let go.

“He felt that I was giving him away,” said Mr Sivachandran. He remembers trying to pull Sam away as tears fell from his own face.

Despite their pain, he and Mrs Sivachandran, a housewife, believe that MSF ensures the child is put in a good family. This assures them that letting go is the best thing they can do for their foster child, he said.


“It is sad, of course. But at the end of the day we are very happy that they are going to a ‘forever home’.”

It is sad, of course. But at the end of the day we are very happy that they are going to a ‘forever home’.

— Mr Sivachandran, 59, and his wife Anita, 57, have fostered 23 babies in the last 16 years.   

A spokesperson from MSF said that separation is often a “major” challenge: “It is hard because foster parents would have developed a strong bond with their foster children. They feel a sense of loss and need some time to move on.”


In such cases, foster care officers are present to provide emotional support and can also link them up with other MSF professionals or community-based services, the spokesperson added. At the end of the day, MSF encourages these parents to continue taking in foster children as they are equipped with the experience.

Madam Norlia Binte Mohd Ali Marican, 53, chokes up as she thinks about the day she will have to say goodbye to her 12-year-old foster son. He has lived with the homemaker since he was two weeks old.


When saying goodbye, the pain is not one-sided. Often, foster children also struggle with leaving their foster parents, whom they have grown to trust.


When Mr Anthony Wang, 37, and his wife, Carol, first told their foster children — a pair of siblings aged four and seven — that they would be going home to their family in a few weeks, they cried, protested and insisted that they wanted to stay.


Mrs Wang realised that a delicate balance needed to be struck when developing a relationship with these children.


“You build an attachment with your foster children knowing it's important. At the same time, you want them to feel happy returning to their natural parents,” said the 34-year-old clinical psychologist.


Even though they ached inside, the Wangs, who fostered the sibling pair in 2016 for six months, knew they had to help them manage their emotions and feel positively about returning to their family.


To prepare them to move home, the couple would often mention their impending return and help them look forward to it.


Day by day, the crying subsided until it was no more.


When it was time to say goodbye, the Wangs were surprised. After a brief hug, the children rushed for the playground near their home, where their natural parents were waiting, and never looked back.


“Ultimately, that’s the goal of fostering: to support the children so that they can go back to their families,” said Mrs Wang.

A portrait series of foster parents who have shared the struggles, joys and motivations of their fostering journey.


While the separation was difficult, Mr Wang, who runs an events management company, said his greatest concern was whether his foster children would continue to do well back at home.


In the year that seven-year-old Brian*, the couple’s second foster placement, was with them, Mr Wang worked hard to help him develop a sense of self-control.


When Brian first arrived in 2017, Mrs Wang would receive calls from his school about his behaviour almost daily. Unable to sit still for long periods, Brian would sometimes be disruptive in class. He was later diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


Mr Wang was firm with Brian and drilled in him the importance of stopping to think before acting. On good days, Brian would tell the couple how he was able to control his impulses, Mr Wang said.


But when the boy returned to his family for the weekend, he would sometimes forget these rules and struggle to remember them when he was back with the Wangs.


When it was time for Brian to return home for good, the couple trusted that his natural parents were ready and capable to take care of him. But Mr Wang still had a seed of worry that all he had taught Brian would come undone.


However, he was heartened to receive updates about Brian through their foster care officer, who reported that while Brian’s behavioural issues were still present, he was doing well at home and in school, and did not get into as much trouble.


But not all foster parents expect to see the fruits of their labour.


Ms Shuo likens nurturing her foster children to sowing a seed: “Sometimes you won't see the return until many years later, or you may not even see it because you’re not there for the long term.”


But she hopes that what she has done will eventually make a difference.


“We try our best to help them and hopefully whatever values or kindness we show the children, they will take it with them into the future when they grow up,” she added.

Ms Shuo's family of eight comes alive with chatter whenever dinner time approaches.  


While each fostering journey comes with its fair share of joy and grief, Ms Shuo, has learnt to celebrate her foster children returning home.


“It was painful for us, but we were happy for Amy. Returning her was a success because her parents worked very hard (to be allowed to have her back),” Ms Shuo said.

The sorrow of returning Amy reminded Ms Shuo of the day she first took the infant from her wailing mother’s arms at the hospital.


“The clear anguish in her screams pierced my heart,” she said.


When the roles reversed two years later, Ms Shuo willingly suffered the same agony: “I realised Amy doesn’t belong to my family. She has her own family to return to.”


With that, Ms Shuo made the choice never to see Amy again. While it is painful, she reminds herself that it is part of the commitment of loving her foster child.


She said: “I embrace the pain with joy in my stride. Every moment I feel the pain and grief of separation, it tells me I’m loving fiercely and that I care deeply.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identities.