In my previous post, I wrote about how my friends Michael and Irene came to become foster parents. At the time of writing, they had four foster children, one in Primary 2, two taking the PSLE, and one in Secondary Two.
When I stepped into Michael and Irene’s home, it looked both familiar and new.
Familiar because the wife and I came here fairly often before they were married, and Irene always kept a clean and neat home.
New because gone was the large furniture and the display cabinets of her Precious Moments toys, replaced by a box of neatly placed children’s school bags, and a smaller sofa.
Michael and Irene did not just make room in their hearts for the children they foster, they made room for these children in their home.
You can see that they have their Work From Home laptops in the living room but that was something they can put away at a moment’s notice. In my home, when I set up our Circuit Breaker WFH and HBL spaces, I had to throw away a ton of junk, and we still aren’t anywhere as neat as this household of four girls and their foster parents.
In the girls’ bedrooms, there is the usual assortment of toys, games, assessment books and clothes. Everything in its place. Later, I was told by a proud Irene that this is maintained by the girls themselves.
There was a sense of order, of structure, and peace.
And when you listen to the stories from the couple about the difficult circumstances the children came from, you understand why this structure is so important. It represents a sanctuary of stability for their challenging pasts, a place for them to grow into responsible adults, and for them to feel loved and cherished.
I felt it when I entered the home. It was obvious the children adored Michael and Irene, and the couple loved them back just as dearly.
I felt it when I took their photos: one family portrait, one couple photo, and one of the foster siblings together. I gave them the photos as keepsakes.
You cannot make up the affection and love that they showed one another.
It did not always run smoothly, Michael and Irene told me. There were many challenges.
Remember, these aren’t children who grew up in their care. They came from other situations, where they may have been abused, neglected or abandoned.
Each child comes with his or her baggage, and I am not talking about the bags that carry their clothes and belongings.
Yet, with patience and understanding, the couple managed to break down the walls that got in the way of their relationship with each child.
“Do you get to adopt the children you foster?” I asked.
Sometimes it happens but rarely, Michael told me. That is the not the goal of fostering, he said. Foster care does not necessarily lead to adoption nor is that its purpose.
The purpose of foster care is reintegrating the children back to their natural families, to take care of the children until their own natural family is ready and able to take them back again. To give their natural families time, as It were, to find their footing, and become capable of raising their child again.
Adoption is a permanent thing, where the adopted child assumes the rights of the natural child in the family. In contrast, foster care is a temporary arrangement to care for the child’s immediate needs in times of emergency, and provide them a safe, stable and loving home.
And the couple told me that each child in their care looks forward to going home to their own families, if possible. Reintegration does not happen overnight, but it is a gradual process which begins the moment the child enters the foster home. It is the hope of many who are in the foster care system.
I mulled over this for days after I finished my chat with them. How does one take on children who are not your own, with no expectation that they will be yours, and just love and care for them on behalf of another family, with the end goal of giving them back?
Surely this takes an immense amount of love and magnanimity on the part of the foster parents. It baffles my mind, and my heart.
And yet, here we are. Couples like Michael and Irene exist, willing to step forward and help. Some foster parents have no children of their own, and some do. All love and care for the foster children they take on.
Interestingly, Michael and Irene consulted each child before they fostered the next, even though they have the space and capacity to just proceed to take in another child after their first.
“Do you want a Big Sister?” they asked the first one before deciding on the second girl.
“Yes, I do,” said the first. And so Cheh Cheh came into the home. Then another Cheh Cheh, And another.
“Each child is a part of our home, and we wanted their buy-in before we brought home another foster sibling. We try to prepare the kids for whatever decisions that may impact their time with us.”
This is not part of any protocol, but to the couple, it seemed to be a sensible thing to do.
Another challenge they faced was the choice of school. For instance, their first and youngest child was about to enter primary school. “We did not know how to go about this school thing.”
As parents of our own children, we had about six years to prepare for their eventual entry into school. For Michael and Irene, they had about a year and a half to figure it out. With the help of the foster care officer and a kind principal, the youngest, who was transferring due to her own school closing, was able to enter the school near their home as the foster sibling of one of the older ones.
Another challenge was the first time they went to Family Court, ready to take over the care of the foster child.
“No child should ever have to be in Family Court,” said Michael, his face wincing at the memory.
Imagine a child of four, not understanding that she is not going home after court, and two families in court together.
It can be a messy and emotional rollercoaster for both families.
And yet, all this is done to ensure the child’s welfare is taken care of. The child’s wellbeing is paramount, and painful as all this sounds, it is done in the best interest of the child.
“What kind of help would you like to see, to support you as foster parents?” I asked them.
“More volunteers,” they replied.
Besides Foster Parents, there is also a need for volunteers such as Befrienders, Mentors, Transport providers and Tutors.
Michael and Irene also had a lady volunteer who helped drive one of their foster children to school every day. Volunteers who do this are also registered with the MSF.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. This is even more true in the case of foster care.
Michael and Irene strive to provide all the necessary comforts of family life for their foster children, to give them a safe and nurturing space they may not have experienced in their natural families for whatever reason. And above all, a place where they can feel loved and cherished.
I hear it in the laughter from the girls’ rooms. I see it in their interactions. I sense it in the neat rows of clothes hanging in the cupboards, and the library books and text books stacked neatly on their desks.
Order from instability. Hope from the ashes of despair. Love that comes from a positive family life.
This is what Michael and Irene, and many foster parents like them, give to vulnerable children in Singapore. Let’s hope there are more people like them out there, willing to stand in the gap.
If you are interested to find out more about the MSF Fostering Scheme, you can join their upcoming sharing sessions. More details can be found at https://mrbrwn.co/msffostering2. Alternatively, you can call 6354 8799, WhatsApp 9645 8231 or email [email protected]