During Circuit Breaker, my kids suddenly saw more of me. We were all under the same roof, for months. Eating, studying, working, playing, arguing, nagging, sulking, and laughing.
It was life-changing, to say the least. We saw more of each other that we ever planned to. That is when you see both the good stuff and the bad habits amplified.
Faith, our oldest, and who has autism, could not go to her Day Activity Centre. So she stayed home and we had to keep her occupied. It is not easy to keep a 19-year-old severely autistic young woman engaged, let me tell you.
Isaac and Joy, age 17 and 15, both had HBL, so we had to do some serious spring-cleaning to make room for them to attend their lessons online whilst the wife and I found our own space to work. But soon we settled into a groove.
The kids, were for most part, well-behaved. But they are at an age when they are looking for more independence and defining their own identity. So at times, I have to balance between maintaining discipline and giving some leeway. They learned very quickly too, what I expected of them, like helping with the dishes after dinner, setting the table, and generally putting their books away after they were done studying (not always done).
But I count myself blessed to have these three in my life. Every day is a learning process. Every day, I figure out what it means to be a parent. Because you learn on the job. And hopefully, my kids learn to become sensible and responsible young adults.
But what about kids who don’t have this kind of family environment? Some kids come from homes torn by abuse, neglect or abandonment. Where do they go? Who looks after them until their biological families are financially, physically, and psychologically ready to take them back and raise them?
I found out two friends of mine, Michael and Irene, had decided to become foster parents. When I last saw them at our common friends’ wedding in June 2019, they had two kids in tow. And they told us, they were on their way after that wedding to pick up another. And when I finally met them to chat with them about their foster parenting journey, they had four lovely girls in their home.
I laughed and said, “Guys, you have more kids than we do now! How did you go from no kids to fostering four?”
And that was when they told me about their touching journey to making that decision to be foster parents.
Michael and Irene spent some time in Cambodia helping out in the villages yearly, and seeing children there who needed so much love and care made them want to help those who can’t help themselves. I understood how they felt because I went on two of those medical trips with them before.
They got married in 2014 and starting exploring fostering in 2016.
“Where did you go to find out about fostering?” I asked.
Michael said that he was helping out at the church tuition service when he thought, “How do I help more kids beyond volunteering to give tuition, beyond the two hours every weekend I am here?”
One night, he came home and asked his wife what she felt about fostering. At the time, Irene candidly said, “I got very angry because we were still trying to have kids of our own and here he was suggesting fostering? Was he suggesting I was incapable of having kids?”
Michael then backed off from the topic, wise husband that he was.
One day, they were at a Bible Study and a lady shared about fostering. The lady fostered not just one kid but many kids, some even with special needs. Five minutes into it, Irene’s heart open up and she was moved to tears, thinking, “Why did I close my heart?”
When she went home that day, and told him of her new conviction, and he laughed, and jokingly said, “How come I say you didn’t listen but others say, you listen?”
With his wife in agreement with his desire to be foster parents, Michael went to a foster care road show at Nex mall, organised by Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
That was when they encountered the first hurdle. For potential foster parents wanting to care for children below 13 years of age, they must ensure that their windows have grills. Obviously, it was for the safety of the children they foster but it did not occur to them at the time, that it would be that big a deal.
It can be the small things that trip you up, and for the Michael and Irene, the grills was a source of angst. Their windows didn’t have grills, for aesthetic and view reasons. It may be a small thing to others but not having window grills can be important to some.
But just like those of us who become parents with our own kids, sacrifices and adjustments have to be made. I had to give up my study room so that my kids would have an extra room to sleep in, and also stopped buying my toys when I realised the kids needed space for their books and toys. And Michael and Irene had to change the way their home was configured to welcome foster kids into their lives and provide them with a safe place to stay.
They submitted their forms after a few months of mulling over the big decision, and then the assessment process began. The MSF-appointed assessors interviewed the couple and assessed their suitability to be foster parents. Everyone who lives in the household will be interviewed. If you have elderly parents living with you, they have to ensure that this does not compromise the care you are giving to foster children. In Michael and Irene’s case, it was just the two of them in their home.
The couple also had to go for a medical checkup and chest X-ray screening. I have to hand it to the MSF, they are certainly thorough.
Part of the interview process was also to find out the parenting style of the potential foster parents and how their own parents parented and disciplined them.
“How did you feel when you were caned by your parents?” was apparently one of the questions.
Michael said, “When they asked that, I was like, how would I remember something like that from 30 years ago?”
But some of us do remember. And it can inform and define the kind of parent we become. So it was quite an important question to ask.
One thing I learned was that foster parents cannot use physical punishment on foster children under their care. It is a sacrosanct rule. Some of these children come from homes with child abuse issues, and using physical punishment might remind them of their past, causing them to feel hurt or threatened. So the foster homes must be sensitive to this. Physical or any other forms of punishment are not allowed.
Once Michael and Irene were approved to be foster parents, they went for trainings held by Social Service Institute (SSI) where they learnt about topics such as helping children with trauma and attachment issue or with emotional and behavioural needs.
Michael said the lessons were enlightening and very useful.
Their first mentor and instructor for their course, who was also a seasoned foster parent herself, also helped them tremendously. After the sessions, she told them, “I think you two are ready.”
Michael laughed and told me, “I told her you sure or not?” This was because the course really gave a realistic picture of fostering and Michael felt a little apprehensive. But there was no turning back, the couple was determined to forge ahead.
You can put down what age and gender you prefer in the application form, they told me. And what criteria you may have. But it is important to have some give and take. If you have overly stringent criteria, it would be hard to find kids to place with you. But it was also important that the foster parents (and the biological parents) were comfortable with the arrangements.
For example, Michael and Irene told the MSF that they had no helper and needed to attend church. So the foster children would need to come along with them when they went. The biological parents of the foster children in their care were fine with it, so that was that.
Sometimes, schools or childcare arrangements may need to change too, depending on the circumstances of the foster child.
When the foster children are placed with a couple, there may be an estimated timeframe but sometimes, due to circumstances, the timeframe can extend. Michael and Irene said they were mentally and emotionally prepared for that scenario. One year can become two, perhaps because the foster child’s family circumstances did not improve.
Fostering ends at 18 but in some cases, foster parents continue to look after the child until he turns 21 with support from MSF.
Yes, there is a monthly fostering allowance provided by the State to help defray the cost of caring for the foster children such as food, clothing, transport, school fees and other needs. Medical Fee Exemption Card (MFEC) is also provided and this will fully cover the Foster's child medical expenses at polyclinics and government hospital. There will also be subsidies for infant care, childcare and student care.
But don’t ask foster parents how much money they are “making” from this. Nobody does this for money. Love is the only currency they give and receive. You really have to have the heart to take fostering on. It is a huge responsibility to take care of someone else’s child and provide a stable and loving environment for the vulnerable.
In my next post, I shall share some of the challenges Michael and Irene faced along the way.
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/msffostering1. Alternatively, you can call 6354 8799, WhatsApp 9645 8231 or email [email protected]