“When I was young, I thought it was shameful to ask for help.”

This is what Janice (not her real name), a young mother suffering from depression, tells The Pride. But in the last year and a half, she has learned that there is nothing embarrassing about asking for help and that there are kind-hearted people ready to lend a hand, even if she may never meet them.

In July 2019, Janice, 24, was at her wits end. Her infant son was just 10 months old and she was having difficulty managing him and herself while her husband was completing his National Service.

She was in desperate need of a break, so at the suggestion of her social worker, Janice approached Boys’ Town Sanctuary Care for help.

Sanctuary Care provides short-term and emergency respite care for babies and young children whose families are experiencing crises that makes it impossible for them to care for their children for a short period of time. It’s a free service and is catered towards those who seek out-of-home care within a family-based environment.

The service caters to infants and children up to the age of eight, with placements lasting up to 90 days. “On average, our clients usually require about 2 weeks of respite care,” says Sheryl Chua, a case worker at Boys’ Town Sanctuary Care.

Respite carers are volunteers and do not receive payment. However, Sanctuary Care provides interim support for necessities such as milk, diapers, clothing, toys, utensils and sterilisers for emergency placements or, in the case of short term placements, till the necessities can be purchased by the carers themselves.

Matches between client and carer are done according to the needs and disposition of child, duration and type of care arrangement. The carer and client never actually meet, in order to protect the volunteer’s privacy.

“We share general details about the respite carer with the client, such as the ethnicity, religious background, and family makeup. We will only place a child if the client consents to the placement,” explains Sheryl.

The short-term arrangement allows the client to take a break and deal with the problems they are facing. Clients include teenage parents needing support, parents with short-term jail sentences, parents facing financial or accommodation issues, parents facing acute medical issues, or caregivers such as grandparents who are overwhelmed and need a break.

“Covid-19 has been a particularly tough time for families in need. While we have not seen a sharp influx in cases thus far, those that have come in have been particularly challenging. These families often face a multitude of issues that require multiple support systems over a longer period of time, are harder for community workers to reach and have children who suffer from developmental and behavioural issues,” Sheryl tells The Pride.

“I had a hard time trusting a stranger to take care of my baby at first”

A brief respite was exactly what Janice needed last year. She was suffering from a major depressive disorder and stress from being a new mother. She was also managing by herself while her husband was completing his National Service.

Because of a strained relationship with her parents and in-laws, Janice was unable to rely on them to provide care for her son, Riki (not his real name). “I felt very alone, and started to have scary thoughts about my safety and Riki’s. Thoughts like, ‘What if I dropped him? What if I dropped the knife on him while he slept in the bouncer next to me in the kitchen?’”

All this stress triggered a severe eczema flare up. At her wits end, she wondered, “Why am I doing this all by myself?”

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At her social worker’s suggestion, she approached Sanctuary Care, who arranged for a respite carer for her infant son.

“I had a hard time trusting a stranger to take care of my baby at first,” Janice admits to The Pride. But as photos and videos of Riki streamed in daily through her case worker, she could see that he was happy and well taken care of. “I was less worried, but it also made me miss him more.”

Family time at Singapore's Beach
Janice’s husband and son on a recent family trip to the beach. Image source: Janice

Her first break was for one week last year and that gave her a chance to stabilise her life. Sanctuary Care has since stepped in to help Janice two more times, each time for a week to give her a breather.

In February, Janice found herself spiralling into depression because of mounting bills and trying to keep her full time job at a bank. But Riki kept falling sick, and she had to keep taking time off to tend to him. It affected her performance and eventually she left her job.

During this placement, Janice was able to seek psychiatric treatment for her depression. “This time, I felt assured that I could leave him in someone else’s care. Though I missed him, it was a nice break because Riki was becoming clingier and it was harder for me to practise self-care.”

Freelance illustrator's work
Some examples of Janice’s work. Image source: Janice

Janice’s husband, 23, has since finished his National Service and works as a delivery rider. Janice is working as a freelance illustrator and takes on commissioned work so that she can work from home and care for Riki.

Although their household income has risen, this also means they are no longer eligible to rent government housing. However, Janice is filled with more optimism about facing her problems. “I’ve learnt that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.”

“I feel that my experience and love for children can add value to others”

Somewhere else in Singapore lives homemaker Patricia Tan, who has been caring for Janice’s son.

“I was very hands-on in bringing up my own children. Motherhood brought me great joy, and now that my children have grown up, I am at a season of life where I feel that my experience and love for children can add value to others,” says Patricia, 53, on why she wanted to volunteer with Sanctuary Care.

She was slightly apprehensive about how the experience would turn out, however. But the staff at Sanctuary Care were assuring and responsive.

“During placements, they were very supportive and attentive. It gave me great comfort to know they were journeying with me, and they were always just a call away if I needed help or advice,” Patricia says.

Her family now looks forward to getting placements. “My children and husband are just as excited as me. They keep asking me when the next placement would be. Like me, they find it very meaningful to be able to help a family in crisis stay together.”

Sanctuary Care sees an average of 57 cases a year. A little known fact is that the bulk of Sanctuary Care’s respite carers are non-Singaporeans. Currently, three out of five respite carers in Sanctuary Care’s system are expatriates.

“We do have a sizeable portion of expatriates volunteering with us because we recognise that they have the potential to contribute to our community and are a relatively untapped resource,” explains Sheryl.

One of Sanctuary Care’s expat respite carers, Katherine Thayre, came to Singapore with her husband, Darren, and two daughters, aged 7 and 3, seven years ago. The British and Iranian expatriates relocated to Singapore from Dubai for Darren’s job and are now permanent residents.

Katherine shares: “Both of us work full time in corporate jobs, which we like but always felt that we needed to do something more fulfilling and to give back to the community. I heard about Sanctuary Care through an online interview I saw with an existing respite carer – it made me realise this was something we could do that would be of immense help to families in need.”

Since serving as respite carers last year, the Thayres have cared for two children.

“We enjoyed both experiences immensely – for us, having a house filled with children playing and being happy brings us great joy. It feels like a small effort on our part which brings great benefit to another family.”

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Top Image: Janice (not her real name)