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Raising children is an important life choice — it takes money, time and emotional investment.
Which is why foster families, who provide alternative care arrangements for children below 18 in need of a safe, stable and nurturing home, are particularly sacrificial in their service.
Fostering requires that this family maintain a low profile while caring for foster children, to protect their identities while providing a safe space for them to grow.
They don’t expect praise for doing their job.
The Pride spoke with a family to hear their perspectives on the realities of fostering children in Singapore.
A fresh start
In 2011, Emilia, 48, wanted to resign from her job and start volunteering.
Like it was meant to be, her husband Anwar, 52, came across a brochure for fostering when he went to the mosque for his Friday prayers.
We are not giving their full names to protect the identities of their foster children.
So the couple, who have one biological daughter, came to a mutual decision to start fostering. That journey over the past 11 years has been a blessing in disguise, they say.
According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), fostering allows at-risk children to benefit from a safe, stable and nurturing home environment, and be able to grow healthily and fulfil their potential.
Foster care gives children from disadvantaged backgrounds a positive experience of family life, which they may not have had in their natural family setting.
And it is an important guiding principle for the couple.
“Fostering is to let other children stay with you, to give them shelter, love, encouragement and give them a safe place,” says Emilia.
Since they started on this journey, they have taken care of over 10 children, sometimes more than one at a time. There was one period, recalls Emilia with a laugh, that they took care of four fosters at once.
“There were twins as well; it was chaotic, but fun!”
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Now with new MSF rules, they care for one child at one time to ensure each child gets the attention that they need.
The latest data from MSF shows there were 564 foster families in 2020, up from 530 the year before. This number has steadily increased over the years.
The family mostly takes care of children aged from infant to 6 years old, including some children with special needs.
“Often, when these children first join them, some of the foster kids are not very well behaved because they had come from broken homes.
The missing piece in the family
This is why the family — Emilia, Anwar and their 19-year-old daughter Alya — work together to help these children to be better individuals before eventually returning them to their biological parents when they are ready to care for their own kids again.
As Anwar shares with The Pride, fostering is only temporary.
Despite the sacrifices they had made over the years, the family was unanimous when I asked them about their biggest challenge.
“The hardest part about fostering is letting go.”
The couple shared with me their first fostering experience with a baby girl whom they took care of from when she was just seven days old — Alya was just eight years old then. They raised her for six years before returning her to her biological mother.
It is very hard on them to give a child whom they see grow up before their eyes. The kids that they foster become a part of their family.
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For Emilia, it was a difficult lesson to learn. How do you love a child, knowing that in a few short years, you would never see them again?
“It taught us that we cannot get too attached. Similarly, for the children, we cannot let them get too attached to us as it would be harder for them to let go.”
The family had to instil in their fosters that their time with them was only temporary. This makes it easier for the children to return to their biological parents.
The children who enter the foster system often come from broken homes and some might not be in contact with their biological parents due to their young age.
Contact after the children return to their biological parents varies depending on the scenario.
Some biological parents keep in contact with the foster family and so they still get to hear about how well the children are progressing with their lives. Mostly, however, the foster family do not keep in contact with the children and their biological families.
“Sometimes it’s better if we let go, so it’s easier for them to understand that we are not their real family.”
Alya,19, tells The Pride that when she was younger, fostering allowed her to have a friend to play with and not feel like she was the only child in the family.
“We also took care of kids with special needs. That taught me to learn how to communicate with them. I also had the chance to babysit children which taught me how to interact and take care of young kids,” says Alya.
The best part about fostering for Emilia was seeing the children’s achievements. She recalls how her favourite part of the day would be when the kids come home from school and show her their artwork or share what they had learnt that day.
“When I hear from their biological mothers that they are doing better than their other siblings, that is an achievement for me,” says Emilia.
Dealing with negativity
One of the questions that the family often has to deal with is: “They are not related to you, why bother?”
In response, Emilia says: “Being able to help these children, to give them a better childhood, equal love and care is enough for us. Every child deserves the same opportunity. What harm have they done at such a young age?”
Although families who foster get an allowance, it seldom fully covers the cost of raising a child in Singapore. Emilia, a Muslim, explains that her family’s blessings did not come from the money they receive but how they believe they are rewarded with rezeki (good fortune in Malay) for their good deeds.
Then there are the logistical challenges.
Family outings are often a challenge when they bring their foster kids out on the weekends.
Nevertheless, it is a way for all of them to bond and give the kids a chance to feel what it is like to go out as a family.
They share how sometimes they would get curious stares from the public for having children with different skin colours. Over the years, they have grown used to the judgy looks.
When I ask how they overcome this, they share that when they get a chance, they explain to those who ask them directly about their family to debunk any stereotypes they might have on fostering.
“People are always curious over things that they don’t have any knowledge about,” says Alya.
Anwar shares how there are days when he sleeps on the living room couch when the younger foster children want to sleep with Emilia in their bedroom.
Alya too, shares how she has had to sacrifice her personal space and share her room with these kids.
“Some days, I had to study for my exams in the dark with a flashlight because I could not turn on the lights in my room as the kids would be sleeping,” she says.
Babysitting the kids is also a communal effort. Alya says: “If my mum was not available to take care of the kids, I would have to do it.”
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Over the years, foster practices have also evolved.
Child protection officers would regularly come to their homes to check on the condition of the home and their capabilities to foster.
They shared how new rules are being added. And that officers are constantly reviewing their cases to see if they were financially and emotionally fit to be foster parents.
For example, now foster children need a room by themselves, when in the past, this wasn’t mandatory.
Other than that, the family attends courses provided by their fostering agency to better understand and care for foster kids.
“Fostering requires the whole family’s commitment,” says Anwar. “But there is a lot of joy in the process.”
What can we do?
Foster families are always in demand and the family encourages those who are capable of fostering to think about contributing. One important piece of advice though, it has to be a family decision as it is a full time commitment for everyone.
The family has never regretted starting their service to society and they have no plans to stop anytime soon.
Anwar says: “Every day, fostering brings blessings and positivity to our family.”