HONG KONG – Life could have turned out very differently for Mary, who like many other 12-year-old girls in Hong Kong enjoys shopping, music and going out with friends, while she dreams of one day travelling the world as a flight attendant.
Mary was taken into foster care when she was three years old, her biological parents addicted to drugs and unable to look after her as they drifted in and out of prison.
But she is one of the luckier ones in a city where a growing number of children are waiting for care as the number of couples who can afford to provide it is falling, social workers say, due to high property costs, a lack of space in the city and the fact that both partners often have to work to support a family.
“In the past there were more extended families that could help relatives in need,” says Jenny Yu, senior social worker at Hong Kong’s largest fostering NGO, the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society (HKFWS).
“But the family system has started to break down. People live apart from each other and even neighbours don’t tend to help each other so more children need community services like foster care.”
She adds that children have to wait up to a year before they can be placed in a family.
Had it not been for the bond Mary has built with her foster mother Carmen, the opportunities she now has might never have come her way.
Carmen, 47, who Mary calls “auntie”, describes how the little girl was withdrawn when she first took her in five years ago – her second foster home since leaving her parents.
“She was afraid, she wouldn’t say anything. She would just sit there without smiling,” she said.
Now the two are obviously close, holding hands when they speak and laughing together.
“We go to the beach to look for crabs and small fish— we catch them with our hands and let them go,” says Mary, describing her favourite weekend activity.
“The weather is sunny and I play with my auntie, and I feel very happy.”
The number of foster care referrals rose from 333 in 2010-2011 to 462 in 2012-2013, while the number of available homes has fallen.
HKFWS estimates that the waiting list is around 100, including those already going through the matching process and those that are deemed “hard-to-place”.
The government says it is trying to broaden the criteria for foster parents, to encourage more people to come forward.
Foster carers are currently paid $6,000 (US$770) a month for each child they take on.
“Some families may find that the allowance is limited,” said Yu. “The other reason I think is the practical problem, because the living space in Hong Kong is also quite congested and normal families may not have extra bed space for children.”
Asked whether a bigger financial incentive would help, Gordon Poon,officer in charge of the central foster care unit said: “Foster care is not employment, it’s not a job — we sell it as a love service, not for money.”
Professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, Nelson Chow, says today’s foster parents are more likely to be be older, with younger couples unable to afford the space they need.
“Twenty years ago NGOs were looking at couples in their 30s with one child to become foster parents. Now they are looking for more mature adults whose own children have left home,” Chow told AFP.
For Carmen, a full-time housewife who has two daughters aged 18 and 21 and another nine-year-old foster daughter, it was a love of children that inspired her.
“I just thought it was a good thing to do and I didn’t worry about money,” she says.
“My biggest stress was about how other family members would adjust. But I was very happy at my own daughters’ openness. They used to have arguments with each other, but now they have a better relationship.”
Promoting the benefits fostering can bring to family life may be one way to encourage more people to sign up, says Yu, as well as giving more public recognition to the role.
“There is very little recognition or appreciation for foster families,” she says, suggesting tangible benefits such as tax exemptions might also be an incentive.
In Mary’s eyes, it’s simple— life with Carmen has brought her the affection and stability her biological parents were unable to provide.
“I think of my parents sometimes and I want to rely on them, like other children do,” says Mary.
“But they promise to buy me something or take me somewhere and they often miss the appointment or cannot be reached, which makes me upset,” she says.
“I don’t have contact with them that often.”
Instead she now has a loving family home and an environment that may help her to one day get the job of her dreams.
“I hope that Auntie can try her best to take care of me until I’m 18. After that, I can leave, be by myself and start working. If I manage to be a flight attendant, I’ll fly everywhere and be very happy. My dream would come true.”
* Mary and Carmen’s names have been changed