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Farewells in Fostering: Transforming Trajectories

The almost 4-year-old stamped his feet and pouted; his face scrunched up in deep agony. And it seemed that nothing we said would do. K was headed towards a full-blown tantrum and we dreaded to think how long it would take to calm him down.

It was at that moment that our almost 9-year-old chose to ask the question, "K, are you crying because you don't want to leave us?"

The little boy stopped his pouting, as he nodded and sobbed. It was a heart-wrenching flow of tears as he clung onto Mummy with koala-like tenacity. Sue later described it as a "desperate pleading look".

K would repeat his sobbing and his hugging over the next few days. And as he articulated to us after he was calm, it was a desperate plea for help. 

"I don't want to leave Mummy and Daddy. I want to stay here. "

Taken at the River Safari on one of the last days before K's departure. "Take a photo of me with the turtles, Mummy!" he kept asking, at each turtle exhibit we encountered, with a look of pure joy on his face.

The worst part of fostering is the leaving. Yes, when we first take on a foster child we know that he or she will one day leave us. That is the inherent premise of fostering - to care for a vulnerable child so that the birth family would one day be able to take charge again one day. 

But theory and reality are often night and day.

How can we say goodbye to a child who has been with us for the past 1/1/2-years within the span of just over a week? And what happens if his departure was confirmed less than a week before it becomes a reality?

K has grown to be a confident boy, enjoying the love of his foster brothers - and also enduring all the other characteristics of being the youngest in a trio of brothers.

It's not easy for us. But it's even more difficult for him. Imagine that when you are 2 years old you are transported away from your birth family to stay with a bunch of strangers. Things are hard because the culture of the new family is so different from what you have always known. And because you are a 2-year-old, you are unable to express your emotions with your words; and do so using the only way you know - by biting or hitting or screaming - which only gets you into more trouble. 

But over the months you generally get better in telling this bunch of strangers, whom you have grown to love, how you feel. Indeed you have grown accustomed to your new family, and you even feel that you are loved by them. 

But one day you are told you have to leave them to live with someone else. By then you are about 4, and you choose to hide your emotions; until you can't and then you break down in tears. Uncontrollably.

That is the world of little K.

This was a photo taken on the first night that K came to stay with us together with his brother J. It was a picture of shock and disorientation.

Yes it has been 1/1/2 years since this little boy came to stay with us. And there have been so many emotions associated with the entire fostering period. 

But I want to focus on the areas that K has changed; and I know that throughout the entire process, he has grown to become more confident, more articulate, more resilient, and more independent. K has also learnt to be somewhat more emotionally regulated. And he is so much happier.

K came to us in the darkness of the night with his brother J, his childcare principal and teacher, and two huge suitcases of clothing and toys. He looked disoriented and miserable; his fingers were always in his mouth, a sign of anxiety. But what we will always remember were his eyes; they expressed a haunting sadness, one which words cannot adequately describe.

K's first Christmas with our family. This photo was taken at one of our families' gatherings. He was all at once exposed to a huge extended family who loved him dearly.

During the early days, whenever we went to the playground, he had trouble scaling the elements and he always threw a tantrum whenever he couldn't get his way. He also had issues playing with others, and often acted up whenever we went to a new place or met different groups of friends.

After his brother J went to another family six months later, K began to develop more in terms of his speech. He still threw tantrums on a regular basis, but he had become more confident at the playground, and he had become more comfortable around the many groups of friends we met. His hitting and biting behaviour seemed to occur less regularly, and he improved in terms of his ability to express himself, learning how to calm himself down and how to stop his tantrums. 

K while visiting the Science Centre for one of its exhibitions. It became evident how curious and inquisitive this boy was from his interactions with the various exhibits,

Looking back 18 months after he first came, K now seems to be a different child from the one who was first ushered into our house. He is now more polite, asking for things using the words "please" and "thank you", and doing more things independently - like feeding and changing himself, cleaning up after his meals, and taking his dirty clothes to the laundry. Friends can see the change, and many of them have remarked that he is more articulate and independent. 

Cycling trip to Coney Island. He was particularly comfortable seated at the back of my bike; a metaphor of how comfortably he had fit into our family.
K has also learnt to play well on his own. He loves his time at the playground, often scaling many of the elements; he walks around and picks up rocks and sticks and even the tail of a lizard. In terms of character he has a heart for people, and often prays for us when we are sick. K possesses a joyful disposition, often singing to himself and to others. He exudes an aura of confidence and cheekiness all embodied in one individual.  

He is safe and he is secure.

One of our favourite photos. This boy loves eating and that seems to be his love language.
This Facebook post I wrote a few days ago encapsulates how he has grown over the past year-and-a-half:

Daddy: Can you play with one toy at a time? I know Nai Nai and Ye Ye gave you many presents. But one at a time, please? One is enough.
K: One is enough.
Daddy: Yes you need to learn to be content. Repeat after me. Content.
K: Content.
Daddy: Yes. You can't have everything. One is enough.
K: I can have everything but I won't be content.
Daddy: Yes K, you are so right.

Riding the pony on his birthday. He told Sue later that he was scared because the horse ride was bumpy, but he smiled so broadly throughout, being the brave boy that he is.
The purpose of fostering is to provide a safe and secure home so that children can thrive and grow to the best of their ability. As counsellors, we feel this is so much more than providing them with the physical aspects such as food and lodging. For us, fostering (and parenting) is also about providing a child with the emotional and mental stability to build his or her self esteem, and hence develop a healthy sense of self and a secure identity. This will then help the child to weather the storms of life. Come what may. 
Celebrating K's 4th Birthday, days before he is supposed to leave us.
We wish we could have done more for him; yet we know the things he has learnt while with us will last way beyond the time he has spent with us.

The things that are imbued during the course of fostering will transform the trajectory of a child, propelling him or her away from the difficult circumstances of the birth family, and helping the child to grow in emotional skills, developing a character that will change the course of life.

Has it been hard? Definitely.

But not something we would not have done.

And we will do it again.

One child. One proverbial sea star back in the ocean. One life forever saved.

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…” I made a difference for that one.”



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