Recently, the LIGHT team has been invited by the Shenyang Orphanage to help them care for a group of children in foster care. Approximately 180 abandoned special needs children are cared for by families in a town about two hours out of Shenyang. Every other week a team of residents, attendings, a nurse, and a couple of non-medical people are joined by orphanage staff to visit the families. Children are brought to the home of one of the foster families where the doctors assess the children simultaneously in a small room, on top of a kang. It is quite a busy scene!
Since every one of the children has a special need, and since this is probably the first time that any of them have had a full assessment, there is quite a bit of work to be done. The families are gracious and patient. They have invested so much of themselves into these children – many of them care for two foster kids – and they seem grateful for someone taking time to ask them about their children. As you may imagine some of these children require 24/7 attention. Some of the stories of development are amazing! These families, are poor, uneducated, with no formal training about how to care for these special needs children, yet most of them are doing quite well. Of course, so much more can be done for them, but I have no doubt that they have made much more developmental progress in these homes than they would have in an institution. The strategies for communication and individual education developed between child and care-giver can only be worked out within the intimate confines of a family.
While better than institutionalization, this system is far from perfect. The medical, therapeutic, and educational needs of these children is far from being met. Hopefully, our presence, assessments, commitment, and care will help lead to more services for these children. We feel privileged just to have been asked to help out and look forward doing more. If you are a special education teacher, physical or occupational or speech therapist and want to come help – consider yourself invited!
Foster care in China is not a new concept at all, but it wasn’t necessarily thought of in the way we think of it today.
Villagers and extended families often helped in rearing children who could not be cared for by their own family. However, in the last few decades, as the orphanage system began to get overwhelmed with children (one-child policy, scaling back of government health services) foster care became a government social welfare scheme to pay rural unemployed families to care for unwanted children temporarily, until the orphanage was ready to take them “back where they belong”. Families did not have the community/village mind set of caring for each others’ children, and the screening was either perfunctory, irrelevant or not done at all. It was a way to make money, and the interests of children were not central, and many of them got hurt, which then gave foster care a bad rap.
However, foster care is a good thing and more and more programs – private and government-run – are springing up all over the country. Recognition of the benefits of foster care are leading to better oversight and promotion of foster care in China. Even so, fighting the idea that orphans are best cared for in Orphanages, Child Welfare facilities and other institutions remains an uphill battle in this country. Fostering and having large families (or at least larger than one child) is something that Chinese families value and desire. Please help fuel this movement of seeing all abandoned children in families by supporting foster care and orphans, rather than institutions in China!