SINGAPORE: With four children of their own, you would think that this couple would already have their hands full as parents - much less go out on a limb to care for someone else’s children.
But foster parents Mr Ismail Atan, a crane operator, and Madam Zawiyah Wee Abdullah, a housewife, could not bear the thought of neglected or abused children growing up without a family.
Thus, they opened their doors to them. For example in 2002, seven-year-old Saiful (not his real name) arrived at their flat - with his sister and two brothers in tow.
Madam Zawiyah said: “I still remember they came in a taxi, four siblings together. I was quite shocked and it really saddened me to see their condition
“They weren’t properly fed and in a mess. His sister’s head was full of lice. We had to clean them up.”
This brought the total number of people living under their modest roof to 10. But it did not deter the couple - or their own children - from giving the fosterlings the love and discipline they needed, for the two years that they stayed with them.
Saiful, now 22, said: “They took care of me and they taught me good values. I feel I’m a better person now and I will never forget that. I will never forget what they did for me.”
WATCH: The family's story (2:07)
Over 15 years, the family has cared for more than 20 vulnerable children, including those with special needs, such as a baby who needed to be tube-fed every few hours.
The couple are part of the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) fostering scheme, which helps place children-in-crisis with families who provide a safe home.
Their story is told on Friday (Feb 24) at 9.30pm on the Mediacorp Channel 5 programme On The Red Dot, in a special series about how it takes a village - strong communities, friendships and families - to help people in crisis get back on their feet again.
FROM NEIGHBOUR, TO ADOPTIVE MOTHER
Madam Zawiyah said: “One fine day, I was reading a newspaper article about these abandoned kids. It got me thinking, what happens to them and where do they go?
“And then at the end of the article, there was this number to call, so out of curiosity, I called.”
The whole family agreed to the idea of fostering. “We looked forward to it mainly because we love kids,” daughter Juliana said. “There’s no privacy, but I think it’s just a little sacrifice on our part. You know that you are sacrificing for these children who are less fortunate.”
What the family was doing did not go unnoticed by a neighbour. Madam Mahani Jahaya, who had a son of her own, offered to pitch in and help the Ismail family when she could, such as helping to chaperone the children on outings.
One little girl, in particular, caught her heart. Nur came under Madam Zawiyah’s care when she was just 10 days old and grew up for six years with the family.
When it came time for Nur to be put up for adoption, Madam Mahani stepped forward.
Ms Audrie Siew, MSF’s director of Children in Care Service, said the key focus for foster care is to successfully reunite the children with their natural families. “Once in a while we are not able to reunify the children, and in such cases, then long-term foster care or adoption is an option."
“Adoption, however, is actually quite rare because most of the natural families want the children back,” she added.
As of end-2016, there were 430 children in foster care and 420 foster parents. Prospective foster parents must be financially stable, over 25 years of age, preferably married and have a safe home environment
The ministry supports foster families by providing S$936 a month for each child’s costs and by matching a foster care officer to support the foster parent and child.
Watch this episode of It Takes a Village on On The Red Dot, Friday, Feb 24, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.