SINGAPORE: He can’t speak properly, but Eugene’s* doleful eyes say it all. He wants more cake.
The little boy climbs onto Alan Tan, or “daddy’s” lap, stretches out his arms for the box of kueh right at the tip of his hands. Mr Tan, with his hands on Eugene’s waist, pulls him back gently. He doesn’t chide the child or raise his voice.
Ever since Mr Tan and his wife Elizabeth Choo, learnt of Eugene’s conditions, they vowed to be the most patient and gentle they could with him.
The three-year-old is one of 92 children with developmental needs out of 542 foster children in Singapore as of June 2019, according to data from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). While the ratio of foster children with developmental needs has remained at about 15 per cent over the last three years, MSF said it can be challenging to place them in foster care because they may require higher levels of care and commitment.
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Eugene was diagnosed with global developmental delay in 2017 and autism in May 2019. “We feel sad seeing this child go through so many hurdles,” Mr Tan said.
"FELT LIKE THIS WAS FATED"
Mr Tan and Mdm Choo, 46 and 47 respectively, first heard about fostering in 2010. Mdm Choo’s interest was piqued after she listened to an interview with a foster family over the radio. She told her husband, but they shelved the idea. They weren’t feeling up to the task yet.
Four years later, Mr Tan was volunteering at the then-Canossaville Children's Home when he was told about the local fostering scheme.
Mr Tan broached the topic with his wife. This time, they went ahead. In 2015, they began the application process, and underwent foster care training in 2016. They brought Eugene home in September that year.
MSF said that details about Eugene’s background cannot be revealed to protect his identity, but they shared that children are put up for foster care either because they have been abused, neglected or abandoned. In other cases, their parents are unable to care for them due to imprisonment, physical or mental illness, or one or both parents are dead.
A week before they brought Eugene home, Mr Tan and Mdm Choo spent a few hours every day at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, studying how the nurses fed him, changed him, bathed him. The boy was born three months early with breathing difficulties. They had to learn to be extra careful with him.
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It was love at first sight. “When we met him in the hospital, we felt like this was fated.” Mdm Choo gushed. “When you carry a child, sometimes they would feel uncomfortable or keep fidgeting. But (Eugene) very calmly fell asleep in my arms.”
“We were very excited to see him,” Mr Tan added. He cracks a smile. “The other thing is somehow he resembles me a bit … the nurse mistook me for the dad.”
DISCOVERING HE HAD SPECIAL NEEDS
Taking care of Eugene gave the married couple of 19 years a new lease of life, even if it meant a life throwing them curveballs. It wasn’t the 3am alarms to feed Eugene as much as his subsequent hospital admissions due to complications resulting from being born premature.
When Eugene turned a year and a half old, the couple filled up a questionnaire during one of their regular reviews at the paediatrician. He had not been meeting milestones for a typical 18-month-old, such as not being able to take off his clothes or understand simple commands.
He was diagnosed with GDD, an intellectual disability where a child under five is significantly delayed in two or more areas of development, including their motor skills and language abilities.
The couple’s friends also pointed out on multiple occasions that Eugene wasn’t making eye contact in his interactions with people. A psychologist at KK Women's and Children's Hospital diagnosed Eugene with autism during a medical review in 2019.
Discovering Eugene's conditions brought on heartache after heartache for his foster parents. Instead of giving up, Eugene’s conditions “triggered us to give better and more support." Mr Tan said.
“This boy really needs lots and lots of care.”
Friends and family have also been nothing but caring, organising playdates and offering to look after Eugene when the couple needed a respite. On weekends at his grandparents, he gets his fair share of his favourite food – roasted pumpkin, broccoli and carrots.
Given Eugene’s conditions, she and her husband realised they had to raise him differently from children without special needs, Mdm Choo said.
“For example, if you have to tell a child (without special needs) something three times, with him you probably have to tell it 10 times. He might still not get it sometimes.”
The Tans try to work around Eugene's visual and auditory learning style, Mdm Choo said. They have three of the same high chairs – one in their flat, and one each in their parents’ homes – so that they can drill into Eugene where he should sit come mealtime.
Dinners are no longer spent in front of the television as well. The family sits at the dining table to set a good example, otherwise “he will copy you”, said Mr Tan.
Whether it is brushing their teeth or showering, parent and child have to do it together. Mdm Choo even used to sing songs that described the activities they were doing, given Eugene’s fondness for music.
Shyly, she warbles out one of the tunes: “This is the way I brush my teeth.”
EXTRA HELP FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN
Under the MSF fostering scheme, each family is assigned a foster care officer. Those looking after children with special needs also receive a higher fostering allowance to help defray the cost of raising the child.
MSF provides the foster parents with a monthly allowance S$1,114 for every child with special needs fostered. A child without special needs receives $936. The allowance helps to defray the daily expenses of the child such as food, clothing, education and tuition.
Foster children are also given priority access and maximum subsidies for the ministry’s disability services and schemes, and a medical fee exemption card is issued to cover the child’s medical expenses at polyclinics and government hospitals, the ministry said.
Besides the usual courses for foster parents to-be, which includes learning how trauma impacts children and the importance of attachment, Mr Tan and Mdm Choo also attended courses conducted by the Social Service Institute on how to care for children with special needs in September and October last year.
THE GIFT OF AFFECTION
For the past seven months, Eugene has been attending special education school. While he still needs to improve his motor skills – he can’t tear a piece of paper or blow a candle out – he has learnt to put on his own shorts and socks now and count to a hundred.
He can express some emotions as well, even if he doesn’t know many words.
“Baby cry” is his way of saying he is upset, said Mr Tan.
And when he’s happy, it’s just “happy”, but with much smiling and dancing, Mdm Choo added.
Eugene has also become more affectionate, to his foster parents’ delight. Mdm Choo recalls one night in June after she came home from dinner. She walked into her room, and Eugene, after a hug, called out “mummy”.
Two months ago, when Mr Tan was playing with Eugene, the boy suddenly stood up and walked towards him and said “I love you”.
Mdm Choo’s face lit up as she described these encounters. “Wah, for him to show affection on his own.”
WANTING TO "HELP MORE CHILDREN"
Three and a half years with Eugene has brought Mr Tan and Mdm Choo, who have no biological children of their own, unprecedented joy. But they are also aware of the inevitable.
The ultimate goal of fostering is for the children to be reunited with their natural parents, MSF said. While under foster care, the children are allowed to regularly meet up with their natural parents.
Eugene meets his natural parents once every two months, said the Tans. He calls them "mama" and "papa".
Foster parents bring the child to an agreed meeting place - usually at MSF or a family service centre - and leaves him or her to spend some time alone with their biological parents.
Mr Tan and Mdm Choo say they are ready for Eugene to eventually reintegrate with his birth family, even if it will be a bittersweet farewell.
In fact, they chose fostering instead of adoption because they felt this could “help more children”, Mdm Choo said.
For now, they will stick to one as they are still learning how to manage Eugene and his disabilities, but Mr Tan said they are open to welcoming others in the future.
Most children in vulnerable circumstances who are not under foster care will be placed under residential care in homes such as the Boys' Town and Muhammadiyah Welfare Home.
MSF said that placing vulnerable children, especially those with development needs, into residential care is the last resort.
If a child with special needs is placed into one of these homes, it will ensure the home’s structure and programmes suit the child and the staff are trained to care for children with special needs, the ministry said.
As of June 2019, there were 659 children in residential care, said MSF. About 10 per cent of them have developmental needs.
Beyond the satisfaction finally becoming parents has brought them, Mr Tan and Mdm Choo say they have come to appreciate people of all abilities.
“Initially, we asked why this happened to him. Why can’t he be a normal child,” said Mdm Choo. “But we’ve come to accept the fact that everyone is born differently.”
“In fact, this compels us love him even more (because) he deserves a lot of love from us”.
*The name of the foster child in this story has been changed to protect his identity.