SINGAPORE - After years of wondering if they were ready enough to be foster parents, Pastor Mak Zhe Hao and his wife Cheng Wenshan finally took the plunge and brought home a five-year-old boy in December.
With two children of their own - a son aged eight and a daughter aged 10 - Mr Mak, 35, and his wife felt they wanted to help other children, and not just by donating money to charities.
Ms Cheng, a 37-year-old social worker, said: "In my line of work I've come across many children in need. Their needs remain whether or not there is a pandemic and we want to help them."
They decided the timing was right, since their children are a little older.
Mr Mak said: "We have always been open to the idea but when our own kids were young, we didn't think we had the capacity and ability to care for another child, who would have many needs."
The couple are among more than 30 families who decided to become foster parents last year amid the pandemic, despite the varied challenges that it brought.
The latest data from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) showed there were 564 foster families last year, up from 530 the year before. The number has steadily increased over the years.
The age of foster parents ranges from the late 20s to 60 and above, though most new foster parents are aged between 30 and 50, said an MSF spokesman, in response to queries from The Straits Times.
"In recent years, we see younger couples and couples without their own children stepping forward to become foster parents," she added.
Last year, there were 543 children in foster care, and the year before, there were 545.
These are children or young persons who have been abused, neglected or abandoned, and are in need of care and protection, and foster families take them in, to provide such an environment, albeit temporarily.
These children can also be put in residential care, such as the Boys' Home or Girls' Home. Last year, there were 554 such children or young persons, down from 597 the year before.
Foster care or residential care is usually a temporary arrangement, until it is safe for the children to return to their families.
The numbers in residential care have been steadily falling over the years, as MSF moves towards placing more children in family-based care than residential care.
The proportion of vulnerable children in foster care has grown from about 29 per cent in 2013 to 49 per cent last year.
The MSF spokesman said the ministry's efforts to increase awareness on fostering and recruit more foster parents continued last year amid the pandemic.
Outreach efforts shifted to digital and social media platforms and regular online sharing sessions were conducted.
Mr Mak said the pandemic and circuit breaker actually sped up the family's timeline for fostering.
It was during the circuit breaker that the couple found their own children becoming more independent, and decided to sit them down and start a conversation on fostering.
"We asked them what they thought about fostering, whether they thought there was enough love to bring in another child into the family," said Mr Mak.
"Both kids responded quite positively so we thought the family was ready."
Still, after the five-year-old boy arrived in December last year, there were issues to sort out.
"There was a change in dynamics and tension among the kids sometimes, when miscommunication escalated," said Ms Cheng.
On one occasion, their son asked why his parents did not scold the foster child as much as they scolded him, when he used vulgarities. Mr Mak said: "We helped him understand that the foster child had just joined our family, so we could not give him the exact same rules."
In time, the children learnt to get along better and would even write notes to the foster child and help him with homework, he added.
Ms Cheng said the foster child also picked up healthy ways of coping and expressing himself, and slowly became more open in expressing his feelings.
The foster child is now on home leave, and may not return to the Maks if he is able to reunite with his birth family.
Mr Mak said: "When he had to leave, both our children cried and asked us if they could use their savings to buy something for him so he can remember them.
"They grew to love him like a sibling, and wanted to keep in touch."
The couple are keen to continue fostering other children in need.
Ms Cheng said: "We are ready to, and want to support a child who is in need of a home."
Interested to foster a child? Get in touch with MSF
Foster parents are given a regular allowance to help with the cost of caring for a foster child, a 24-hour emergency hotline number, training, and other resources such as toolkits, said the Ministry of Social and Family Development. Case officers and other professionals, such as psychologists and counsellors, also provide assistance and support to the foster parents during the period of care.
Each foster child is also issued with a medical fee exemption card, and foster parents will receive childcare subsidies if they need to place the child in daycare centres. They can also use their childcare leave if needed.