A recent South China Morning Post report that sixty newborn babies were stuck living in hospital because there were no foster homes for them to go has renewed calls for the government to do better for vulnerable children.
As well as the 3,700 children who already live in residential care, at any time there are between 400-600 children on the waiting list. That means they are stuck in unsafe situations, without proper medical, emotional and often nutritional care.
One solution, which non-profit groups have been urgently calling on the government to do, is to increase the number of placements available. But with few families willing to foster, additional places would generally come in the form of institutionalised care; this solution is not what Hong Kong’s children deserve.
The longer a child stays in temporary housing, the more likely they are to suffer from mental and physical illnesses, and the more likely they are to be homeless, unemployed and fall into substance abuse and teenage pregnancy.
“And the cost to the government is huge, because it’s very expensive to keep a child in care” says Chloe Banks, Communications Manager at Mother’s Choice, a non-profit that works with crisis pregnancies and facilitates adoptions. “When young people ‘age out’ of the care system at 18, they are often reliant on the government for the rest of their lives through welfare.”
So the second solution is adoption. The benefits of adoption are well documented. Placing a child into a loving, permanent family provides stability, consistency and routine which leads to improved educational, emotional, social and physical wellbeing. And of course the invaluable love and care of a family forever.
But Hong Kong’s adoption rate is very low when compared with other developed nations around the world. With just 2.51 adoptions per 100,000 people, Hong Kong’s adoption rate is extremely low.
So why are children not being taken out of the broken adoption system and placed into adoptive families?
The first reason is perhaps the most worrying; children are not being released for adoption. In other developed countries, Social Welfare Departments have strict time limits on when decisions must be made about whether a birth family has the right to retain custody of a child. In the USA, for example, the time limit is 22 months.
In Hong Kong, however, no such time limit exists, and social workers are able to just let children float from family to family with no plan for permanency. “What should happen is that [the birth family’s] parental right should be released, and that has to happen within the court. And then the child can have an opportunity to join an adoptive family,” says Chloe Banks.
Birth parents of foster children are given steps that they must follow to show that they are actively working to provide adequate, safe care for their children. But when these steps are not followed, instead of social workers making the decision to step in and remove custody to give children a chance to settle permanently in a new home, social workers tend to let the foster care drag on and on.
This leads to children living their whole lives in temporary homes, waiting for someone to commit to them as a parent, but being failed by the social welfare system that is supposed to protect them. When they “age out” of the system at 18, they have never had a permanent home and tend to have low educational attainment which leads to higher chances of unemployment.
Lack of decision from Social Welfare can put children at serious risk. Recently in Hong Kong, a girl whose father killed her mother was not permanently separated from her father. She was even made to do home visits and spend family holidays with him. Thankfully a new social worker was assigned to her case and heard that the girl was terrified of her father, but by then it was too late as the girl was about to turn 18 and could no longer be legally adopted.
But even when children are released for adoption, it is not easy for families to be found who are willing to adopt, partly due to financial requirements. Compared with other countries, the fees to adopt a child in Hong Kong are actually very low. Adoptive families pay up to US$40,000 to adopt in the USA.
In Hong Kong, the Social Welfare only charges HK$3,350 in fees for adoption. The difficulty comes when families have to show they have high amounts of disposable income.
Potential parents are required to show over HK$28,000 disposable monthly income if they would like to adopt a child, and over HK$36,000 if they would like to adopt two (or already have one child.)
“For a lot of families, the financial requirement would just make the whole process of adoption not a realistic possibility, because you have to really be earning a much higher amount than the median income,” says Nick Banks, who is currently in the process of adopting his first child.
But still, there are families in Hong Kong who are willing to adopt, and meet the financial requirements. Most of these families only want to adopt newborn babies with no health issues and from an “untroubled” family background.
The vast need in Hong Kong however is for older children, some of whom have special needs, to be adopted into a safe, loving and permanent home. But the social stigma that exists in Hong Kong society around adoption and special needs means that couples are not willing to consider an older child; it is easier for couples to hide an adoption from friends and family if the child is a newborn.
Non-profits such as Mother’s Choice, Adoptive Families of Hong Kong, and Po Leung Kuk are dedicated to helping not only find adoptive families for children in Hong Kong, but to helping to break the taboo around adoption in Hong Kong, and give our at-risk children a chance at a stable, loving and permanent family forever.
The Hong Kong Social Welfare Department were not available for comment.
Words, images, video and graphics: Louise Joachimowski