“You don’t need a big house. You just need a big heart.”
So says foster mom Tia Li Li who, along with her husband Tan Hock Lye, has a full house. The couple, both in their early fifties, call an HDB maisonette home. Their four sons, aged 16 to 28, as well as their second son’s wife, live with them. So do their two foster sons, aged five and nine.
As Li Li says, “space can always be created.” This is just what 456 foster parents in Singapore1 have done: they have made room in their homes and hearts—some for several months and others a few years—for more than 500 children who need homes. These children have been abandoned, neglected or ill-treated by their biological families, or have parents unable to care for them because of health problems or imprisonment. And the need for more foster families is great.
The Tans, who work together in a family business and attend Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church (MC), heard the call to foster after Vivienne Ng gave a sermon at their church. Vivienne, the chief psychologist at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), a Wesley MC member, and also a foster parent, founded HFG, a Christian fostering support network, in 2013.
Before the Tan’s older foster child, John*, came to them, he was grieving and angry that he couldn’t be with his mother. He was also stressed out and fearful about living with a household of total strangers.
After some time, he started to open up. Hock Lye has bonded with John through their shared love of football, and they play at a nearby soccer field every evening. On John’s birthday, they took him for his first experience of a soccer café.
John’s much-older foster siblings also rallied around him, caring for him like extra foster parents. It is this setting of family, which at-risk children can call their own, that makes foster homes preferable to children’s homes. “Children need the experience of residing in a loving family in order to heal some of their past hurts, learn more appropriate ways of relating and behaving, and develop a mental model of what a healthy family might look like,” says HFG’s Vivienne.
For Joseph Gan and Tay Li Ping, both 41, fostering has been a meaningful and practical way for them and their three sons (aged seven, 11 and 16) to reach out together in a sustained, regular manner to those in need. Their family attends Aldersgate MC, where Li Ping serves as a lay preacher. It is also where Joseph and Li Ping first heard Vivienne share about fostering, which led to them attending an HFG tea session at which they heard the call to foster.
“I imagined if my children were ever in a situation where they needed to be placed in a children’s home or a loving foster family—if I would want my children to be with a foster family, why shouldn’t I do the same for another child who is precious to our heavenly Father?” reasons Li Ping, a part-time student at Trinity Theological College.
She and Joseph have made room in their HDB flat for Sam*, 10, who has been with them for three years, and James*, six, who came to live with them earlier this year. Their sons welcomed the new additions and were excited to have new playmates. However, Li Ping had to understand and manage Sam’s tears, anger and fearfulness, which stemmed from past traumas (which many foster children have). Their own three sons did not comprehend why Sam sometimes acted out, and she and Joseph had to be very intentional in teaching the children how to mend relationships.
Both foster families have found their churches to be great sources of support. Li Li’s church friends often give her two foster sons hugs, and their Sunday School teachers pray with and for them. A member from Aldersgate MC takes Sam out for lunch and to his enrichment class on a weekly basis. The Gans’ cell group has been a big extended family for them. “Their spiritual and emotional support,” says Li Ping, “has been invaluable.”
Fostering is a learning journey for foster parents as well as their foster children. Li Li has learnt to trust God more (Proverbs 3:5 is her favourite verse) and to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, especially patience and self-control. Fostering has helped Li Ping with her own relationships with her husband and children, and also deepened her walk with God. “I came to realise that I, too, was broken—just as broken as my foster child. Only He gives me the strength I need to do His work, and He has been faithful in doing so.”
John is the process of transitioning to living with his family again—the ultimate goal of fostering is to provide the children with a safe place until they can go home or are adopted. Li Li recalls when John once fell and hurt himself while playing. She was anxious, but Hock Lye told her, “It’s okay—children need to learn how to fall. We are here to teach them how to get up again.”
*not their real names
1 Statistics from 2009 to 2017 are available from https://www.msf.gov.sg/research-and-data/Research-and-Statistics/Pages/Children-in-Care-Foster-Children-and-Foster-Parents.aspx.
Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message.
Photos courtesy of Tia Li Li and Tay Li Ping