OK, so this might come across as a little controversial, but from my 17½ years as a Brit living in Asia, I think there are times when, in my position as an outsider, it is right for me to challenge the presiding cultural norms of a nation.
I work for Care for Children, a British-based charity (perhaps ‘non-profit international child welfare development agency’ is a better description, but you get the gist) that specialises in helping Asian governments develop family-based care initiatives (primarily long-term foster care) as a positive alternative to institutional care (orphanages) for orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children.
We could probably fund our work twice over if we had a pound for every time someone said to us, ‘but fostering is not cultural in that country’. Unsurprisingly, this is said by people outside of Asia who learn about our work for the first time. But perhaps more surprisingly, it is also one of the first reactions by locals in the countries we are working in: ‘it’s not cultural to foster in our country, as families believe it will be bad luck’. It’s a self-perpetuating myth, and in Thailand, where my family and I are currently living and working, it’s based on a complex mix of Buddhism, tradition, superstition and, well, ignorance.
Lord Laming, previous Chief Inspector of Social Services in the UK and Chairman of Care for Children’s Board of Trustees (now Patron), once told me that he viewed foster families as ‘heroes of the State’, and that they are a remarkable group of people who do a job on behalf of the government that he knows he couldn’t. It wasn’t a cultural obstacle for Lord Laming, but a recognition of the pragmatic compassion, availability, and ‘stick-ability’ of foster parents that he couldn’t match.
Let’s be honest – I would guess that 90% of adults in the UK haven’t seriously considered fostering or adopting. I’m sure most will be aware of the opportunity, but it’s just not on their radar (and for a variety of valid reasons). The same goes for adults in Thailand, and probably almost any nation in the world. But also in most nations, you only need less than 1% of the population to respond to the opportunity to foster, and the need will be met. The key therefore, is about creating the opportunity, raising awareness, and trusting that special 1% will come forward.
One of the very first foster carers in Chiang Mai was a single mum (pictured), with grown-up children, who I’ve visited a number of times now, and who can certainly be considered as one of Lord Laming’s heroes. When she started fostering, her whole village advised her against it. ‘He will bring bad luck to the family… What if he steals your children’s inheritance when he’s older? He will bring his troubles with him…’ and so on. And yet, stirred by a compassion stronger than her perceived reputation, she stepped over any ‘cultural’ barriers in her way, and embraced a vulnerable, parent-less boy into the warmth and security of her own home, where he’s been ever since.
“What do your neighbours think of you now?”, I ask.
“I don’t mind”, she responds, truthfully. “I have the support of my children and their families, who live just over there, and that’s all I need.”
Following a successful three-year pilot project in Chiang Mai, in August 2015 Care for Children launched a National Foster Care Project in partnership with the Thai Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, which is working with all government Child Welfare Homes in the country, training their staff to become family placement workers, in order to safely place, and then monitor, children in foster families in their local communities. In 2016, Care for Children’s Thai project has delivered 53 training workshops to 242 caregivers who represent 2,535 children in orphanages, and, much to many people’s surprise, 637 children in foster care. Since launching the China project in 1998, and assisting with the development of new legislative support in 2014, we estimate over 300,000 children have been placed into good, local families throughout the country!
So, when someone queries whether it’s cultural in Thailand to foster, or in any of the other nations we’re working with (China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia), I don’t hesitate to challenge the myth, and share how foster parents are the world’s cross-cultural superheroes for vulnerable children.