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When the family environment is a precious gift

Fostering is an effective way of providing family life for children who cannot live with their own parents. Boase Cohen & Collins Partner Lisa Wong examines how this valuable service is carried out in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, 14 December 2020: Parents are feeling the pressure again as Covid-19 causes schools to close once more and students are consigned to another period of online learning. For many adults, it means juggling work commitments with day-time supervision of their children. In these circumstances, it is worth taking a moment to acknowledge the dedication of Hong Kong’s foster parents and to explain the support network which assists them in carrying out their vital role.

More than 900 young people are currently in foster care in our city, according to the Social Welfare Department (SWD). These are minors whose parents cannot adequately take care of them due to special family circumstances, but being in foster care allows them to continue enjoying family life until they can re-unite with their families, join an adoptive family or live independently.

There are multiple reasons why a child may be in foster care. It could be because of a serious family illness, family breakdown, or a situation where their welfare is threatened. Some youngsters may have experienced neglect or abuse. As a result, their behaviour can sometimes be difficult and challenging.

Foster care is provided by the SWD, which works closely with 11 foster care agencies to recruit foster families, conduct training programmes and give continuous support. Foster parents should obviously have a fondness for children, plus experience and ability in child care. They are required to be in good mental and physical health, with solid finances, adequate living space and a stable family environment. Crucially, fostering requires the consent of all immediate family members – especially important in cases where there are existing children in the home – and the parents must be willing to accept investigation and guidance from social workers.

Fostering can be a voluntary process or, in special circumstances, imposed by court order. A maximum of two children may be fostered by a family. As well as standard foster care, where a child’s stay would typically last several months or even years, emergency fostering provides immediate and short-term residential family care – usually not exceeding six weeks – for minors whose parents cannot look after them due to crisis situations. The average length of stay in foster care is just less than three years. The age range for fostering is from newborns up to 18, with children aged 6-11 accounting for more than a third of cases.

Applications for fostering should be made to social workers in integrated family centres, medical social service units or other social service units for assessments. Suitable cases are referred to the SWD’s Central Foster Care Unit (CFCU) for screening before being relayed to the foster care agencies.

After receiving referrals from the SWD, agency social workers will contact the children and their parents to understand their needs as well as the current care arrangement. They will seek to match the children to foster homes which best suit their needs and then arrange a meeting between all parties – the children, birth parents and foster parents – to reach consensus. Matching and placement are usually done within three months

Couples wishing to become foster parents should submit an application to the CFCU or one of the agencies, after which they will undergo assessment, including interviews and home visits, and background checks.

The SWD and agencies organise orientation briefings and training for foster parents. There are case reviews, discussions and visits by the social workers to monitor the service. Regular meetings with all parties are held to devise a long term welfare plan for the foster child. An important facet of this is ensuring foster children maintain regular contact with their own families.

Modest non-taxable allowances are available to foster parents, including a monthly Maintenance Grant of HK$6,402 towards the child’s upkeep and a monthly Incentive Payment of HK$4,802 to encourage parents to continue their fostering role.

As for legal ramifications, it is worth noting that foster parents are not legal guardians of the foster children, so they have no custody rights. There is no tailor-made legislation, although there are relevant provisions under the Guardianship of Minors Ordinance (Cap 13), the Protection of Children and Juveniles Ordinance (Cap 213), Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights and Article 20 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Hong Kong is a signatory. In all cases, best interest of the child is paramount.

Fostering is a big decision for couples, one that is not made overnight, and it takes courage and commitment. But giving a child or young person the fresh start they need and providing them with a loving home environment is also hugely rewarding. Here at Boase Cohen & Collins, we are happy to provide essential legal advice and guidance on matters relating to children. 

A Partner with Boase Cohen & Collins since 2014, Lisa Wong’s key practice areas include Family Law, Divorce and Separation, Child Custody and Financial Application. She is Secretary of the Hong Kong Family Law Association, Treasurer of the Hong Kong Collaborative Practice Group and a member of the Law Society of Hong Kong’s Family Law Committee. She is also a qualified mediator and collaborative practitioner. She can be contacted at lisa@boasecohencollins.com.

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