Handprints and footprints on a page

Updated: 2015-03-13 08:12

By Zhao Xu(China Daily Europe)

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Foster care program gives orphaned children loving parents and new lives

Yang Binbin says she lived for 45 years before feeling "utterly protected", by no one else but her three foster children, all suffering from severe illnesses.

"It was just a normal afternoon last year, and I suddenly felt overwhelmed by fatigue and dizziness while doing household chores. My forehead was burning and my limbs were weak. Sensing that any remaining energy had been sapped of me, I lay down on the sofa. I slept for I don't know how long before finally waking up and feeling the weight of a blanket. Through bleary eyes I saw all three of my girls - Shushu, Tingting and Doudou - standing right beside me."

Handprints and footprints on a page

Happy family: Yang Binbin with her husband and their three "children". Photos provided to China Daily

Handprints and footprints on a page

1. Gesture of love: Yang Binbin taught Tingting, her four-year-old "daughter", to make the shape of a heart with her deformed hands.

Handprints and footprints on a page

2. Jenny Bowen, founder of Half the Sky Foundation, with her two adopted Chinese daughters.

Handprints and footprints on a page

3 & 4. Indelible memories: The Diary of Growth Yang has kept for her "children".

"Seeing me moving, the two little ones cheered with joy while their elder sister immediately turned around and hushed them. 'Quiet! Mum needs rest,' she said. That was the moment I knew I was being protected, like never before. The girls were angels without wings, watching over me and safeguarding me."

Yang, now 45, became the foster mother of these angels in 2011 when she chanced upon an ad in an orphanage where she had once worked as a nanny. "I went back there with my husband to see the children and found out that they were looking for 'parents' for some orphans with disabilities," she says. "My husband said to me. 'We would make perfect parents, wouldn't we?'"

The project Yang has taken part in, in which a couple live with three or four disabled children from orphanages, is underwritten by local orphanages and Half the Sky Foundation, a NGO registered in the United States and dedicated to helping orphaned children in China. It was founded by Jenny Bowen, 69, in 1998, a year after she adopted an abandoned girl from an orphanage in Guangzhou, southern China.

"Parents who fall in love with their children know instinctively that at least one consistent, loving adult is crucial for the child's healthy development, mental and physical," Bowen says. "Some children who grow up in institutions without experiencing that love are unable to form emotional attachments of any kind. It's also worth noting that a small child's experiences dictate how her brain is wired. Each stimulus - each kiss, each story, each sunset - promotes the development of brain cells. Holding and stroking an infant stimulates the brain to release growth hormones, without which a child will often fail to thrive."

Bowen and her colleagues have been trying to introduce what they call responsive care to Chinese orphanages, both by providing them with nannies trained by the Half the Sky Foundation and by offering training to their staff. Changes this approach has wrought in the children have been remarkable. But no amount of "loving, family-like care", as Bowen calls it, can really compare with that of a family. That realization eventually gave birth to the project, in 2005.

"We have great nannies at the orphanage who give their all to the children," says Zhang Zhirong, who worked at the China Population Welfare Foundation before joining the foundation after he retired in 2000.

"But mentally and emotionally, a family is a unique, irreplaceable entity. And a family is not a family unless it looks like one, with mother and father and siblings." There are stringent requirements for couples wanting take part in the project, in which about 30 Chinese orphanages, in collaboration with the foundation, have participated.

"The couple must live in a designated apartment provided to them by the orphanage free of charge," Zhang says. "They must not live with other members of their original family, including any children they have. The husband can still have his own job, but the wife must take her new role as her sole undertaking."

The mother receives a monthly salary of between 1600 yuan and 1800 yuan ($256-$288; 240 euros-269 euros), depending on the local economy. In addition, each child will take with him or her to the family an allowance the local government provides, usually between 600 yuan and 1200 yuan, which must only be spent on covering the child's needs.

Guan Weiwei, former vice-director of the China Center for Children's Welfare and Adoption, part of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, says the effort to reintroduce abandoned children to families was first made in China in the early 1990s, with the help of Save the Children, an international charity based in London.

"Two decades ago, Chinese orphanages were overcrowded," Guan says. "There were simply not that many beds. And progress on the adoption front, where more complicated procedures were involved, was slow.

Against that backdrop the Chinese government turned to fostering, a practice that had been carried out in the UK for many years."

However, from the very beginning, fostering in China took on a meaning different to that in Europe. "In the West there were few abandoned children, healthy or not," Guan says. "And children who are put in the care of foster parents are often those whose own parents are deemed unfit for parenthood. These include prison inmates, drug users, child abusers or even pedophiles.

"In many cases the children will one day be returned to their original families after, say, the parent has completed a prison term or has stopped taking drugs. In other cases it is expected that the foster parents will eventually adopt the child, to stop him or her from being hurt twice."

This contrasts with what happens in China, Guan says.

"Almost all the children in Chinese orphanages have been abandoned by their own parents. Twenty years ago there were many girls. These days 95 percent of the children have disabilities, which, to varying degrees, reduces their chances of being adopted. All that is exacerbated by the fact that an adoption culture barely exists in China.

Zhang Yuxia, former director of an orphanage in the city of Hefei, Anhui province, has intimate knowledge of the problems and compromises in China's foster-care arrangements.

"In the past, most people who applied to be foster parents were from financially strapped rural families living in urban fringes," she says. "Money played a major role in their decisions, although true feelings for the children did develop over time."

The practice was controversial from the start, says Zhang Yuxia. "Disabled children need an equal amount of care, if not more. Overwhelmed by farm work and with little education, these foster parents from rural families had barely thought about their charges' mental and emotional needs.

"Often the children are fed and clothed, then left at home when the adults go to work in the fields. That is OK, if not recommended, for a perfectly healthy child, but not for those with severe mental or physical disabilities."

With all this in mind, the Half the Sky Foundation project sets out to tackle the problems. The project, which has spawned 240 foster families around the country, is dubbed the Family Village because the families in one particular region live very close to the orphanage and with one another. This means inspectors from the orphanage can regularly visit the families, and that children, even away from their former residence, can still return there daily to use rehabilitation facilities.

Since foster parents cannot live with their own children, most participating couples are in their 40s and 50s, and most children are in their early 20s. "People of those ages have both patience and energy," says Zhang Yuxia, who has been with the foundation for 11 years, since she retired.

"We conduct multiple interviews for each candidate and make frequent follow-up checks to ensure the prospective foster parents are indeed loving people willing to dote on these very special children. But love is intangible, something that can be truly felt only by those in it."

Yang Binbin, foster mother of the three orphaned girls, knows all about that. One of the girls, Tingting, has malformed hands that cannot be fully stretched out.

"I taught her to make the shape of a heart with her hands, and tell her that it's just as beautiful as anyone else could make it," Zhang says.

"Every time there's a knock on the door the four-year-old will run to it and greet the visitor with her little heart."

Over the past years, Yang has kept a diary of growth for each of her foster daughters.

"I've written everything down their height and body weight, interesting remarks they make, the time when they first rode a bike or played on a swing. Adding lots of pictures has made the book a lot thicker, and I have let them leave their little footprints and handprints on the pages.

"One day they will grow up, and one day they may leave. But whenever they get the chance to sit down and thumb through the diary they will know they were truly loved."

That love has not only been felt, but also returned. "My eldest daughter, 10 years old now, has Down syndrome. One night while we lay in bed she held my face and smiled at me silently in the dark, and I knew I was needed.

"Sometimes she just tags along with me, repeating in her slightly muffled voice: 'Mum, I like you'. Where other people see slowness, I see unconditional love."


Handprints and footprints on a page

The Family Village project, underwritten by Half the Sky Foundation and local orphanages, has spawnd 240 foster families around the country. Photos provided to China Daily

( China Daily European Weekly 03/13/2015 page24)