Partners of the out-of-home care sector,
Ladies and Gentlemen
1 Good morning. Very happy to see so many professionals gathered here today, to discuss how we could enhance capabilities in the work that we do with vulnerable children and families, so that we could empower their lives. As a parent of two myself, and especially as a Member of Parliament in an area where we have families with vulnerable families with children, it is encouraging to see how things can turn around in working with the many professionals who can outreach to them. But at the same time, it can be quite heart-breaking to see things begin to unravel despite the efforts put in. The world is before these children, with many different pathways they could take, but sometimes, despite intervention, different paths were taken. Our intervention makes a great deal of difference. I am happy to see that there is a healthy interest in building these skills and capabilities in the sector.
Long-Term Vision for Out-of-home Care Landscape and Progress
2 Many of us are who we are today because of the love and care that our families have given us in our growing years. We all know that where possible, children will always grow up best in their families. Unfortunately, some children are unable to remain with their own families due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. These children have to be placed in out-of-home care for their safety.
3 In 2013, my Ministry began efforts to transform the out-of-home care sector in order to achieve better outcomes for vulnerable children. At that time, only 29 per cent of children in out-of-home care were in foster care, while the rest were in residential care. We set a target to flip the ratios around such that by 2020, such that two-thirds of children would be in foster or other family-based care. This is because we believe that children grow best within a family environment as it provides a more natural and nurturing environment for the child's development. Since 2013, we have made encouraging progress, with an increasing proportion of children in foster care. This is made possible because of warm-hearted families stepping forward to foster, as well as effective collaborations with community partners.
4 This landscape is growing and we are very happy to see that. Over the past few years, the number of foster parents has increased by 77 per cent, compared to 2013. With more foster families, we have been able to place 46 per cent more children in foster care as compared to 2013. This has been supported by the set-up of two Fostering Agencies. A third Fostering Agency will be operational later this year. The Fostering Agencies have grown and are now supporting the care of more than 180 foster children. I want to encourage more to come forward to foster. We especially need foster parents for older children, teenagers and children with special needs.
5 While MSF has been working with the community to grow family-based care for vulnerable children, we also recognise that residential care will continue to play an important role in caring for children with higher needs and those who cannot be placed with families. Our ultimate goal is to reunify as many children as possible with their own families, and it is important for us to remember this. This means that we are not only working with the children, we need to work with the families to get them ready as well.
Encouraging Progress in Efforts to Preserve and Reunify Families
6 In my day-to-day interactions with Singaporeans and their children, it has become clear to me that the natural family will always be an integral part of a child. When I first came to MSF, I spoke to my colleagues in this sector, and one of the things I asked was about the thresholds we establish for taking children away from their families and putting them into residential care. Sometimes we feel that our children may be better off being fostered out or taken away from their families, where they may perhaps be provided with better care and guidance and achieve better outcomes. But what I have seen is, notwithstanding everything, the natural family setting is still the most important. If we want to help the child effectively, we must also work with the family. This is why in the course of our work, we should ensure that children are not kept apart from their own families unnecessarily. In a dialogue session yesterday, one of the things I learnt was that we need to think about how to involve the natural family, not only in residential care, but in fostering as well. Out-of-home care must be a last resort and be put in place only if there are safety concerns.
7 Earlier this year, we started the Safe and Strong Families pilot with eight community agencies. Over 100 children and their families are now receiving preservation or reunification services as part of this pilot. We know that many of these vulnerable families may face significant challenges, for example, not knowing how to parent or take care of their children properly, or have mental health issues. This is why your work - as professionals on the ground - in supporting these families to make positive progress and become better caregivers for their children, is so important. For some of the families that we are working with, we might have previously thought that it was not possible to make their relationships work. But there are also families which we were able to reunify, and the progress has been significant. This is encouraging, and I know that this is something that will go beyond the pilot stage. All professionals are needed to make this work.
8 My colleagues shared an example with me recently. Mr Lim is a single father with chronic health issues and struggles to provide for his family. He rented a room which could not accommodate children. For three years, Mr Lim was not involved in caring for his 10-year-old child as he felt disempowered by the attitudes of his own family members. His family had thought that he was unmotivated and limited his contact with the child. But through the Safe and Strong Families pilot, professionals provided him with intensive support and resolved his housing, health and financial issues so that he was able to care for his child again. For example, they helped him to overcome his lack of confidence as a parent. They worked with the extended family to resolve their conflicts so that they can better support Mr Lim. After six months of intervention, the child told his father that he had seen a real change in him, and was happy to be staying together again. This was a satisfying moment for the family and all the professionals involved. We must approach families and individuals with the perspective that being together is an inherently good thing, despite their circumstances. Many of us will realise how blessed we are, because we don't face the challenges that these families do. Sometimes we may think that some individuals are not prepared to help themselves. But at some point, there will be a point of return and things will change. There will be some circumstances that we will never be able to resolve, but at least we can make these stories become more common.
9 Such stories remind us that with the necessary support, families can be empowered to play a larger role in the lives of their children. I want to also encourage all of you working with these families to continue with your good work and not to underestimate the change that people can bring about. We expect that the Safe and Strong Families pilot can reach out to 400 children and families like Mr Lim's over three years.
10 It is heartening to see more partners coming on board to build new capabilities and be part of new initiatives such as the Safe and Strong Families pilot, the Fostering Agencies and residential care services for children with higher needs. I am also happy to see that the out-of-home care sector has become more vibrant and progressive. These out-of-home care initiatives are only one part of the broader ecosystem that my Ministry has put in place to boost support within the community. For vulnerable young children from low income families, the KidSTART pilot programme provides support for holistic early childhood development and stronger parent-child relationships to give these children a good start in life. MSF also works with the Ministry of National Development to support families with young children in rental flats to own a home again as part of the Fresh Start Housing Scheme. When families have a home to call their own, they would be able to provide their children with greater stability and opportunities to grow and develop.
11 Family Service Centres continue to be key touch points to help vulnerable families better manage and eventually overcome the complex issues and challenges that they face. The Child Protection Specialist Centres help to provide additional community-based support so that they can keep their children with them safely.
12 On the educational front, I have seen the excellent efforts of self-help groups, coming together to provide subsidised tuition, as well as quality, individualised attention to students from less well-to-do families. Where possible, we should tap on this network of partners to provide more support to the children and their families in the community.
13 MSF is also working to professionalise the competencies of manpower in other sectors working with families, children and youth, such as the National Youth Work Competency Framework launched yesterday. With so many initiatives in the social sector, I believe we can work together so that children can be preserved or reunified safely with their families. To do this, we need to work together. For these families, their lives don't exist in the way we compartmentalise ourselves. We are specialists in our respective areas, but for them, all these issues are wrapped together. It is for us to wrap around these families, to collaborate several steps behind to come together to help them, and not expect them to navigate the system.
Higher Needs Care & Professionalisation of the OHC sector
14 For children who require out-of-home care, we recognise that there will be a group of children with higher needs who may require specialised care. Such children will benefit from more structured and targeted care in residential home settings.
15 I remember when I first came into MSF, I visited one such home. It is very intensive work, and the social workers in the sector spend a lot of time, even weekends, with the families themselves. It is important for us to make sure the work is sustainable. We do need to look after our social workers as well.
16 We are setting up four small group homes to care for these children who have gone through traumatic experiences and have higher needs. Specialised capability is needed to help these children recover from their past experiences. Experience has shown that the work done can yield the outcomes that we desire and can make a very real difference to the children and their families.
17 We know that the capability of our workers will directly impact the quality of care given to the children. To build capability to care for children with higher needs, we are investing $7 million over four years. Through partnering the Social Service Institute, MSF has developed a training framework for the residential care sector. This maps out the professional development for all residential staff, from care staff to management level. We have also developed a series of new training programmes. About 90 per cent of participants shared that the courses were relevant and provided them with useful skills and knowledge to care for the children.
18 In order to further professionalise the residential care sector, MSF is also reviewing the standards of care with a view to ensure children are only placed in care as a last resort. The standards will also be changed to take into account the needs of children with higher needs and ensure children are reunified in a safe and timely manner. I urge all of you to share your views and perspectives with us, the realisations about how others have moved on, and challenge us to push the boundaries. In talking to some of my colleagues, I did ask ourselves why we did not come to some of these realisations earlier. We are all in the community, and would have been aware of some more enlightened practices, but sometimes the epiphany happens at a later stage. This is still a good thing as it means we are progressing, but in other areas, we might not have come to the same realisations, as we have been so busy working hard, looking after our clients. We need to push ourselves to ask whether there are still blind spots, because it does make a difference to the people we are serving.
19 Today, we have invited speakers to share their extensive experience in out-of-home care. I met with some of them yesterday - there are many things that we can learn from their experiences in engaging families and managing challenging behaviours. Some of our community partners and my colleagues from the Ministry will also be sharing insights during the afternoon breakout sessions. I am sure we will benefit greatly from their sharing.
20 I am glad that we share a common vision of providing a better future for all our children through family-based care and empowering the lives of the vulnerable children and their families under our care. Let us continue to learn and work together to provide the best care and services for them. Thank you for all the hard work and I wish you all an enriching day at this conference.