The Irreplaceable Benefits of Family

November 12, 2018

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Written by Lee Rou Urn
Edited by Asst Prof Andrew Duffy and Sarah Giam

A licensed clinical child psychologist for over 30 years, Dr Maureen Frances Neihart believes it is no rocket science to realise that children who cannot stay with their natural families are most likely better off growing up in foster homes than in institutions.

“I honestly don’t think you need scientific studies to grasp that. Just ask yourself, would you rather live in a family setting, or would you do better in an institution?” she asked.

Dr Neihart, who hails from Montana in the US, is also an Associate Professor of
Psychological Studies at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. Both she and her husband, a school psychologist, are no strangers to helping troubled children and teenagers. Besides counselling them in their line of work, this couple has also fostered four teenage boys over 10 years in Montana, some of them with a history of sexual offences.

“We’ve had a fair amount of clinical experience with sex offenders, so it wasn’t exactly brand-new for us,” she said. For Dr Neihart and her husband, the important thing is to be able to help and support these teenage boys.

She also said, “Most people want younger children, but we didn’t want anyone under 12. My husband and I love the outdoors, so we wanted someone who could join us on hikes, camps, and swims. No couch potatoes in our house. We also knew that the need was [to find foster homes] for teenagers, so we took the kids whom we knew were tough to place.”

According to Dr Neihart, older children and teenagers usually have more behavioural issues, having solidified their personalities over the years. As a result, they tend to find it more difficult to adjust to a completely new family, and it is usually more difficult to place them with foster families. Nevertheless, she expressed confidence in their ability to overcome difficulties. “Kids are very resilient and adaptable. Do what you normally do and they will generally fit in.”

Dr Neihart strongly feels that these older children and teenagers should be given a chance to be placed in foster homes. “Put yourself in the shoes of a 15-year-old. The message they’re living with, day in, day out is: ‘You’re not wanted.’ You learn ways to cope with that, but the wounds are still there, and they’re very deep. It’s so painful to realise that you don’t belong to anybody, really.”

She hopes that more Singaporeans will step forward to become foster parents. To her, the key is to start with small steps. Before she and her husband took in their first foster child, they provided respite care for foster families – they cared for foster children for just one or two weekends a month, when their foster parents needed a break.

“That way, you see what it’s like to open your house to somebody you don’t know,” she said.

When asked how Singaporeans may be encouraged to become foster parents, she said, “My husband and I have encouraged our friends by telling them, ‘If we can do it, we think you can too.’”

This article was adapted from ComingHomeSG.

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