China changes foster parenting rules to improve quality of care

New regulations for foster care could benefit children in the long term, experts say, but may make scarce foster families even rarer 

Beijing (dpa) – Five-year-old Jian Jian was abandoned at a shelter as a baby, is autistic and was so withdrawn as an infant that he did not learn to walk for more than four years.

Months after he was taken in by Anita Zhang, a divorced 37-year-old finance worker, he is now a foster care success story.

Zhang volunteered at a shelter near Beijing to first gain Jian Jian’s trust and then applied to become his foster mother. Within four months of moving in, Jian Jian had learned to walk.

Foster care in a family environment provides significant mental and physical health benefits to China’s abandoned or orphaned children, most of whom are disabled or have congenital conditions, experts say.

Under new regulations put into place Monday by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, each foster family can take in only up to two children at once, as long they have none of their own under age six, instead of the previous limit of three foster children at a time.

Prospective foster parents should also have completed at least nine years of formal education and their financial status should be “at least average for their region,” according to the regulations posted on the ministry’s website.

The aim is to ensure the quality of care the children receive by making foster families less crowded.

Zhang is not affected by the new rules, but said they are a “positive move since at least it shows the government is thinking about the issue.”

Others say the changes aren’t enough.

Most foster parents live in the countryside, where the “average for their region” might not be a useful way to measure income, said Deng Zhixin, founder and director of the Angel Home, the organization in charge of Jian Jian’s shelter.

Villagers are keen to foster, and well suited to it, “because they have free time and live in neighborhoods that are already used to taking care of each other,” Deng said.

It would not be appropriate to disqualify them if their income doesn’t meet an average which includes a nearby city, but is enough to be comfortable where they live, she said.

How the average income is calculated has not been clarified, and “this could affect the ability of rural families to foster children,” Deng told dpa.

Sandy To, a sociologist on family and gender in China at the University of Hong Kong, said that income should not be a determining factor.

“The emphasis should be placed more on the actual effort and attentiveness,” she said.

“There is a basic subsidy given by the government, and families who feel this is adequate and are willing to take on this responsibility with genuine compassion should be trusted to do so.”

Family foster care began in China in the early 1990s but there are currently only about 30,000 children living with foster families across the country, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

This compares with around 712,000 orphans, according to a 2010 estimate by UNICEF, and the actual number could be in the millions as many abandoned children live in informal or unofficial institutions.

The new rules require carers to take in children for at least six months, to complement the care provided by government-run or private orphanages and NGOs.

Caretakers receive a monthly stipend of 1,100 yuan (about 180 dollars), according to Xinhua.

Many state orphanages remain overcrowded, and children are sometimes informally fostered by caring people who find them abandoned at hospitals or by the roadside, according to a Xinhua report.

In 2013, the public’s attention was drawn to informal foster parents when a 2013 fire killed at least seven children at a private home housing 34 abandoned children in the central Chinese province of Henan.

For 25 years, without any license, local woman Yuan Lihai had taken in over 100 children, most of whom had congenital illnesses, according to state media.

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