Promoting Foster Care in Taiwan

David and Ruth Ullstrom recount how they were led to promote foster care in Taiwan. What they learnt in their personal journey as foster parents birthed a vision for encouraging churches to support foster families in Taiwan. Foundations are being built so that more children can discover God’s love and the wider society can observe pure and faultless religion being practiced in its midst.


David and Ruth Ullstrom

David and Ruth Ullstrom have been in Taiwan since 1988. They have three biological children and two adopted Taiwanese sons, one of whom died of cancer in 2010.

 

Promoting Foster Care in Taiwan

Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 32–35

The purpose of this article is to tell the story of how God led us to become foster parents and to start a movement—Taiwan127— to challenge churches in Taiwan to get involved in foster care ministry.

In 2013, six months after moving to a new neighbourhood to start a church, we received a phone call asking if we could care for a ten-month old boy. The call came from a friend who had started a nursery for abandoned babies. “This boy is very active and just started walking,” she explained. “He disturbs the other babies and would benefit from more space to move around and more personal attention. Could you care for him until his new parents can come and get him?”

“Jimmy”—our first foster child—lived with us for eight months. We became very attached to him and he to us. When the time came to leave with his adoptive parents, he did not want to go and we cried unconsolably, too.

Not long after, we cared for a little girl from the same nursery for four months. Little “Dora” was eighteen months old when she came to stay with us. The children’s home felt she needed more one-on-one attention, so they asked us to care for her. She had spent her whole life in the nursery, most of her time spent in one small room. It was a good home, but they did not have the manpower to take the children out very often. When Dora came to our house, she was very quiet. She slept in a crib in our room and when we woke up in the morning, we assumed that she was still sleeping because we did not hear any sound from her crib. When we went to look in on her, however, we discovered that she was already awake. We had no idea how long she had been quietly sitting there. She did not call out.

We also discovered that she had many fears. When Ruth tried to give her a bath in the big bathtub, she screamed. When we took her outside in the stroller, she was afraid of the sound of scooters and trucks driving by. Any loud sound would startle her. We liked to ride bicycles for exercise and to relax, but when we tried to put Dora in the child seat on the back of the bicycle, she screamed. If we left the room and she couldn’t see us, she screamed. Also, she was not used to being around men. When she first arrived, she would not let David hold her.

Fast forward two months…. The first sound we would hear each day was Dora calling out from her crib to get picked up. We would find her standing in the crib eagerly anticipating a morning hug. She also loved having her bath in the bathtub. This was now a fun time that she looked forward to. She was no longer afraid of going outside. To the contrary, Dora loved going outside in the stroller to the local wet market, where the sellers would greet her and she would wave back. She was no longer startled by the sound of traffic going by. Riding on the back of a bicycle was now a favourite activity. And rather than being afraid of David, she would climb up in his lap with a book, asking him to read to her.

Dora lived with us for four months, during which time we saw her come out of her shell and blossom. She was like a flower bud that opened to the sun to show its beauty. She is now with her adoptive family in Canada, where she continues to blossom. Photos from her adoptive parents show her smiling, joyful face.

We also found joy. There is great joy and satisfaction in seeing a child, like Dora, change for the better. Every child has their own issues and changes at their own pace, but love awakens the person that God created them to be. Trying to give a hysterical, screaming child a bath is not fun, but seeing them eventually overcome their fear and enjoy playing in the water is a source of great joy! In fact, often the greatest joys in life come from these “small” victories. They may seem small to us, but, for the children, it is a significant milestone in their development. Our joy comes from being able to have an impact on their development as God pours out his love for them through us.


It was Sunday morning and the children were in Sunday School on the first floor of the church. Suddenly, it started raining outside—a real downpour. One of the Sunday School teachers looked out through the glass doors and saw two young boys standing outside, wet and shivering. They had been cycling past the church just as the rain started and were taking shelter from the rain. The teacher invited them inside. They came and joined the Sunday School class. They were pretty wild and smelly. Their clothes looked dishevelled and dirty. Something did not seem right. They happily accepted an invitation to stay for lunch, which they ate ravenously. Where were their parents? Why were a six-year old and ten-year old riding around the neighbourhood by themselves?

It turned out that the boys were living by themselves in an apartment a three-minute walk from our church. Their father had died and their mother had found work in another county, leaving them behind in a rented apartment, with a friend stopping by to look in on them, give them a boxed supper every day, and try to make sure that they were doing their homework. Apart from that, they were unsupervised and spent a lot of time roaming around the neighbourhood on their bicycles.

The boys lapped up the attention they got at the church and started to show up regularly, ringing the doorbell whenever they needed something, particularly food. One day, we convinced them to let us walk home with them to see where they lived. Their apartment was a mess and the drain in the bathroom was plugged up with about five cm of dirty water on the bathroom floor. There was no hot water and it was winter. No wonder the boys were so smelly! Who would want to bathe in conditions like that? We unplugged the drain, cleaned the bathroom, and took them home for a hot shower.

Meanwhile, one of our church members had called Social Services to tell them of the boys’ situation. It turned out that Social Services knew about the boys and agreed that it was not good for them to be “home alone,” but they didn’t want to disrupt their schooling by putting them in a children’s home and they didn’t have anyone else available to care for them. Our church member mentioned to the social worker that the boys often came over to the church and that we were giving them some meals and looking out for them.

We soon received a phone call from the social worker asking a lot of questions. At the end of this 45-minute “interview,” she asked if we would be willing to have the boys come and live with us until their mother got her life sorted out. We agreed and they ended up living with us for two months.

They had a lot of bad habits, including foul language, but we saw a huge change in them over those two months. They loved Sunday School and the older brother, who was in grade 4, loved reading Bible story comic books.

After they returned to their mom, we wondered how they were doing, but had no news for almost five years. Then, a few months ago, the younger brother, now eleven years old, messaged us on the internet. After chatting for a few minutes, he wrote, “I plan to visit you one day. I will remember you forever. The next time I see you [I] will definitely bring a gift. I love you.”

How many children do not go into foster care simply because there is no family available to care for them? At the time we cared for those two boys, we were not a registered foster family. Perhaps if we had been an official foster family, we would have been asked much sooner to care for them.

After caring for the two brothers, the nursery called again, asking us to care for a handicapped baby for two weeks, followed shortly by a request to care for another handicapped baby for fourteen months.

Meanwhile, a family in our church saw us caring for these children and decided to apply to the local foster care agency to be foster parents. They took the training and were soon caring for a one-month old baby boy. They told us about the training, so we also applied and were trained to become officially registered foster parents.

As we went through the training, we learned more about foster care in Taiwan. We learned that there is a shortage of foster families, and so, many children have to stay in an institutional setting in children’s homes. In fact, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, in 2019, there were more than 4,300 children under government care.[1] Most of those children were in children’s homes, with only about 1,500 children living in foster families. This is a sad situation for the children, as many studies have shown that children develop much better in a family than in an institution.

In 2017, Taiwan was reviewed by the International Committee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It concluded that Taiwan had too many children in institutions and urged the government to work to expand the foster care system so that more children could be placed with families.[2]

God intended us to grow up in families. Psalm 68:6 says that “God sets the lonely in families.” Where are these families? This is the question that we started to ask ourselves and local social workers.

What we found out is that there are two organizations in Taiwan approved by the government to train foster parents and place children in foster homes. But, despite excellent training and a generous financial subsidy, the overall number of foster parents in Taiwan is declining.[3] Why is this?

There are two reasons for the decline. The first is that it is difficult to recruit new families. Fewer families are coming forward to be trained. The second is that many families decide not to continue as foster families. In fact, within two years of becoming foster parents, it is not uncommon for three out of four families to stop.[4] Obviously, it is not good enough to recruit more families without finding ways to encourage them to keep caring for children and to not give up. The “back door” in the foster care system needs to be closed.

As we learned these facts about foster care in Taiwan, we began to ask ourselves: Where is the church? Why are there not more Christians caring for vulnerable children? Surely these children are not invisible to God.

We looked online and discovered that, in the United States, there is a growing movement among churches to get involved in foster care ministry. This movement started when Christians became aware of the vulnerable children in their communities and began to pray. They also told their friends and other churches of the need for more foster families, leading to a movement.

As an example, in 2007, a group of Christians in one county of the state of Arkansas started a ministry called The CALL, working with the Department of Children and Family Services, to help provide more foster families to care for children in foster care in their county. Their website recounts the growth of their work:

What started with one group, in one county, quickly spread to other counties. In 2010, The CALL became a statewide organization and is now active in 44 counties around Arkansas…. Families recruited by The CALL make up over half of all foster families in the state. Since 2007, these families have cared for over 10,000 children, and created forever families for over 800 children [through adoption].[5]

Christians in other American states have started similar organizations with similar results. God is answering their prayers with more and more Christians becoming foster parents, welcoming vulnerable children into their homes.

This can happen in Taiwan too! We believe that once Christians in Taiwan know of this need and are shown a clear plan of how to help care for vulnerable children, they too will respond. As we have talked with pastors about this, their first response is almost always, “I did not know.” They did not know that there may be children living just down the street from their church needing a family to care for them.

This is why we have started a movement called Taiwan127. The name was inspired by the verse, James 1:27.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (NIV)

Taiwan127 exists to be a bridge between the church and foster care agencies in Taiwan. When we asked the foster care agency what their greatest challenge was, they answered that it was to recruit good foster parents. Taiwan127 seeks to recruit and support Christians to be trained as foster parents in order to meet this need.

Taiwan needs more foster families, but those families also need people to help them so that they don’t give up. Remember that, typically, three quarters of all foster families quit within two years of starting. This is true in the USA, Canada, and Taiwan—there is no difference.

Why do foster parents quit? A study in the USA shows that many people quit because they don’t have enough support.[6] They feel that they have no one to help them when they need help. Informal conversations with foster parents in Taiwan confirm that this is also true in Taiwan.

From interview data, in current child welfare NGOs, a child protection frontline worker may manage and provide services to up [to] 45 children who were abused or neglected by their care-givers per month. Furthermore, a child welfare frontline worker may need to visit six to eight families, including fresh cases and follow-up cases, every day. The high number of children in the caseloads means that frontline workers face challenges in providing adequate services to needy children in a timely manner. A frontline worker has to make decisions with regard to the service intervention to needy children within a short time. In most situations, a frontline worker could only visit needy children and their family twice in a month.[7]

Our experience confirms this. The social workers are very busy. We could expect a short visit from the social worker once a month. They do their best, but it is not enough support. The solution is to surround every foster family with a group of support friends.

This is why the vision of Taiwan127 is a church for every child. We want to see foster care become a ministry of the church. We want to see four support friends from the church supporting each foster family. When the church gets involved, the attrition rate for foster parents is dramatically reduced![8] Not everyone can welcome a child into their home, but everyone can do something to encourage and support foster families in their church.

We personally could not have hung in there for the long haul as foster parents without the support of our church. The church has prayed for us, and also gave clothes, diapers, baby formula, etc. One couple even stayed at our house for five days with the two boys so that we could take a holiday with our daughter visiting from Canada. Another church member painted a bedroom and helped us move furniture to get ready for two children coming on short notice. Everyone can do something.

This is the message that we are seeking to share with our Taiwanese brothers and sisters through Taiwan127—the need for foster parents and support friends to support them with prayer and practical acts of kindness.

God has been opening doors. Last year, we had The Foster Journey, a book that was published by CAFO (Christian Alliance for Orphans), translated into Chinese and sent out with a letter and brochure to about 3,300 churches in Taiwan. It was written to introduce people to foster care from a Christian perspective.


A door also opened for us to speak at the largest church in Tainan City. As a result of speaking at that church, four families signed up to be foster families and six families signed up to take the same training to be respite families—to provide temporary care in order to give the foster families a break. These families have begun the training required to receive foster children. It is our hope and prayer that this church will become a model of church-based foster care ministry in Taiwan.

God also moved a Taiwanese businessman to offer funding for Taiwan127. We are already a local OMF ministry project; the next step is to register as a charitable organization with the government so that we can offer salaries to people who join in this ministry. Our dream is to have a Taiwanese pastoral couple who are also foster parents to head up Taiwan127 and expand the ministry throughout Taiwan. This will take time, but God has brought the offer of funding and we have heard of a couple who may be suitable for this role. Certainly, if God is providing the funding, he is also preparing people to join us in this ministry!

The last word

Caring for vulnerable children is nothing new for OMF Taiwan. Years ago, back in the 1970s, Dr. Pauline Hamilton worked with delinquent boys, teaching and counselling at a government-run school. Her story is recorded in the book, To a Different Drum.[9] Also, in 1976, “Uncle” Wes Milne had delinquent boys, often referred to him from the courts, live with him. He continued this ministry until retiring for a second time in 2001. More recently, Linda McFerran was a dorm auntie at Bethany Children’s Home in Taipei for twenty-six years.[10] In fact, this focus on caring for vulnerable children fits right in with the OMF Taiwan focus on reaching the working class. Margaret Zingg also visited detention centres and reformatories in Northern Taiwan from the 1990s, continuing to follow up with troubled youth contacts for nearly thirty years.

Each of these missionaries has left a legacy of changed lives. Children who were uncared for and vulnerable received their love and care and became, in some cases, mature Christians and valued members of society. This missionary service drew the attention and admiration of both Christian and non-Christian Taiwanese. Our hope is that this kind of ministry will not just be seen as an exceptional role for a spiritual elite but will come to be seen as a normal part of what the church does and thus, a valuable witness of God’s love to Taiwan society.

We have noticed that when we care for vulnerable children, people notice. People notice love. People notice sacrifice. We know a family who first started asking us questions about God because they saw us caring for our first foster child. They were curious to know why we would do this. Their curiosity eventually led them to start coming to church, believe in Jesus, and be baptized.

Imagine a world where Christians are known for our love, for caring for vulnerable children. Imagine vulnerable children who have never heard about Jesus living with a Christian family where they experience the love of Jesus and hear about how much God loves them. This is the vision of Taiwan127.

 

 


[1] Statistics provided by a social worker.

[2] Social and Family Affairs Administration, Ministry of Health and Welfare, “Concluding Observations on the Initial Report of the Republic of China/Taiwan on the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Draft),” 24 November 2017, 12–14, https://www.mohw.gov.tw/cp-3425-38618-2.html (accessed 22 Oct 2021).

[3] Enru Lin, “Foster Families Wanted,” Taipei Times (10 May 2014), http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2014/05/10/2003589982 (accessed 22 Oct 2021).

[4] Lin, “Foster Families Wanted.”

[5] “Our History,” The CALL, https://thecallinarkansas.org/about (accessed 15 October 2021).

[6] See Jason Weber and Katie Overstreet, The Foster Journey: Often A Winding Road. Always a Trip. (McLean, VA: Christian Alliance for Orphans, 2017), 56.

[7] Chien-Chung Hsu, “A Study of Non-Government Child Welfare Services in Taiwan Focused on Children in Need of Child Welfare Service Intervention” (PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 2016), 214, https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:410672 (accessed 15 October 2021).

[8] FaithBridge Foster Care in Georgia, USA, reported a 97 percent retention rate of foster families when the families are surrounded by a support team, according to the Department of Human Services in Georgia. FaithBridge Foster Care, “Our Model” (Alpharetta, GA: FaithBridge Foster Care, n.d.).

[9] Pauline G. Hamilton, To a Different Drum: The Autobiography of Dr. Pauline Hamilton (Singapore: OMF, 1998).

[10] Linda McFerran’s loving ministry to the children is recounted in Cosmic Light magazine: 江佩君, “她是我媽媽: 愛爾蘭宣教士范華寧的二十六年 [She is My Mother: Twenty-six Years of Irish Missionary Fan Huaning],” 宇宙光  45, no. 531 (1 July 2018): 48–55, https://www.cosmiccare.org/Magazine/Detail/8117180c-6fb7-4b58-8c98-a5e1bb82dc14 (accessed 27 October 2021).

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