Wed, Jun 27, 2007 - Page 2 News List

Tribulations ahead for shelter children

HELP ON THE WAY To help children leaving shelters better adapt to the world out there, an association will soon launch a training program for shelter workers

By Max Hirsch  /  STAFF REPORTER

The odds were grim for "Little Chi" after becoming an orphan at the age of 10.

His parents' deaths from chronic illness launched him on a bleak journey through institutionalized care, the other side of which awaits an even bleaker adulthood for youth like him.

Chi knows the statistics: Nearly 70 percent of all children in shelters, such as the one he grew up in, don't finish high school. Most take on dead-end jobs before they're 16.

"I get nervous when I think about my future," Chi said of his impending release from a Taipei shelter before attending college in the fall.

By law, children's shelters are only obligated to care for orphans until they are 15 years old, said Wu Hsiao-ping (吳小萍), director of the Chinese Children's Home and Shelter Association, the nation's only nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to helping homeless children.

For sheltered youth -- totaling 1,997 this year -- childhood ends at puberty as the country's 42 shelters, filled to capacity, send their 15-year-olds packing to cycle in younger homeless children, Wu said at a press conference yesterday.

Exceptions are sometimes made, but only for those rare few, like Chi, who excel in their studies.

The rest, Wu said, typically quit school and hop from one minimum-wage job to another.

Lacking social, familial and financial resources, sheltered children tend to perform poorly in school, she said.

"It makes us really sad," she said. "We feel they're capable of so much more."

To help children make the transition from shelters to society, the association will soon launch a NT$15 million-a-year (US$456,000) program to train shelter officials to better prepare orphans for the abrupt shift to adulthood, association official Lee Wei-chen (李偉楨) said.

"This is a care plan to help the children explore employment possibilities beyond factory, car shop and other service-sector jobs," Lee said.

Workshops and counseling services for youth who have already left shelters will also be created under the plan "to build up a social network," Lee said.

"We don't want the care system to completely dissolve for them after they leave shelters," she said.

For "Little Chang," 22, who just graduated from high school this year, extra support four years after leaving a Taipei shelter would be a welcome service.

With a spinal injury that requires surgery and constant job changes, Chang struggles to stay afloat, emotionally and financially, he said.

"After you get out [of the shelter]," he said, "you're on your own."

"You have to pay for everything. Even toilet paper doesn't come for free after getting released," he said.

Among common problems for orphans like Chang is unwanted pregnancy and premature romance, he said.

Craving intimacy and a sense of home, orphans typically become sexually active soon after entering society.

They also tend to adjust poorly to the freedom they suddenly experience after leaving shelters, where life is highly regimented, he said.

"A lot of my friends from shelters get married and have babies when they're 18 or 19," Chang said.

Like Chi and Chang, "Little En" has overcome the odds to finish high school.

After her mother left home and her father went to jail when she was 14, En was sent to a Taichung shelter.

She flirted with piano studies, but stuck with a nursing program after getting out last year.

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