That sad little boy I met three years ago – he’s a new person today,” says Ms Foong, 26.
She’s seated in a playroom at the Child Protection Service (CPS) of the Ministry of Social and Family Development. It’s an interview room, actually. In front of her are wooden puzzles, soft toys and a kitchen playset – essential for putting children at ease while speaking to social workers.
Ms Foong is recalling the tremendous change in one of her young clients, a victim of prolonged physical abuse. “He looked so lost then. He couldn’t speak or write,” she says. “Now, he can’t stop talking when he sees us!”
Ms Foong’s eyes light up at the recollection. The primary school student, she adds, is now a top student and dreams of joining the national football team, becoming a teacher or helping other children who’ve been abused.
Ms Foong joined CPS in 2010 after graduating with a degree in social work. As a Child Protection Officer, she investigates reports of neglect and abuse of those aged 16 years and below. Assessing the risks faced by children and families, Ms Foong identifies welfare and rehabilitation services that will help them, in collaboration with psychologists, counsellors, doctors, teachers and social workers.
Ms Foong has often been amazed by the resilience of her young clients. “Even in extreme circumstances, they have the courage to pick themselves up, take control of their lives and believe in their future,” she says.
One teenager had suffered years of physical abuse at the hands of her mentally-ill mother. With Ms Foong’s help, the teenager devised a plan to keep herself and her siblings safe, as well as to prevent her mother from harming herself. Now, the teenager is back on her feet; a leader in her co-curricular activity group, she’s also won awards for good character.
During one home visit, Ms Foong learnt that the teenager would get out of bed in the middle of the night to study. “When I asked her how she found the will to do that, she replied, ‘I love my family, and I want to study hard so that I can help them’,” Ms Foong recalls. “I was awed by her strength of character.”
Growing up, Ms Foong was a self-described “playful and mischievous” child, but that changed when she met a teacher named Mrs Susan Tham-Tan in Secondary Four. In the days before their O-level examinations, Mrs Tham was a pillar to young Esther and her friends, staying back in school with them as they studied late into the night. “We had great teachers who showed us that when people genuinely care, things really can change,” says Ms Foong.
Though she’d originally chosen to study economics at university, Ms Foong began to consider what she really wanted for her future. “I was very idealistic – I wanted to help people, remedy injustice and ease suffering,” she recalls.
Social work was her answer; Mrs Tham, her inspiration.
During her first year as a Child Protection Officer, Ms Foong was assigned a mentor who guided her in conducting interviews, gathering information and risk assessment. “I’ve always felt supported at work,” she says.
Then there were the lessons from the cases themselves. Her very first involved a toddler whose physical and cognitive development had been delayed due to neglect. But the child’s parents were resistant to change. “It seemed like the child would have to stay in alternative care for a long while,” recalls Ms Foong.
She decided to reach out to members of the extended family. That proved to be the breakthrough. With Ms Foong’s assistance, the parents received help from a Family Service Centre and rebuilt their ties with the child. Eventually, the family was reunited.
That first case taught Ms Foong the importance of keeping an open mind. “Uncertainty can be scary, especially for new officers,” she says. “But it’s necessary so that we won’t jump to conclusions. I’ve learnt to ‘tango’ with uncertainty.”
Now in her fifth year as a Child Protection Officer, Ms Foong has seen even the most severely strained relationships restored. “Family members who haven’t spoken to one another for years have resolved their issues through therapy,” she says, “and parents who were once perpetrators of violence have learnt to become loving fathers and mothers. So no matter how hard things are, we mustn’t lose hope.”