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A KISS OF GRATITUDE...Eve Minuk is proud of her son after he broke the rules and crossed a street by himself to get help when she needed it. (photo by Mark Patrick)


Satellite families raise concerns

Martin van den Hemel
staff reporter

Dozens of Richmond youths are being neglected, some suffering "inhumane" levels of anxiety, and there's little the police, school district, or social services ministry feel they can do to prevent it.

These abandoned youngsters might have been described a decade ago as latchkey children, home alone after school until a parent returns from work.

But for this group of kids, many in their early teens, it's often weeks - if not months - between visits from Mom and Dad.

Both the local school district and RCMP detachment are concerned about Richmond's population of 'satellite' families - '90s lingo for families in which both parents work abroad while their children live and study locally.

On the outside, these neglected youths often stand out, but not for their soiled or unkempt clothing. It's the shiny-spoked tinted-glass BMWs and lavish $750,000 homes that distinguish many of these at-risk children - hardly indicators of disadvantage.

School district superintendent Chris Kelly says satellite families are "an issue that we're highly concerned about."

Problems children experience resulting from the lack of a family's stable and nurturing environment range from displays of outright defiance, to "unnecessary and inhumane levels of anxiety" associated with growing up, Kelly says.

Asian flight

Prompted by Canada's stalled economy and greener economic pastures abroad, the parents in at least 20 local families have chosen to leave their children in Richmond for greater financial prosperity in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

This Asian flight has in effect created a small but significant local population of children without the benefit of proper parenting, leaving them susceptible to becoming both criminal victim and offender, police say.

Although he doesn't have an exact figure, superintendent Kelly says his discussions with school principals lead him to believe that there are more than just 20 satellite families in Richmond.

"I'm sure it's much higher than that," he told The Review this week.

There's been little research on the effects of growing up isolated from either a father or mother, but police and school officials are still concerned the children are at risk behaviorally and socially.

Children at risk

RCMP Cpl. Steve Wills often sees firsthand the end result when some of these kids take a wayward turn.

As the head of the Richmond gang unit, Wills deals with victims and perpetrators of extortions. It's not uncommon to come across victims and suspects whose parents both live in Asia, he says.

That prompts a long distance call - most often to Hong Kong - where Wills says the parents commonly "drop everything and fly over."

Though the police would like to see at least one parent raise a family, delving into family affairs is not a police mandate, Wills says.

"We can't do anything as the police," Wills says, admittedly frustrated. "What can be done? Neglect is one thing. A lack of parental guidance or attention is another."

And it's fruitless trying to convince a judge in court that these kids are being neglected when there's no obvious visible indications, Will says. Some of these kids are often quite affluent. He is quick to point out that not all satellite children are problematic, but all are at higher risk than average kids.

"It's difficult to bring a kid back from the bad way."

Reporting mandatory

Tim O'Connor, communications officer with the Ministry of Social Services, says the ministry relies on community partners who have a "legal obligation to report child abuse or neglect."

"I've been aware that there have been young kids involved in this," O'Connor said.

If school officials or the police encounter a situation where a child is being neglected, they must report it to the ministry under the recently-amended Child, Family and Community Service Act, he says.

But unless someone reports an incident of neglect, there's little the Social Services Ministry can do about it, O'Connor says.

Dr. Don Knowles of the University of Victoria has studied parent-adolescent relationships. He has found that children growing up without their parents will probably lack the attachment and closeness experienced by more conventional families. In turn, when the child grows up and has children "that's the kind of parent they'll be," Knowles says.

Knowles defines at-risk children as those involved in any behavior that compromises development or wellbeing. In the case of satellite families, having absent parents "will be tough on kids," putting them at risk.

Not only Asians

UBC sociologist Dr. Graham Johnson has done extensive research in China focusing on Chinese immigration and emigration. He says he doesn't know how common satellite families of Chinese origin are, but they definitely are not the norm.

Like other cultures, he considers Chinese families as "relatively close." Leaving children alone for economic survival "is not necessarily condoned...and is looked upon with some degree of puzzlement" by other Chinese, he says.

Though Canada offers a good education and health facilities, it's "not easy for Chinese people to in fact 'make it'" in Canada financially. That, he says, often leaves parents with a difficult decision to make: economic versus social and cultural survival. In many cases, Chinese parents - themselves influenced by a cultural focus on hard work and money-making - lean towards a trip back to Asia.

Johnson compares the current "satellite family" situation to one that occurred earlier this century, also involving Chinese immigrants.

At that time, Chinese men came to Canada to work in the fishing industry, leaving their families behind in China.

But Johnson says this phenomenon is not exclusive to Asian immigrants.

"It's not just Chinese families that are subject to this. It happens in other cultures also."

It's not uncommon in some Caucasian families for parents to send their children away for schooling. Some jobs also require relocation, with parents often electing to leave their children behind in the custody of family or friends, he says.

Regardless of what ethnic group it involves, Johnson says "the health of all families is important."

The first step in finding a solution is gauging how prevalent the problem is. That requires the cooperation of the police and school board, he says.

"Somebody should be documenting this." Otherwise, it's like a blind man trying to describe an elephant, he says.

FAST FACTS

* Satellite families consist of children living and studying in a different country than both parents, usually for financial reasons.

* There are at least 20 satellite families in Richmond, and probably more, according to a school district official.

* Children rarely show outright defiance resulting from growing up without their parents, but in some cases suffer "unnecessary and inhumane levels of anxiety," according to superintendent of schools Chris Kelly.

* Anyone suspecting child abuse or neglect is required by the Child, Family and Community Service Act to report it.

Parents pay others to watch satellite kids

David DaSilva
staff reporter

Verna Wang looks after a lot of kids.

They aren't her own; she is a student counsellor who takes care of everyday tasks that parents or guardians would normally do. She registers students for school, shows them the local shops and bus routes, and generally consoles them when they are feeling lonely and homesick.

And that's just what some Asian parents want. Their children are either living temporarily in the Greater Vancouver area learning English, or they have permanent homes but are left alone because their parents work in Asia.

"(I) just check on the kids, make sure that they are at home and are not out playing, that they are doing their homework," Wang told The Review. "I'll make friends with them first and that will make them feel more comfortable."

Wang is a student counsellor for the Canada Student Service Corp., a division of Burnaby-based Imperial Consultants Canada Ltd. Her job: to make sure that students are cared for and versed in local rules and customs.

The Imperial group currently looks after 150 teenagers throughout the region, 50 in Richmond, Wang said. Most students are from Taiwan, and all are between the ages of 15 and 19.

The vast majority are international students who live with host families. But some of their clients are parents who hire the company to look after their children because they must return to Asia to work. These are known as "satellite" or "astronaut" families.

It's rare to find children left alone while both parents are in Asia, Wang said. Usually a relative, mostly the grandparents, or either the mother or father will stay behind to look after the children and the family home.

For the Imperial group, Wang said satellite students don't usually require much more attention than a weekly check-up phone call.

TAKING CARE

For the most part, satellite kids are well taken care of, said Nikolaos Kokanos, owner of Pan Pacific Family Services in Vancouver. The parents are wealthy, students live in new homes and virtually all the teenagers drive cars, he said.

Pan Pacific currently looks after 30 Taiwanese satellite families, he said. Its staff are certified counsellors, trained to help students with drug problems and general anxiety.

Each satellite family gets a written report on their child's well-being, staff members visit homes about three times a week, and regularly check up on the students' homework and attendance at school.

At times, the service extends to shopping for groceries or even calling in a "cook-tutor" to teach the students how to cook their own meals, Kokanos said.

"We can do grocery shopping for them," he said, "but our role is not to be a mommy for them. But we do go with them to show them how do their own shopping."

Even realtors are getting in on the act. Often, as part of the deal, parents' real estate agents may take on extra tasks such as light housekeeping and shopping for their kids, Kokanos said.

EXTORTION TARGETS

Although police and school agencies have noted that children who are left home alone are prime targets for youth gangs and extortion attempts, the staff at Imperial group say they have never encountered such problems.

Police throughout the region have said that more than 100 kids have been victims of extortion attempts last year, primarily because the students are wealthy, alone and vulnerable.

Satellite kids are often recruited into gangs at first, but become victims later after criminals learn the extent of the family's wealth, Kokanos said.

"They (gang members) start by being their friends first," he said. As well, satellite kids tend not to inform police if they are being targeted particularly because Asian families don't want to lose "face or honor", Kokanos added.

FAST FACTS

* At its Burnaby offices, about 50 staff members from the Imperial group help out Asian students and families with immigration issues, travel and real estate services. They also have a job centre, counselling services, and a 24-hour emergency line for students. Imperial Group has offices in Taiwan and Hong Kong where families first inquire about moving to Canada.

* Imperial staff also assist Asian families by picking them up at the airport and driving them around their new neighborhood before giving them a crash- course about Canada, in a small classroom at Imperial's offices. ("After they look at a house and want to settle down in Richmond, they look for a school and we do everything for them," said Vivian Tai, an Imperial customer representative.)

* Some students, particularly international students, have large living allowances while they study in Canada, Wang said. ("They don't know how to take care of their money.") One student recently spent his entire yearly allowance of $10,000 in two months.

* Pan Pacific Family Services has five staff members who look after kids from 30 Taiwanese satellite families. Kokanos started the company earlier this year.

* The exact number of satellite families in Richmond is not known. Estimates and previous reports are known to vary from as few as 20 kids to hundreds or even thousands throughout the Lower Mainland. Kokanos estimates that at least 1,400 satellite families are in the region.

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