Helping Chinese Families Advocate for Children with Special Needs

Dennis Feaster, Ph.D. | Assistant Professor of Social Work

To understand how four Hope College students found themselves in China training teachers and social workers in summer 2017, you need to trace the story back to Benjamin Feaster’s adoption. Thirteen years have passed since Dennis and Sarah Feaster adopted their son from his native Hong Kong. Adopting and parenting Benjamin, who has Down syndrome, triggered a new professional interest for Dennis Feaster: how children affected by disability are viewed in mainland China.

Dr. Dennis Feaster pictured with his wife Sarah, as they adopt their son Benjamin from his native Hong Kong. They stand with him as a newborn, in front of the Mother's Choice sign which is in both English and Chinese.

Back then he was a social worker in Grand Rapids, not an academic — but he’d studied law and society in college. His thoughts turned to structural questions. What if Benjamin were on the mainland — who would be taking care of him? What is the nature of orphan care in China? How do people in China and Hong Kong feel about intercountry adoption?

One Ph.D. and many trips to China later, Dr. Feaster’s focus as an international social worker is building and improving services in China for children affected by disabilities.

In graduate school, he discovered that more than 90 percent of children entering orphan care in mainland China had an intellectual or developmental disability — a statistic confirmed by the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs and the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In response, Feaster worked with the Michigan-based agency Bethany Christian Services and two community-based organizations in China on a program to get more Chinese children with disabilities placed in family settings.

“Most of my work involves helping to build and improve local social services so that birth parents don’t feel the desperation and lack of resources that may precede the decision that results in a birth child with a disability entering into orphan care,” he says.

Feaster includes some of his students in these ongoing efforts. In summer 2017, Kylie DeKryger ’18, Abby Durán ’18, Maria Garcia ’18 and Gabbi Werner ’18 joined Feaster in China as part of a project funded through the ASIANetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows Program.

“All of the students are social work majors who also had some interest and experience in either disabilities or international social work, or both,” Feaster explains, and all four “were far enough along in their professional education to be able to provide substantive information to partners, as well as having the maturity and life skills needed to work across cultures.” They were paired with Chinese university students who served as translators.

Dr. Feaster working with two students in the library.

Feaster and his students intersected with social service agencies in four Chinese cities: Beijing, Xian, Hong Kong and Zhengzhou. They spent the most time in Zhengzhou, where they trained families and professionals on issues such as program development and evaluation, child assessment, and intervention. Zhengzhou is unique in China for having social service agencies that serve the birth families of children with disabilities, Feaster says. In the other cities the group visited, agencies focus mostly on children with disabilities who are in orphan care.

Along the way, they learned of efforts by their Chinese colleagues in Zhengzhou to create opportunities for families to connect with one another and advocate for their children. “These families have been able to organize themselves and have petitioned the municipal government in Zhengzhou to allow their children to have access to public education,” Feaster says. “This is a process that occurred over three years but was eventually successful — Zhengzhou’s government set up a pilot program for schools to admit students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to have access to schools.”

Achieving that access was challenging because most Chinese schools have no special education programs. Feaster says that parents are stepping in to attend school with their children and help teachers to adapt lessons to the kids’ learning needs. “At this point,” Feaster reports, “it sounds like most of the schools have a designated special education classroom with an assigned teacher, but these classrooms are pretty thoroughly segregated from the general education population. This access is progress, but there are many, many steps that need to happen in order to accomplish more fully inclusive and appropriate educational experiences for these children and families.”

Compounding the challenge is the scarcity of social workers in China, at least as Americans understand the term. In China, Feaster explains, social workers’ main responsibilities are to implement social policies and controls. Special education teachers are scarce in China, too, as are teacher-training programs in the field.

“My partners have asked for assistance in upgrading their social work capacity, but they are now also asking for help in increasing special education capacity,” Feaster says. “Finding students and professionals who can participate with Chinese partners in meeting these needs is part of the broader vision for this community. I hope that Hope College can be a big part of this.”

That Feaster is the father of children who have disabilities helps him build bridges with families he meets in China.

“As you can imagine, much of the interest from families has been quite practical: ‘My child does Behavior X — how do I get them to stop it?’ or ‘I want my child to be able to do Behavior Y — how do I get them to learn this?’” Feaster says. “The interest from organizations has been similarly practical: ‘How do we help families who have these questions/issues?’ and ‘How do we collect and analyze data from our programs to improve our services?’”

“I believe that this offers many advantages that we in the U.S. could benefit from,” Feaster says. “It is more relational than transactional.”

The ASIANetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows Program has been supporting undergraduate research projects in East and Southeast Asia for nearly 20 years. The Freeman Foundation, which supports the initiative, has provided financial backing for years to colleges looking to expand their Asian studies programs.

Feaster hopes that connections between the college and Chinese disability advocates will continue to grow. “My hope is that I can connect Hope College students and faculty to my friends and colleagues in China,” he says, “so that over time and across iterations, the changes that my friends in China want to see actually come about.”