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New laws planned to curb unethical adoption practices

New laws planned to curb unethical adoption practices

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 12 Apr 2021
Author: Theresa Tan & Goh Yan Han

Adoption agencies are not regulated in Singapore.

Significant changes to adoption laws and practices are on the cards here, including moves to make unethical adoption practices a crime.

These practices could include "tricking parents into providing consent to give their child up for adoption, hiding important information during the adop-tion process and 'testing' a child's 'adoptability' as if they were up for sale", said the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

MSF was citing feedback from stakeholders in its public consultation paper on the review of the Adoption of Children Act.

In the public consultation posted on the government feedback unit Reach's website, MSF proposed new offences that carry fines or jail terms. They include:

• Obtaining of parental consent to give up the child for adoption through fraud, duress and/or undue influence;

• Providing incomplete, misleading or false documentation or information; or

• Placing the child with applicants who have not been assessed to be ready or suitable to adopt, or letting these applicants care for the child.

MSF wants all the people and entities involved in adoption applications to report any non-compliance with the requirements so that "each stakeholder takes reasonable steps to protect the welfare of children".

It is also proposing to require adoption agencies to make public up-to-date information on their fees and services so that applicants can make informed decisions.

An MSF spokesman told The Straits Times that the last substantial amendment to the Act was in 1985 and that it is being reviewed now as many provisions need to be updated to keep pace with the evolving landscape and international best practices.

The process has involved MSF engaging stakeholders such as adopted children, adoptive parents and agencies involved in child protection work.

The proposed amendments are based on MSF's interactions with these stakeholders, and from studying other jurisdictions' laws and practices. The public consultation ended last month, with the amendment Bill expected in Parliament later this year.

Ms Teo Seok Bee, deputy director of Touch Integrated Family Group, said: "The review is necessary to ensure that the Act continues to be relevant to the changing needs and circumstances, and to strengthen policies, procedures and practices, and address gaps with respect to adoption."

Adoption agencies are not regulated in Singapore, but there are checks on the documents needed for adoption, such as the child's identification papers and notarised consent from the birth parents giving up the child, MSF has said previously.

The courts also require details of the financial transactions involved, including reimbursement of pre-and post-natal expenses.

Adoption agencies interviewed said they charge fees of between $25,000 and $30,000, which include the birth mother's medical bills, legal fees and agency fees.

Statistics on the MSF website show that there is a rising number of adoption applications processed by the Guardian-in-Adoption, who ensures the adopted child's best interests.

There were 453 adoption applications in 2019, the latest year available, up from 433 in 2018 and 326 in 2015.

Besides introducing new offences against unethical practices, MSF is also proposing to give priority to adopt to applicants with "strong ties" to Singapore, such as that they have to be habitual residents here and at least one party is a Singaporean, or both spouses are permanent residents.

This comes amid a global decline in the number of foreign children available for adoption and is in line with international norms.

MSF is also planning to require all applicants - not only those adopting a foreign child - to undergo an assessment to check that they are ready and suitable to be adoptive parents before they can apply to adopt.


Stamping out questionable practices, ensuring transparency

Lutheran Community Care Services (LCCS) set up an adoption agency in 2019 so that it could give a satisfactory answer to parents asking where they could go to adopt a child.

Previously, the charity could only caution them to be wary of questionable practices at some commercial agencies, but with Stepping-Stones, it can now offer adoptive parents an alternative that "raises the standards" of practice.

For example, it does not allow adoptive parents to take a child home until the necessary immigration passes are obtained. It also does not allow prospective parents to put the child through unnecessary medical checks.

While a for-profit agency may allow couples a replacement if a child is found to have medical issues, LCCS' executive director Justin Mui said Stepping-Stones tries its best to work with adoptive parents "to help them accept that this is the child you will be matched with".

He said: "For us, this is a life. You can't say this one is defective, and we will give you another one."

Stepping-Stones is the only adoption agency run as a social enterprise. There are at least seven commercial agencies here that are known to the authorities.

Commercial adoption agencies match couples with both local and foreign babies, often from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Mr Mui said he and his colleagues have heard from adoptive parents about some questionable practices by commercial agents.

These include instances where a child might be given to a couple who could pay the highest price, or be passed to the adoptive parents before the dependant's pass was ready.

Ms Teo Seok Bee, deputy director of social service agency Touch Integrated Family Group, said she and her colleagues have heard that some commercial agents charge as much as $70,000 for an adoption.

She said: "When adoption fees start becoming that expensive, some agents may view it as a lucrative business where they benefit from 'selling' babies or children."

Other troubling practices include a lack of transparency about the child's birth parents and a lack of proper documentation.

In Singapore, adoption agencies are not regulated, but the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) does checks on the documents needed for adoption, such as the child's identification papers and notarised consent from the birth parents giving the child up for adoption.

The courts also require details of the financial transactions involved, including reimbursement of pre-and post-natal expenses.

MSF is planning to stamp out unethical and undesirable adoption practices by making them offences, it said in a public consultation paper on adoption that was concluded recently.

It would become an offence, for instance, to obtain parental consent to give up a child for adoption through fraud or duress, or to provide misleading, incomplete or false information or documentation.

Mr Christopher de Souza, an MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC and a father of four, one of whom is adopted, welcomed the proposed penalties.

He said: "While we hope to encourage prospective parents to consider adoption... we do not want to create or perpetuate a perception that children are assets that can be bought and sold."

Ms Serene Goh, 49, a media professional, had a harrowing experience with an intermediary in Johor Baru who made her an offer for RM15,000 (S$4,800).

For that price, the intermediary said, she could get all the paperwork done for an adoption, such as finding someone to pass off as the baby's mother or even registering Ms Goh and her husband as the birth parents on the baby's birth documents.

Ms Goh said: "I was so traumatised that I cried all the way back from Johor Baru to Singapore.

"I was extremely worried for this child, that she would be traded for who knows what. This is outright fraud and child trafficking."

In the end, Ms Goh adopted a baby from Lotus Child Adoption Agency International in Singapore, which was recommended by her friend and whose services she found to be professional.

Apart from commercial adoption agencies, there are also four social service agencies, such as LCCS and Touch, that are accredited by MSF to conduct home study reports assessing the parents' suitability and readiness to adopt.

The four agencies also faci-litate the matching of local children with adoptive parents, said an MSF spokesman.

Adoption agents interviewed said their practices are above board.

"There are many legal steps and procedures here that it is difficult to (do anything unethical)," said Ms Mahaletchimi, who founded Ministry of Baby in 2009. She goes by one name.

A lawyer is present when the birth mother signs the consent giving up her baby for adoption, and pictures are taken throughout the process, she said. This helps to ensure that the babies are not trafficked and the birth mother is not under duress.

"They know that they are being watched throughout. We want to protect the adoptive parents as well, to ensure there is no trouble later on," she added.

Adoption fees can go up to $25,000, said Ms Mahaletchimi.

The fee covers costs such as the birth mother's confinement and hospital bills, childcare, transportation, legal work overseas and here, medical check-ups and agency fees.

Mr Ronnie Tan, who runs Kid & Tot Adoption Agency, said he charges around $30,000 in adoption fees.

He said he deals only with the adoption of Indonesian babies, as the Indonesian birth parents come to Singapore to sign their consent for the adoption in front of Mr Tan's lawyers, among other reasons.

"If they are not the biological parents, do you think they will dare to come to Singapore to sign in front of my lawyer?"

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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