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Tue, Dec 30, 2008
The Sunday Times
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The adoption option
by Mavis Toh

Singaporean Low Soo Meng engages in 'baby talk' each time he flies to places like Malaysia and Indonesia.

That's when he quizzes couples whose newborn has been earmarked for adoption here.

Mr Low is the director of Singapore-based Greenhouse Adoption Agency, which handles about 25 adoptions, mostly of foreign babies, annually.

He will insist on meeting the baby's parents to make sure they are indeed the birth parents. He also wants to be sure they had not been coerced into the decision.

He said he is scrupulous that no laws are broken.

'When we deal with a foreign country, all sorts of ridiculous things can happen,' said Mr Low, who has been in the adoption business for 11 years. 'It's my policy to screen the parents before we agree to the case.'

Two weeks ago, Singaporean Irene Low Ai Lian, 50, was arrested in the Philippines, allegedly for being involved in a baby trafficking case.

Ms Low, who runs Fox Family Services Adoption Centre in Singapore, was arrested during a raid on a house in Jalajala, a two-hour drive south of Manila, where police found nine infants aged between six months and one year.

The police said the Jalajala Home for the Needy was being used as a centre to process children for adoption abroad. The home did not have an operating licence from the social welfare department.

Ms Low was released last Tuesday but has been ordered to stay in the country to attend investigation hearings on Jan 6 and 13.

Adoption agencies in Singapore told The Sunday Times that Ms Low had been in the business for only about two years. They added that the demand for Filipino babies in Singapore is low as most adoptive parents, usually Chinese couples, still prefer a Chinese child.

As of mid-December, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) had received 421 adoption applications this year, up from 407 for all of last year.

Most of the adopted children here - about 60 per cent - were born overseas. The adoption agencies said this is because Singaporean babies are 'hard to come by'.

The most popular sources are neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

There are fewer than 10 agencies here. Previously, the bulk of their work was in helping couples adopt babies from China.

But since the rule was changed in 2004, as a result of a Singapore-China arrangement, adoptions from China can be done only through two agencies accredited by the MCYS.

Although adoption agencies here are not regulated, MCYS will check to ensure that the child's birth certificate, passport and other relevant papers are in order before allowing an adopted baby to enter Singapore.

The agencies work with contacts in Malaysia and Indonesia to source for babies. These are usually 'freelancers' with good networks among local villagers. Some of these contacts are also familiar with nurses working in maternity wards.

'These contacts have been in the industry for years. When they get calls from people wanting to give up their babies, they will approach us,' said Mr Low.

The director of King International Adoptions, who declined to be named, said her agency gets about three babies each month, through word-of-mouth referrals and contacts.

At Amman Baby Adoption Services, founder R. Rajalakshmi depends on her website and an advertisement in the Yellow Pages to get responses.

'I've had many Malaysians who call, after flipping through the Yellow Pages, to say they want to give up their child for adoption,' said Ms Rajalakshmi.

Thorough checks

Like Mr Low, most of the bosses of the other agencies said they would insist on meeting a baby's birth parents to ensure that the deal is above board and no trafficking is involved.

Mr Low usually looks out for signs like whether the 'mum' looks like she'd given birth recently and whether the child is being breast-fed to determine the 'authenticity' of the parents.

He also probes into the couple's family background and checks marriage and birth certificates.

To ensure that babies are not 'produced for sale', King International does not take in more than one child per family for adoption.

Many agencies here noted that it is usually unwed mums or those from poor families who give up their babies for adoption.

They added that they rarely work with orphanages abroad because of the red tape encountered in dealing with the different authorities.

But Touch Adoption Services (TAS), one of the two agencies accredited to handle China adoptions, works only with the authorities in various countries to ensure 'reliability and legality'.

'These children, usually orphans or abandoned, are all from orphanages,' said TAS senior manager Teo Seok Bee. 'Their documents have been screened and authenticated by the authorities themselves.'

Ms Rajalakshmi said her agency does not reimburse parents but will fully pay for the mother and child's medical and delivery fees, and food and lodging too.

'The birth mum cannot get any money, or it becomes a business trade,' she said.

Under Singapore's Adoption of Children Act, it is unlawful, except with the sanction of the court, for parents, guardians and adopters to receive payment or reward for an adoption.

But some agencies said that of the $18,000 to $25,000 they charge adoptive parents, about 20 per cent goes to the birth parents, with 10 per cent going to the middleman contact, if any.

In Singapore, would-be adoptive parents must first go through strict checks called Home Study Reports, conducted by an accredited voluntary welfare organisation, before they can adopt a foreign child.

Once a favourable report is issued, the prospective adopters can then identify a child and apply for a dependant's pass to bring the child here.

But some adoptive parents said they have been able to bring a child home even before the checks were done.

In 2004, Lynn (not her real name) adopted a seven-month-old Indonesian boy. She recalled visiting the adoption agent's flat here, where the boy was being taken care of by a nanny.

The next day, she paid the agent $10,000 and was told to take the boy home. She paid the remaining sum of $13,800 in monthly instalments.

'At that time, my Home Study Report hadn't been completed and I didn't even know I had to do so,' said Lynn. 'The agent just said I could take my boy home first.'

MCYS said its key concern is to ensure the welfare of the children to be adopted.

It thus focuses on 'careful scrutiny and investigation' into whether prospective adopters will be suitable parents. It also checks that the parents of the child have consented to give the child up for adoption.

Under the Children and Young Persons Act, any person found guilty of child trafficking here may be sentenced to imprisonment not exceeding four years.

For would-be parents, Ms Rajalakshmi advised: 'Adoption is a lifetime commitment. Don't rush into it.'

This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Dec 28, 2008.

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