'Most tragic experience of our lives': Adoptive parents welcome changes to plug gaps in adoption laws
SINGAPORE: Four years ago, Mr Christophe Montane welcomed an adopted baby into his family – only to have the child taken away after 10 days.
Speaking to CNA about changes to adoption laws that were tabled in Parliament recently, Mr Montane was emotional as he recounted his family's ordeal.
A permanent resident who has lived in Singapore for about eight years, he and his wife went through months of applications and a home study before qualifying to adopt a local child.
The newborn came to live with them before the adoption was formalised. It was the “greatest joy”, he said, and he didn’t think too much about the paperwork at that point.
Then five days later, the birth mother texted Mr Montane saying that there was a “problem” with the payments to the hospital where she gave birth. But there were no issues with the payment, he said.
The French couple then received multiple messages from the baby’s birth mother and the adoption agency sounding them out for more fees, which they did not give in to.
The birth mother even threatened to go to the police if they didn’t “return” the baby, he said.
The baby was eventually taken away, and Mr Montane believes the child was “sold” to another family.
He and his wife have since successfully adopted another child, but he said that their ordeal was an experience he would not “wish on my worst enemy”.
“We’ve never had a greater trauma than this one. It was the most tragic experience of our lives,” he told CNA.
He filed a police report and wrote a complaint about the adoption agency to the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs (MSF).
In his email to MSF, he said that he made contact with a few other families who had similar experiences.
“As we speak, kids are still being sold as merchandise in Singapore, they are offered no stability for months before the ‘best’ transaction is concluded,” he wrote.
Mr Montane, 49, the global head of sales for a tech company, said he hopes this can stop when new adoption laws are passed.
“I'm glad that it's taken very seriously by the Singapore Government … hopefully it's not going to be good intention only but it's going to be time for … enforcement. And it’s the time for … sanctioning agencies and any other fraudulent person,” he said.
Amendments to the Adoption of Children Act that were introduced in Parliament on Apr 4 aim to address these and other issues. It is due to be passed next month, and could be implemented as soon as next year.
Among the changes are laws to ensure that adoption agencies publish their fees in a transparent manner, and charge only permitted payments.
According to MSF, every adoption agency must make publicly available a list of “every payment, and the nature and monetary value of every reward” to be made for the adoption of a child.
The permitted payments will be legislated to ensure that adoption agencies only charge for reasonable items, said MSF.
Along with this, there are a host of amendments to promote transparency and prevent the “commodification” of the child, including restrictions on publishing photos and information on the children.
Ms Alice Kaveree, who runs Lotus Adoption, has heard of cases where the baby is given to the “highest bidder”. She hopes that new laws will give authorities more teeth to deal with adoption agencies that try to profiteer.
“I'm very, very happy that MSF will change a lot of procedures … there should not be any amount that is ‘under the table’,” said the agent, who has been in the sector for more than two decades.
“I hope MSF will be more strict and tell these agencies: ‘Look, you're not going shopping.’”
JAIL, FINE FOR OFFENDERS
The proposed laws, if passed, do grant authorities more powers to fine and jail offenders who flout regulations.
MSF said that, under new laws, authorised officers can enforce the new offences proposed under the Act.
Criminal offences under the amended Act also include prospective adopters residing or spending time with unrelated children before they have been preliminarily assessed as suitable to adopt; and using fraud, duress, undue influence or other improper means to obtain birth parents’ consent to the adoption.
Providing false or misleading information to authorised adoption agencies and the Guardian-in-Adoption – a public officer appointed by the minister under the Adoption of Children Act – will also be an offence.
MSF said that while commercial adoption agencies are not directly regulated today, they must comply with all of Singapore’s laws, including laws against the trafficking of children.
“Criminalising undesirable behaviours in the adoption sector is a step in strengthening and ensuring the integrity of the adoption sector and its practices,” said a ministry spokesperson.
KEY CHANGE FOR FOSTER CHILDREN
Other amendments in the Bill will benefit a group of children who have been in foster care or in a children’s home for some time, and who are unlikely to be reunited with their birth family, said Ms Vivienne Ng, co-founder of Home for Good, a child fostering support network.
“Some of these children could have formed a strong attachment to their foster parents, and their foster parents may be open or eager to be their forever family,” said Ms Ng.
However, there could be birth parents who refuse to give consent for their child to be adopted, although they have not shown interest in their children for long periods of time, or continue to be abusive or neglectful towards their children.
One key amendment in the Bill seeks to provide more clarity on circumstances where consent from the birth parents can be dispensed with, if it is in the child’s welfare.
Some of these circumstances include if the parent has abandoned or neglected the child or cannot be found, has intentionally caused grievous hurt to or ill-treated the child, and/or if the parent is unwilling or unlikely to care for the child due to drug addiction or imprisonment.
“While it is not easy for any parent to have their ties with their child terminated by the court, adoption may be in their best interest. So, this amendment would help provide these children with a permanent, loving family,” Ms Ng said.
“Otherwise, they would be in limbo until adulthood.”
Foster and adoptive parents Mark and Sue Lim said that they felt “great excitement” when they saw that the Bill was tabled in Parliament.
They have two adopted sons, who are now 10 and 12, and are looking to adopt a third child.
"LIKE HAVING A HOLE IN YOUR HEART"
The couple said that they went through a home study to be assessed as adoptive parents which they recalled was “intense”, and they’re glad that this will be the case for all prospective adopters when the law is passed.
Currently, while many parents do go through an adoption suitability assessment, it is compulsory only for those adopting foreign children. The new law makes it mandatory for anyone who wants to adopt local or foreign children.
They are also in favour of a change to make all applicants attend a disclosure briefing, which briefs them on how to tell their child that he or she is adopted. While they are not compelled to do so, the information will help prepare them for the eventuality.
Ms Lim, who is a counsellor, said that it’s an important part of the amendments.
“My main concern when we adopted our children was their identity … it's really like having a hole in your heart, growing up not knowing a part of yourself, or even worse discovering it for yourself when you’re in your teens,” she said.
As foster parents themselves, they are also in favour of amendments that clarify when the birth parents’ consent for adoption can be waived.
While the goal of fostering is to reintegrate the child into their family, there are cases when that is difficult.
“In cases where the birth parents have caused grievous harm to the child, or where they have proven that they are unable to look after any child, the child is trapped in the system,” Ms Lim said.
“To me, if there is a child in the system who really has no family, no safe harbour to call home, there are families who are very open and willing to (adopt them).”
IN FAVOUR OF AMENDMENTS
Authorised adoptive agencies CNA spoke to were in support of the amendments.
Mr James Tan, CEO of TOUCH Community Services, called the Bill “a step in the right direction”.
“The changes in the Bill allow for more transparent and ethical adoption practices. It also facilitates adoption by clarifying the conditions for dispensation of consent,” he said.
A spokesperson from Fei Yue, which conducts pre-adoption assessments, said that the amendments will ensure that adoption practices in Singapore are better regulated.
“We foresee an increase in the number of applications for a pre-adoption assessment, as this requirement will apply to all prospective adopters after the amendments are operationalised,” said the spokesperson.
What is to be known as an Adoption Suitability Assessment or ASA helps to determine the prospective adopter’s suitability, readiness and commitment in providing a permanent home to an adopted child.
Those who wish to adopt children under state care will be thoroughly assessed to ensure that they are able to cope with the higher emotional needs of state care children due to their past trauma, said Fei Yue.
Apkim, which conducts ASAs and facilitates adoption of Muslim children, highlighted that the court can order the child and the adoptive parents to attend counselling, mediation or other relevant programmes under the amended Act, if necessary.
Apkim director Siti Adilah Abu Bakar said that this amendment creates an awareness of the importance and benefits of post-adoption counselling services.
“The amendments will help to ensure that the process of adoption and matching is carried out in a manner that does not exploit or commodify the child,” Ms Siti added.
“Apkim is heartened by the Bill, as it sends a strong signal from the Government that MSF and authorised adoption agencies would continue to work closer and harder to ensure that the adoption practices in Singapore safeguard the welfare of every child identified for adoption.”