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Singapore

Parliament passes new Bill to improve adoption laws and practices

SINGAPORE: An overhaul of the legislation involving the adoption of children in Singapore was passed in Parliament on Monday (May 9), paving the way for tighter eligibility criteria and additional safeguards such as the need for all prospective adopters to be assessed.

The Adoption of Children Bill, which repeals the Adoption of Children Act 1939 (ACA), also includes more regulatory measures to deter “undesirable practices” among adoption agencies.

Tabling the bill for a second reading, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said the current Act was last substantively amended in 1985. Since then, the adoption landscape in Singapore has evolved “significantly” with several key developments.

First, adoption applications have become “increasingly complex”, with authorities receiving more applications involving children with high needs and prospective adopters with concerning issues.

Second, some vulnerable children in state care, who would benefit from adoption, face obstacles in the adoption process, primarily due to objections from their birth parents.

Third, authorities have received feedback about commercial adoption agencies engaging in “undesirable practices that are financially motivated with little or no regard for the interests of the child, prospective adopters and birth parents”.

“While MSF (Ministry of Social and Family Development) has administratively addressed such undesirable practices, legislative levers are needed for greater deterrence”, said Mr Masagos.

“Therefore, this bill will repeal and re-enact the ACA with enhanced provisions to govern the adoption sector, practices and processes in Singapore, and to better safeguard the child’s welfare.”

Fourteen Members of Parliament (MPs) and one nominated MP - Mark Chay - rose to speak on the Bill. While they supported the amendments, they also had questions about issues ranging from the eligibility criteria to the quality of adoption agencies.

ELIGIBILITY OF PROSPECTIVE ADOPTIVE PARENTS

MPs questioned the eligibility criteria for prospective adoptive parents regarding citizenship status and criminal history.

The Act currently requires the applicant to be resident in Singapore. The new Bill however specifies that the applicant for adoption under Singapore jurisdiction must be habitually resident in Singapore. 

In determining this, the court that grants adoption orders will consider how long the applicants have been living in a country, where they work, and the base of their social and economic ties. 

For joint applications, at least one applicant must be a Singaporean or both applicants must be permanent residents (PRs) while a sole applicant should be a Singaporean or a PR. 

Mr Seah Kian Peng (PAP-Marine Parade) asked if residency requirements should be further tightened, as PRs “do have some degree of permanence" but also move on when “circumstances change”.

Mr Masagos replied that PRs form an “integral” part of Singapore society and gave the assurance that those with a “strong nexus” to Singapore will be prioritised.

The legislation also establishes the default position that applicants convicted of serious crimes cannot adopt, which Mr Masagos said improves on the current arrangement that relies on the court-appointed guardian-in-adoption to object on a case-by-case basis. The list of serious crimes includes offences such as those related to sexual abuse, violence and drug consumption.

Ms Ng Ling Ling (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) suggested that children being put up for adoption should be protected even from persons who have committed non-serious offences. Acknowledging Ms Ng's point, Mr Masagos said the ministry’s guiding principle will be the impact the offence has on an applicant’s character and ability to safely care for the child.

Depending on the types of cases that surface over time, the ministry may review the list of offences, he added in his closing speech.

For offences not in the prescribed list, the applicants’ criminal record will still be taken into account as part of the adoption suitability assessment, Mr Masagos said.

“The longer the time the person has remained crime-free, the more favourably it would present his or her application,” he added.

REGULATING ADOPTION AGENCIES

As part of establishing a sound regulatory system for the adoption process, the Bill will require adoption agencies to publish their fees in a transparent manner and charge only permitted payments.

There are also new rules to penalise the use of fraud, duress, undue influence or other improper means to obtain consent to adoption, as well as deter the publishing of photos and information of children identified for adoption.

But MP Melvin Yong (PAP-Radin Mas) asked if these new measures are sufficient to combat “unscrupulous practices” in the adoption sector.

Citing a recent article by CNA, which followed the experience of a couple who had their adopted baby taken away after refusing to pay “questionable” additional fees to the birth parent and the adoption agency, he asked if this practice of having adoptive children “sold as merchandise” to the highest bidder was prevalent in Singapore.

In response, Mr Masagos said that while MSF does not have the data, it has heard of such practices and the Bill seeks to introduce measures to deter children from being commodified.

Turning to the issue of fees charged by adoption agencies, Mr Yong wondered if this can be regulated and gazetted in subsidiary legislation. Such fees can also be reviewed regularly in consultation with the industry to ensure that they are reasonable and updated.

Ms Denise Phua (PAP-Jalan Besar) suggested fee guidelines such as those set by the Ministry of Health for clinics so that there is an acceptable range of service fees. This will ensure that adoption agencies with good records get to remain in the business and support more families effectively.

Associate Professor Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) noted that while the new laws spell out fines for adoption agents that fail to comply with the new requirements, they appear “to fall short of taking the next step of holding frequent or flagrant violators to more permanent account”. 

It remains unclear, for instance, if authorities will permanently bar an individual or agency from the industry. He also asked if there will be a system for recording or investigating adoption agents, or an official registry of these private providers.

On a similar note, MP Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) asked if authorities will consider implementing mandatory accreditation for all adoption agencies and publish a registry of those that are accredited.

In his closing speech, Mr Masagos replied that the Government’s approach is to focus on “the criminalisation of undesirable adoption practices”. 

“We will keep a close watch on the impact of the Bill on the adoption agencies' practices and we are prepared to consider further measures in the future if necessary,” the minister said.

DISCLOSING ADOPTION EARLY

Other MPs who spoke were Mr Christopher De Souza (PAP-Holland-Bukit Timah) and Mr Dennis Tan (WP-Aljunied), who shared their personal journeys of adoption.

They supported the disclosure briefings that are newly mandated as part of the Bill.

Mr De Souza said that while he understood that many would be concerned about such disclosures affecting the child adversely, he believed this should be done as early as possible. 

“Inevitably, the child will realise that he or she is adopted, and he will wonder why it was kept a secret. He or she will think that perhaps there was something to be ashamed of,” he said.

A better approach is for adoptive parents to explain adoption in a manner that is positive and affirming and showing the child that he or she belongs to a family and is loved equally, added Mr De Souza, who has four children.

When his adoptive daughter was still young, he and his wife would tell her that “she came from her tummy mummy’s tummy, but she was born in our hearts”, he said. The phrase "tummy mummy" is sometimes used to refer to the biological mother.

Mr Tan said that while the Bill does not make it mandatory for parents to disclose the adoption to their adoptive children, the requirement in the legislation for prospective adoptive parents to attend briefings on disclosure is a “symbolic step” in the right direction.

He and his wife agreed at the onset of the process that they would make the disclosure, he said.

“We started by sharing with her stories on adoption even when she was a baby. In recent years, we started telling her that we are her adoptive parents. She knows that she has a tummy mummy and forever mummy,” he said, adding that she is now in Primary 1.

“We expect that in future years, we'll have more and deeper conversations with her about her adoption."

Ms Joan Pereira (PAP-Tanjong Pagar) asked how adopted children who wish to find out more about their birth family can do so and whether MSF will establish an adoption register.

MSF will further study steps that it can take towards greater disclosure such as the setting up of an adoption register, Mr Masagos said in response.

Nevertheless, all adoptive parents would generally be aware of the identities of their child’s adopted parents as a copy of their child's original birth certificate must be submitted to the courts as part of the adoption application, he noted.

"Hence, adoptive parents can be the first port of call if their adopted children wish to contact their birth parents," he said.

Source: CNA/sk(ac)

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