New adoption laws aimed at curbing undesirable practices in increasingly complex landscape

The last time major changes were made to adoption laws was in 1985. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The adoption landscape has become increasingly complex over time and the emergence of undesirable practices by commercial adoption agencies are cited as reasons for the overhauling of adoption laws.

Some of these practices include obtaining the consent of birth parents to give their child for adoption through fraud, duress or other improper means, which affect the child's welfare adversely, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

Changes to the law aim to further deter people from resorting to such practices, she added.

The spokesman said: "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.

"The Adoption of Children Bill will grant the MSF powers to regulate adoption agencies and certain aspects of the adoption process more directly."

On Monday (April 4), Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli tabled a Bill in Parliament to repeal the Adoption of Children Act 1939 and replace it with a new set of laws.

The last time major changes were made to adoption laws was in 1985.

The new rules, which are expected to kick in next year (2023), will have three main thrusts.

First is to find a good home for every child identified for adoption.

Second, the law seeks to break cycles of abuse and neglect.

Third, it aims to put in place mechanism to deter undesirable practices in the adoption sector.

For example, agencies will be required to publish a list of payments or rewards, such as non-monetary benefits, to be made to or through them for all adoption-related matters - to ensure transparency in the adoption sector.

Those who fail to make such information publicly available can be fined up to $5,000, and given a jail term of up to one year or both for the first conviction.

Payments or rewards to biological or adoptive parents for the adoption are now illegal unless it is sanctioned by the court. This is to prevent the child from being treated like a commodity.

Under the new rules, MSF plans to regulate the categories of adoption-related payments to ensure that agencies charge only for reasonable items.

The new Bill will spell out what kind of payments are allowed. For instance, things like medical bills related to the child's birth, legal fees and fees for adoption-related services will be allowed.

Anything outside the permitted categories of payments will be an offence.

The new rules will also have extraterritorial effect, meaning even if the offence is committed outside Singapore, offenders can be treated as if they committed the offence in Singapore in the eyes of the law.

There is an average of 400 adoptions a year. The Straits Times understands that there are fewer than 10 commercial adoption agencies in Singapore.

About 70 per cent to 75 per cent of the applications processed by the Guardian in Adoption each year in the last three years involved foreigners or children who were not Singaporeans, the MSF spokesman said. The remaining children are Singaporeans.

The Guardian in Adoption safeguards the adopted child's interest.

Adoption agents said the adopted children are often from Malaysia and Indonesia.

In 2019, then Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said MSF was reviewing adoption laws after a landmark case in which the High Court approved a gay Singaporean's bid to adopt his biological son on appeal.

The man had fathered the boy in the United States through a surrogate mother for US$200,000 (S$273,000).

The proposed law will also define the meaning of "suitability to adopt".

The MSF spokesman said in assessing an applicant's suitability, authorised adoption agencies, the Guardian in Adoption and the court must take into account some key factors.

These include public policy positions against the formation of same-sex families and the policy against planned and deliberate single parenthood through surrogacy or assisted reproduction technology.

The Government in 2019 said it does not support the use of assisted reproduction technology and surrogacy by singles to conceive children and adopt them, said the MSF spokesman.

She said: "We also do not support the formation of same-sex families through institutions and processes such as adoption."

When asked if gay couples are allowed to adopt children who are not related to them or a child who is related and born through surrogacy, the spokesman said: "Singapore's public policy encourages parenthood within marriage.

"The social norm in our society is that of one man and one woman marrying and raising children within a heterosexual marriage and a stable family unit.

"This is reflected in our laws and policies, which the Court takes into account when considering an adoption application."

The new law also makes it an offence for applicants to provide any materially false or misleading information in order to adopt a child.

For the first conviction, one can be fined up to $5,000, jailed up to one year, or both.

Ms Mahaletchimi Muthusamy, who runs Ministry of Baby Adoption Singapore, said her agency has been detailing each adoption-related expense all along and such costs are backed up with receipts in submissions to the court.

When the new rules kick in, she plans to publish a range of fees her agency charges on its website.

It charges between $25,000 and $30,000 for a Malaysian or Indonesian baby, covering items such as hospital bills, expenses related to the baby's care, lawyers' fees and her agency fees.

She said everything is above board and she goes to Malaysia or Indonesia to meet the birth mothers to ensure they want to give the child up for adoption, among other things.

Mr Justin Mui, executive director of Lutheran Community Care Services, said he has heard of foreign women who may be enticed to get pregnant repeatedly to place their baby for adoption, in exchange for large sums of money.

But such cases are rare.

He added that the new rules encourage fee transparency with detailed breakdown of expenses that have to be supported with receipts, and this helps adoptive parents to know what they are paying for.

It also deters the giving of large sums to entice birth mothers to give their child up for adoption.

He said: "It makes clear that such gross transactions are not acceptable as an utter disrespect to the sanctity of life."

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