The number of children adopted in Singapore has dropped sharply following the introduction of strict checks on prospective parents and with fewer babies being brought in from neighbouring countries.
From a high of 731 adoptions in 2004, the numbers started to fall from 2005 when thorough checks, called "home study reports", were made compulsory for those wishing to adopt. Last year, only 396 children were adopted, down by nearly half from the 2004 figure.
About half the adopted children over the past five years were from abroad, mostly Indonesia and Malaysia, while the rest were Singaporean, many born to young unwed mothers.
Most were under two years old when they were adopted, said a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) spokesman.
Adoption agencies said the numbers declined as some couples who found the home study report too intrusive and troublesome abandoned their plans to adopt.
The agents said it can take months to complete a report, which involves lengthy interviews with a social worker who probes the couple's entire lives, asking about their childhood, their marriage, the state of their finances and their attitudes to parenting.
The social worker will also visit the home, speak to family members and friends and do background checks for mental illness or any criminal record.
Madam Cheng Wen Shan, senior social worker at Fei Yue Community Services, an agency accredited by the ministry to do such checks, said the reports are necessary to ensure the child's welfare.
"These children have already lost their birth parents so we need to ensure that their new parents are ready and suitable to adopt," she said.
It costs $1,500 to get a report done and it is required before a couple can adopt a foreign child. It is also required before adopting some Singapore children, such as abandoned babies under the state's care.
The MSF spokesman said its staff will assess all potential parents on their suitability to adopt, even those who do not need a home study report, through different types of checks.
Some couples do not clear these checks, said Madam Cheng. Some know their marriage is on the rocks but hope a child might bring them together again. Others are mentally or physically ill.
Fewer unwanted babies
Adoption agents say there are a number of reasons for the smaller number of foreign babies arriving in Singapore.
With more widespread use of birth control in neighbouring countries and people becoming better off, there are fewer unwanted babies now.
One agent said foreign middlemen have been put off working with Singapore agents because the authorities demand more documentation, such as details of the financial transactions involved in obtaining a child for adoption.
Agents used to match couples here with babies from China but since 2004, only two non-profit groups, Touch Community Services and Fei Yue Community Services, have been allowed to handle the China adoptions.
The Singapore and Chinese governments agreed on this arrangement to prevent illegal cash-for-baby transactions, according to media reports. In the past five years, less than 1 per cent of all children adopted here were from China, said the ministry.
It now takes about six years, on average, to be matched with a Chinese child and the lengthy wait puts off potential parents. In contrast, adoption agents say the waiting time for an Indonesian or Malaysian baby is anything from within a few weeks to a few months.
On the local front, few Singaporean babies are placed for adoption, as most unwanted pregnancies are aborted, social workers and adoption agents say. And the wait for a local baby to adopt can take years.
For example, Project Cherub, a pregnancy crisis service run by the Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society, helps arrange between five and 10 adoptions a year.
Most of those who put up a child for adoption are unmarried mothers, from teenagers to women in their 30s. They either discover they are pregnant too late for an abortion or cannot bear to terminate the pregnancy, said the charity's counsellor R. Alamelu.
In March, three Members of Parliament called for more to be done to encourage women planning to abort to consider placing their child for adoption instead. There are about 12,000 abortions a year.
More support for parents
Most of the Singaporeans looking to adopt are Chinese couples aged between 35 and 50. Their median household income is between $6,000 and $7,000 a month, Parliament was told last year.
Singles can adopt too but, on average, under 5 per cent of all adoptions in the past five years were by single women or men.
Adoption agents say these are mostly professional women in their 30s and 40s, who long to be mothers but have not married.
In the past, adopting a child used to be a hush-hush affair and many would avoid telling their children they were adopted.
Today, there is a lot more help for couples to meet other adoptive families, attend talks on adoption and work out their roles as adoptive parents.
Last year, the MSF made pre- adoption briefings compulsory for those thinking of adopting so that they would know what to expect and be clear about their roles and responsibilities as adoptive parents.
The ministry is also "strongly encouraging" parents to attend workshops which stress the importance of telling their children the truth about their adoption, with tips on how to do so.
In 2006, Touch Adoption Services, part of Touch Community Services, started the Touch Adoptive Families Network for such families to get together and support one another.
There are more than 200 families in the network and it has also set up 11 small home groups, where between five and 10 families meet regularly at a member's home to share experiences.
Touch senior manager Teo Seok Bee said: "Most families want to stay connected so that they can support and advise each other when their children start being curious about how they were adopted.
"Being in a small home group allows the children to grow up with a circle of friends who were adopted. This helps to normalise adoption as a positive way to build a family."