New law tightens eligibility criteria for adoption

The new laws aim to provide more clarity and ensure adoptions are in line with Singapore public policy. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

SINGAPORE - Couples wanting to adopt a child must be married under laws recognised by Singapore under new adoption rules, said Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli.

And marriages that take place overseas must be legally recognised in Singapore, he added.

Speaking during the debate on the proposed changes to adoption rules, he said: "This means that only a man and a woman married to each other can apply together. This is because Singapore's marriage law only allows a man and woman to marry each other."

The new laws governing child adoption, passed in Parliament on Monday (May 9), aim to provide more clarity and tighten rules to ensure adoptions are in line with Singapore public policy.

It also seeks to deter undesirable and unethical practices among commercial adoption agencies, said Mr Masagos.

Under the new Adoption of Children Act 2022, which repeals the 1939 version, it provides "more guidance" on who can adopt jointly, he added.

He reiterated that as a matter of public policy, the Government does not encourage planned and deliberate single parenthood as a lifestyle choice.

He said: "To be clear, we do not support the use of assisted reproduction technology or surrogacy to conceive and then adopt a child. Our public policy encourages parenthood within marriage."

Under the new law, public policy will be taken into consideration when determining a couple's suitability to adopt.

For a marriage between a man and woman where surrogacy is their only option to have children, Mr Masagos said it "would be possible for them to adopt their child who is conceived through surrogacy, if the arrangement is carried out in a jurisdiction where surrogacy is not illegal".

In 2019, Mr Desmond Lee, the Minister for Social and Family Development then, said the Government was reviewing adoption laws after a landmark case involving a gay father who adopted his biological child conceived through a surrogate mother in the United States.

The new law also tightens the eligibility criteria to adopt. For example, those convicted of serious crimes such as sexual abuse and drug consumption offences cannot adopt.

Also, applicants with stronger ties to Singapore such as Singaporeans and permanent residents will be given priority to adopt.

There will also be more safeguards in place, such as making all prospective parents go through comprehensive and in-depth checks called Adoption Suitability Assessment, to assess their suitability and readiness to adopt.

Now, only those adopting a foreign child not related to them or a child under the state's care have to go through such checks. Apart from foreign children, local children are also placed for adoption.

Under the new rules, prospective adoptive parents must attend a disclosure briefing, which will help them through issues linked to telling a child the truth about his birth. However, adoptive parents are not mandated to tell the child that he is adopted.

Mr Masagos said: "As I said earlier, the key focus of adoption is the children's welfare, rather than supporting parenthood. This means ensuring they are adopted by families who can provide good home environments for them."

Major amendments to adoption laws were last made in 1985, and since then the adoption landscape has evolved significantly.

For example, Mr Masagos said the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) had received feedback that some commercial adoption agencies engaged in undesirable practices - with a financial motive that has little or no regard for the interests of the child, prospective adoptive parents and birth parents.

This includes advertising children for adoption like goods for sale or situations where the birth parent was tricked into consenting to the adoption.

There is now no specific regulatory framework that governs adoptions, although everyone involved must comply with Singapore laws, such as those against child trafficking.

The new rules will introduce offences and regulatory measures. This includes making every adoption agency publish a list of all payments received for the adoption, and regulating the types of payments allowed to prevent improper financial gains.

Failing to comply will be an offence and will carry with it a fine or jail term.

The new laws will also have extra-territorial effect, meaning that even if the offence was committed outside Singapore, the offender can be dealt with as if the offence was committed in Singapore.

There are about 400 adoption applications each year, with 90 per cent of them granted by the courts - although the number of applications dipped in the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and cross-border restrictions.

The new law also aims to strike the balance between the interest of the child and the birth parents.

For example, some birth parents object to their child's adoption although they are unable or unwilling to care for their child for a prolonged period.

At any time, there are about 1,000 children under the state's care, either in a children's home or under the care of foster parents.

Of this group, adoption is the best option for about 50 of them, Mr Masagos said.

However, there were only 10 applications to adopt these children each year, and about 40 per cent of applications were contested by the child's relatives, usually the birth parents.

Mr Masagos said: "Such contestation, which can be protracted and costly, deters prospective adopters from applying to adopt them. Most importantly, the child’s welfare is adversely impacted because he or she can neither be safely unified with his or her birth parents or kin, nor be placed in a new, permanent family."

Take for example, a girl who was abused by her father, who was jailed for drug offences, and placed in the care of foster parents for her safety shortly after she was born.

After about two years in foster care, the MSF arranged for the girl to spend two days a week with her biological mother, but the girl refused to eat, go to school and had nightmares when she stayed with her mother.

Her mother was unable to care for the girl without help and the father “lacked the commitment” to care for her, yet he objected to her adoption.

Hence, the new law spells out more grounds and clarifies the proposed thresholds and circumstances under which the court may dispense with the need for birth parents to consent to an adoption.

These include cases where the birth parents have intentionally caused grievous hurt to the child or failed to provide suitable care over a prolonged period.

In addition, the child would have been under the state's care for many years.

He added that MSF will not consider adoption if the child can be safely reunited with the birth parents. Adoption is considered only after all efforts to reunify the child have been exhausted and MSF has determined that adoption is the best alternative.

Mr Masagos said: "I would like to emphasise that our intent is not to make it easier to take children away from their parents."

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