Adoption of Children Bill: Creating More Happy Families in Singapore – Speech by Jamus Lim

For many would-be parents, the little pink plus sign on the home pregnancy test kit is a moment of incredible joy. For other couples, this journey may be prolonged; as this House discussed last month, higher ages for marriage have been accompanied by greater challenges for childbearing, although with the intervention of modern science, many are able to conceive and birth children of their own. There are yet others, for whom this route is closed, who find themselves are unable to have biological children of their own. And of course, there are those see the provision of a home to a child to whom that would otherwise be unavailable as a noble calling in and of itself.

For such households—desirous of hearing the pitter-patter of tiny feet as any other—there is one other route: becoming the parent of a child that has been born in otherwise undesirable circumstances, which led to the child being given up for adoption. And as any forever parent will tell you, there is absolutely no difference, insofar as becoming a father or mother is concerned, when one holds that baby boy or girl in one’s hands for the first time. Adoption is the way that these families have been able to experience that joy of parenthood.

The Bill that is being debated here takes important steps to revise the process of adoption, refreshing some protections for biological parents, while simultaneously introducing a number of amendments to ensure the suitability of adoption providers and adoptive parents.

For the sake of the welfare of most important individual in the adoption process—the child—many of the proposed amendments and refinements are both necessary and welcome. However, I have concerns about how some of these measures may inadvertently introduce unintended outcomes that run counter to the child’s interests. These have to do with pre-adoption procedures, post-adoption recognition (for both parents and the child), counseling for adoptive parents, and the regulation of adoption agents, which I will elaborate on in my speech.

Positive developments in the pre-adoption process

One important objective of the Bill is to codify a number of sound and sensible procedures related to pre-adoption procedures, including requiring prospective parents to undergo suitability assessments—what in practice results in a home study report (HSR)—as well as attending pre-adoption and disclosure of adoption briefings.

Clause 13, which formally requires participation in a briefing on the disclosure of the child’s adoption status, formalizes the existing practice of strongly encouraging attendance. It is fully in line with both evidence that points to the psychological benefits,[1] as well as the ethical responsibility,[2] to doing so. It is a positive development.

Similarly, reconciling the need to perform a home study for not just foreign but also Singaporean children is consistent with the fact that home dynamics and the suitability of parents to adopt does not discriminate by national origin. All potential parents should be carefully assessed, while simultaneously being transparently confronted with concerns that would trigger a rejection, and thereby be allowed to prospectively address any red flags that serve as a barrier to adoption.

While some prospective parents may find the assessment process intrusive and unfair, it is important to remember that preemptively ruling out couples unsuitable for parenthood is, ultimately, in the best interest of the child. The last thing we would wish for an adopted child is the need to face the trauma of yet another parental rejection.

Clarifying thresholds for adoption is sound but prolonging the process has risks

The various steps involved—involving at least two court hearings prior to the issuance of the order of adoption, interviews in the office and at home after the arrival of the child, as well as background investigation by MSF—may be prolonged, but as Clause 31(1) of the Bill indicates, should not exceed two years.

Pre-COVID-19, the process would generally be done and dusted in around 9 months (I find the duration, itself, somewhat poignant). And practice reflected this reality, with the initial dependent pass issued for a 9-month period, with little need for extension in most instances.

In 2019, this timeline was altered, to allow 21 months after the dependent pass was first issued. This may have been reflective of the fact that the pandemic introduced inevitable delays into the process—unsurprisingly, foreign adoptions effectively ceased in the earlier phases of COVID-19—but even as we return to normal, there has not been any reversion in practice to the original 9-month duration.

Mr Speaker, one could argue that the additional degree of freedom provided must surely be welcome, as it affords all parties additional time to complete the necessary steps. However, one must understand the mindset by which humans operate. With additional time, the sense of urgency to complete the task often diminishes—how many of us have drafted our Parliamentary speeches well in advance of the deadline?—and it risks dragging out the uncertainty faced by adoptive parents; imagine not knowing for certain that, after a full year-and-a-half of caring for a child, they will not be taken away. A 21-month timeframe for completion also throws a wrench into prospective parents who may wish to adopt more than one child, since they are unlikely to initiate the adoption of a second until the first is complete.

I also believe that there are reasonable adjustments to the current procedures that can expedite the process.

At the moment, there are 4 accredited social service agencies that have been tasked by MSF to perform the Home Study Report.[3] The report itself is exhaustive and intrusive, but understandably so, since it is critical to ensure the suitability of a couple to raise an adopted child. But what is somewhat puzzling is how a very similar set of questions are posed by MSF itself, despite the fact that they have access to the HSR, and that the HSR is produced by agencies accredited by MSF itself. Hence, while interviews by MSF following the HSR are justifiable—these occur after the arrival of the child, which does alter family dynamics—the replication of the written report is less so. I would submit that resources dedicated to repeating the HSR such are better directed toward ensuring the integrity of the process followed by the accredited agencies.

Moreover, before the in-principle approval—which kickstarts the entire adoption process—is issued, MSF will typically interview the birth parents. This is of course important and necessary, to respect the rights of the biological parents. But this step can be concluded and closed once the IPA has been issued. After all, why would it make sense to reopen psychological scars, encourage rumination and prevarication, and risk imparting a sense of doubt and regret thereafter? What would it mean for the hitherto adoptive parents if, a year and a half down the road, the birth mother changes her mind?

Recognizing the rights of adoptive parents qua parents

Mr Speaker, all this is to point out that, inasmuch as we wish to protect the interests of the child—which, indisputably, is paramount in this process—we should also not neglect the rights and responsibilities of the adoptive parents.

After all, such parents face the same emotions—of loss should the child be suddenly taken from them, and of fear of deep commitment to the child before the adoption is finalized—should the adoption process somehow fail. What this would mean for the child is a home environment characterized by uncertainty, which is the last thing you would wish for a child that is already facing unprecedented volatility in their family life.

This is why Clauses 46 and 47 spell out, in no uncertain terms, the status of the adoptive parents vis-à-vis the child, after the adoption order is issued. But certain rights pertaining to the parents do not appear to be well-handled by the related and consequential amendments spelled out in Part 9.

For instance, Clause 77 amends the definition of a dependent’s pass in the Child Development and Co-Savings Act. However, as far as I am aware, parents are unable to purchase health insurance for the child—or to add them to a family health insurance package—before formal adoption is complete. Thus, while they remain on the dependent’s pass, parents are unable to have the financial assurance that one would be able to take one’s son or daughter to the doctor, especially in the early months, where all manner of health issues may unexpectedly present themselves. It strikes me that some exemption should be afforded for those on a dependent’s pass to be added to insurance in this case, since a child’s health does not respect the timelines dictated by the adoption process.

Similarly, the existing migrant domestic worker (MDW) levy concession rate is not available for families whose children are on a dependent’s pass. The $240 difference can quickly add up,[4] especially for families that are already facing a surge of startup expenses that go toward new furniture, equipment, diapers, and milk powder. Now, even if the Ministry of Manpower (MoM) cannot process a concessionary rate until the child has definitively received their citizenship, a rebate for prior months after the change of status may be a warranted.

As a final example, consider the 12-week paid adoption leave, granted by MoM. For starters, this leave is an entitlement only for adoptive mothers. It is unclear to me why the 3-month bonding and care period should exclude the father. As this House debated last month, it makes more sense to have a longer period of shared parental leave, which either parent may draw on. This is all the more so given how the adoptive mother will not have to undergo post-partum physiological and psychological recovery. Furthermore, the eligibility criteria requires the child to become a citizen within 6 months of the adoption. Will this timeline be altered by the current practice where dependent’s passes are issued for 21 months?

Mandating mediation is justifiable but should be time-constrained

Clauses 35 and 45 now afford the court the right to order mediation and counseling for parents, so long as it is beneficial to the wellbeing of the child. The former clause comes into play during the adoption process, while the latter applies post-adoption.

It is difficult to quibble with requiring such interventions before the adoption; after all, there remains limited clarity about the adoptive parents’ relationship status and background, which could influence the success of the adoption.

But to extend the power to do so after the conclusion of adoption proceedings, indefinitely, strikes me as an open invitation for the state to exercise its power to excessively intervene in family dynamics. While I understand that conflicts may arise at any time after the child is adopted, then open-ended nature of the clause may potentially discriminate between adoptive and non-adoptive families. Would it not be better to introduce a time-delimited requirement within the context of this particular bill, and to rely on existing laws governing child protection, to stipulate mandatory counseling?

Adoption agents should be held to account for frequent or flagrant violation of rules

Parts 6 and 7—notably, Clauses 54(4) and 60(3)—spell out punishments, in the form of monetary fines, for adoption agents that fail to comply with the requirements stated in the Bill. But the Bill appears to fall short of taking the next step of holding frequent or flagrant violators to more permanent account.

For example, MSF currently declines to mete out any durable punishments, falling back on the argument that parents working with ACRA-registered adoption agents are engaged in private arrangements. The closest we see to such language in the Bill is that Clause 10(5) allows the Minister to cancel the authorization of an authorized adoption agency before the expiry of the authorization.

It remains unclear whether this means that MSF will permanently bar an individual or agency from the industry. May I ask the minister: Is there is any system for recording or investigating adoption agents, or an official registry of private providers maintained? This need not mean that each agent must be accredited, per se, but that there is at least a record of the most systematic violators. Children are not commodities to be traded, and providers that adopt (pardon the pun) poor practices should not be allowed to continue to do so repeatedly.

The government fully understands the benefits of regulatory discipline associated with official registries. MoM oversees MDW agencies closely, and agencies that engage in repeated or especially egregious violations can expect to have their licenses removed. I see little reason why this should not apply with equal force to adoption agents.

Concluding thoughts

Mr Speaker, adoption should be a win-win-win process: it relieves biological parents who have neither the wherewithal nor inclination to raise a child on their own, it offers adoptive parents an opportunity to fulfill their dreams of raising a child, and it provides an opportunity for the child to have a better start in life. It is also a win for our country: as Singaporeans struggling with delayed marriages and low fertility rates, adoption offers a means for our families to start or expand families that would otherwise not result.

The rules introduced in this Bill go a long way toward rationalizing the adoption process in Singapore. I have raised a number of concerns, many practical in nature, that I hope the Ministry will take into consideration. But the Bill as a whole encapsulates many improvements that will help create more happy families in Singapore, and for this reason, it has my clear support.

[1] Baden, A.L., D. Shadel, R. Morgan, E.E. White, E.S. Harrington, N. Christian & T.A. Bates (2019), “Delaying Adoption Disclosure: A Survey of Late Discovery Adoptees,” Journal of Family Issues 40(9): 1154–80; Ilioi, E., L. Blake, V. Jadva, G. Roman & S. Golombok (2017), “The Role of Age of Disclosure of Biological Origins in the Psychological Wellbeing of Adolescents Conceived by Reproductive Donation: A Longitudinal Study from Age 1 to Age 14,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 58(3): 315–24.

[2] Brakman, S-V. (2003), “Open Adoption and the Ethics of Disclosure to Children,” Philosophy in the Contemporary World 10(1): 61–7.

[3] These are Touch Community Services, Lutheran Community Care Services, Fei Yue Community Services, and Apkim Centre for Social Services.

[4] The normal monthly levy for the first helper is $300, compared to the concessionary rate of $60, which amounts to a difference of $240.