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Singapore Government

Closing Speech By Minister Masagos Zulkifli At The Second Reading Of The Adoption Of Children Bill

Closing Speech By Minister Masagos Zulkifli At The Second Reading Of The Adoption Of Children Bill

1          Mr Speaker, I thank the Members who have spoken, and I note all of them have expressed support for this Bill.

a.         I am glad that we share the same view.

b.         That ultimately, the child’s welfare must be our starting point and is at the heart of adoption.

c.         We have heard many views and suggestions on ways we can strengthen our current adoption framework and processes.

d.         Let me respond. 

2          First of all, the Bill covers the entire adoption process and proceedings in Singapore, regardless of a child’s nationality. This is in reply to Mr Yip Hon Weng’s query on whether the Bill applies to foreign children identified for adoption.

I. FINDING A GOOD HOME FOR EVERY CHILD 

3          Several Members spoke about the proposed changes to the eligibility criteria for prospective adopters.

Prioritising applicants with a greater nexus to Singapore

4          Mr Seah Kian Peng asked whether residency requirements should be further tightened to disallow joint applications where both applicants are Singapore Permanent Residents (PRs).

a.         PRs form an integral part of Singapore society.

b.         A good number have committed to making Singapore their home. And taking up permanent residency is one step on their journey towards citizenship.

c.         As I shared in my opening speech, the number of children in Singapore available for adoption is limited. Hence, we would prioritise adopters with a stronger nexus to Singapore, who must qualify for the physical residency criteria too. However, we may not wish to take this principle too far. Such as to disqualify applicants based on their degree of connection to Singapore alone. 

Barring applicants who have committed serious crimes from adopting

5          Some Members asked about the scope of the provision to bar applicants who have committed serious crimes from adopting. I recognise their concerns. Let me address them.

6          To address Ms Ng Ling Ling’s query on how we will determine the types of serious offences to be prescribed.

a.         Our guiding principle will be the bearing that the offence has on applicants’ character and fitness, and their ability to safely care for a child. Such offences would include sexual abuse and violence offences, and offences under the Children and Young Persons Act.

b.         We will also reference established frameworks that list serious offences. Depending on the types of cases that surface over time, we may review this list.

c.         For offences not in the prescribed list, the applicants’ criminal record 
will still be taken into account as part of the Adoption Suitability Assessment (or ASA) by authorised adoption agencies, the GIA’s recommendations, and when the Court considers the specific application. The overriding consideration is again whether the child’s welfare is protected.  

7          I would also like to inform Mr Yip Hon Weng that there is no fixed time-bar before an ex-offender can become eligible to adopt.

a.         The GIA will look at each case holistically and balance various considerations. 

b.         This includes the applicant’s relationship with the child, the availability of alternate caregivers for the child if an adoption order is not granted, and how long the applicant has remained crime-free. The longer the person has remained crime-free, the more favourably it would present his or her application. 

8          Mr Yip also asked whether the provision covers offences committed abroad, and offences committed by applicants’ immediate family members.

a.         The suitability assessments are holistic.

b.         While we will only prescribe offences under Singapore law, offences of a similar nature committed overseas will be considered in assessing their suitability. 

c.         Today, holistic assessments of the suitability of the applicants’ household includes consideration of the other household members’ background.
 
Public policies

9          I will now move on to Mr Seah Kian Peng’s comment relating to public policies. He asked what happens if a single applicant applies to adopt and subsequently marries someone of the same gender overseas.

a.         The scenario is hypothetical. Even if it were to happen, we should not pronounce on how a Court will ultimately decide on the case. It suffices to say that the Court has ruled that public policies are relevant and will be considered in any specific application. And that the Government has made clear our public policy on this. As I have mentioned in my opening speech, the Government does not encourage planned and deliberate single parenthood as a lifestyle choice. Singapore’s public policy continues to be one which encourages parenthood within marriage. We also do not support the formation of same-sex family units through institutions and processes like adoption. These public policies will continue to guide suitability assessments. 

b.         This Bill also clarifies the duty of the applicant to provide accurate information and to update the information provided if circumstances change.

Suitability Assessments
 
10         I will now address Members’ queries on suitability assessments.  

11         Some, like Mr Dennis Tan, have asked how the ASA differs from the pre-adoption assessment known as the Home Study Report (or HSR) today. In particular, whether more information will be required from prospective adopters. In this regard, Mr Seah Kian Peng suggested requiring prospective adopters to provide character referees and periodic declarations of their circumstances. The HSR done today is a comprehensive assessment of the suitability of the applicants and the living environment that they would provide the child if the adoption were to be granted. The ASA will continue to cover all key aspects covered by the HSR. It will continue to be rigorous and assessed by qualified and trained professionals. The four social service agencies that perform the HSR today will be authorised to conduct ASAs.

12         The key difference is that the ASA will be mandatory for all applicants, even if they are related to the child.

a.         In such cases, the child is likely to already be living with the prospective adopters at the point of assessment. Thus, in such cases, the information required will be tailored to the specific child.

b.         Assessors will consider the actual dynamics of the relationship between the prospective adopters and the child, and their understanding of the child’s needs.

13         On character referees, MSF already requires prospective adopters to provide them today. In fact, we also interview their household members, as well as those close family members and friends who may meet the child.

a.         We agree with Mr Seah that periodic affirmations and declarations by prospective adopters on their circumstances would be useful.

b.         Today, the court-appointed GIA – guardian-in-adoption – checks in regularly with applicants on their circumstances. This ensures that assessments are up to date. Consistent with placing the onus on prospective adopters to notify MSF and authorised adoption agencies of material changes in their circumstances, MSF will require them to provide such declarations along the adoption process.

14         Mr Louis Ng asked about the pre-requisites to obtain a favourable ASA, guidelines on the new processes, and the circumstances under which a simplified ASA may be issued.

a.         We have legislated and will also prescribe factors that assessors must consider in determining suitability.

b.         Relevant factors include the ability to provide a safe and suitable home environment for the child, and marital stability. MSF will provide more information to assist prospective adopters and other key stakeholders when transiting to the new processes. This would include authorised adoption agencies that they can approach for assistance during their adoption journey. 

c.         The adoption process can be shortened if prospective adopters provide 
all necessary information to assessors in a timely manner. Mr Jamus Lim asked about streamlining the GIA’s investigations by relying on ASA findings. Such findings by authorised adoption agencies will be taken into account by the GIA in assessing the case. At the same time, some Members have also proposed for more types of checks or assessments to be carried out. Hence the issue is about striking the right balance, and not to rush through the adoption process. 

d.         In cases where the applicants have been caring for the child for a prolonged period, and do not present any concerns based on preliminary investigations, authorised adoption agencies may issue a simplified ASA. For example, this could be in a case where an applicant is adopting his step-child with his wife, and both of them are able to provide a safe and stable home for the child. 

15         Mr Yip Hon Weng commented that the relationship between a child identified for adoption and the rest of the family should be considered as part of the assessment. This is to ascertain if the family is prepared and understands the implications of adoption. We agree. Today, part of the suitability assessment includes interviewing household members, such as other children of prospective adopters, to learn their views. We will continue to do so. 

16         Mr Louis Ng, Mr Dennis Tan and Ms Ng Ling Ling asked about the cost of ASAs. Ms Ng further asked about the cost of raising the child after adoption is formalised. 

a.         Now, adopting and raising a child is a life-long commitment and responsibility.  Assessors will look at prospective adopters’ mental, emotional and financial preparedness to adopt. 

b.         ASAs are conducted by social service agencies which charge fees to cover their costs in conducting the assessment. Fees are charged on a cost-recovery basis. Waivers are not granted for ASA fees.  

c.         Adoption is ultimately about the welfare of the child. If the prospective adopters are not able to cope well with caring for the child, in financial, emotional, or other terms, that is something that should be of concern to us.

17         Ms Denise Phua asked how the child’s voice would be sought.

a.         As the child’s welfare must be a key priority behind every adoption, MSF has already been seeking the child’s views and wishes in relation to his or her proposed adoption today. We will continue to do so.  

Medical and Mental Health Assessments for Children and Prospective Adopters 

18         Next, I will address Members’ queries on medical and mental health assessments for children and prospective adopters.

19         Mr Yip Hon Weng asked if medical and mental health assessments are mandatory for children identified for adoption before proceedings are finalised. Mr Mark Chay also asked if the child’s medical, mental and emotional status is evaluated. The answer is no. However, the GIA, authorised adoption agencies or the Court may require the child to be assessed if they are of the view that such assessments may be useful to understand or document the child’s needs.

20         Mr Gan Thiam Poh suggested that potential adopters should undergo comprehensive medical examinations, as they tend to be older. Today, MSF already requires all prospective adopters to undergo health examinations and submit medical reports. As the adoption process takes time, we also check if the reports are updated. Under the Bill, the GIA and the authorised adoption agencies will be empowered to direct prospective adopters to provide any pertinent information or undergo assessments, including psychological or psychiatric assessments, to better assess their physical and mental fitness.

Matching prospective adopters with persons who wish to place their children for adoption

21         I will now address Mr Christopher de Souza’s suggestion on matching prospective adopters with women with unplanned pregnancies who wish to place their child for adoption.

22         Today, pregnant women and prospective adopters can approach adoption agencies to indicate that they wish to place their child for adoption and to be matched with a child to adopt, respectively. Where such women have approached MSF for assistance, we also link them up with the social service agencies who can do the matching. Going forward, MSF is also considering developing a registry to match children in State care with prospective adopters.

Disclosure of adoptive status

23         I will now move to the issue of disclosing to a child that he or she is adopted.

24         Ms Joan Pereira asked how we will support adoptive parents with disclosure, and what guidelines would be given.

a.         Broad guidelines for disclosure would include broaching disclosure as a process rather than as a one-off event, being sensitive to the child’s emotions and needs in understanding his or her birth history, and assuring the child that he or she is loved.

b.         While there is no universally appropriate age for disclosure, the professionals recommend introducing and normalising the concept of adoption as early as possible. 

25         Beyond the Disclosure Briefing, if at any time prospective adopters or adoptive parents require more assistance with disclosure, they can approach MSF or any authorised adoption agency. We will direct them to relevant support services or support groups, which I will elaborate on subsequently.

26         Ms Pereira also 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. 

27         As Mr Gan Thiam Poh said, disclosure is very sensitive for the different parties involved: the child, the adoptive parents, and the birth parents. This also came out very clearly in the consultation process. As I mentioned in my opening speech, we will further study steps we could take towards greater disclosure, such as the setting up of an adoption register. 

28         All adoptive parents would generally be aware of the identities of their adopted child’s birth parents, as a copy of the child’s original Birth Certificate must be submitted to the Court as part of the adoption application. Hence, adoptive parents can be the first port of call if their adopted children wish to contact their birth parents. Some adopted individuals also approach MSF and we assist as far as possible. Where we are able to contact the birth parents, we will explore whether they would be open to being contacted by the adopted child. We also work with the adopted child to prepare him or her for possible scenarios. Sometimes, the birth parents may have passed away, or they may be unwilling to establish contact with the child, for their own reasons.  

Pre-Adoption Briefings, Support Groups and Services and Post-Adoption Reviews

29         Many Members, such as Mr Christopher de Souza, spoke up on supporting prospective adopters and adoptive families through their journey. Let me outline some key ways in which MSF provides such support. 

30         First, the Pre-Adoption Briefing provides prospective adopters with an overview of what they can expect during the adoption process. The ASA then builds on this, as assessors interact closely with prospective adopters to address their concerns or queries. Similarly, once the adoption application is made, the GIA will continue to work with prospective adopters. This includes referring them to relevant support services. While the ASA and GIA investigations are primarily suitability assessments, they also serve as useful opportunities for prospective adopters to gauge their readiness to undergo the adoption journey. 

31         Mr Yip Hon Weng asked if the matters covered in the Pre-Adoption Briefing would be adequate to prepare prospective adopters. He also asked about the support measures that are available in cases where there may be compatibility issues between the adoptive parents and the adopted child. As I shared earlier, the Pre-Adoption Briefing is part of a process of preparation to adopt. It should not be seen in silo. Beyond the mandatory briefings and assessments, prospective adopters and adoptive parents can also tap on formal and informal support groups, to support them during their adoption journey, as mentioned by Mr Dennis Tan. MSF can also connect them with Family Service Centres for support on issues common to families, such as parent-child conflict or marital stress.

32         Mr Don Wee suggested providing funding for support groups. Today, SSAs organise formal support group sessions covering various topics, including addressing prospective adopters’ concerns on disclosure, on a cost-recovery basis. The SSAs also organise group outings for adoptive families to be introduced to and interact with each other. Through such sessions, online forums and word-of-mouth, adoptive parents and their adopted children have also formed their own informal support networks.

33         Mr Louis Ng asked how we will continue to ensure applicants’ suitability after an order is made. Mr Don Wee and Ms Joan Pereira asked whether post-adoption reviews will be mandated at specific milestones. 

a.         An adoption order is made after extensive and in-depth investigations are conducted to ensure that the child is placed with suitable adoptive parents. Hence, after an adoption order is made, MSF’s general position is to treat the adoptive family as any other family. The Government, therefore, does not interfere in the family unless we have cause for concern.

b.         MSF also received mixed feedback on such post-adoption reviews during our stakeholder consultations, with some commenting that such reviews are invasive for adoptive parents, when similar requirements are not imposed on birth parents. We note that Mr Jamus Lim shared similar views on this issue. 

34         Ms Ng Ling Ling suggested that MSF consider providing support services to adopted children up to 21 years old, on a needs basis. We agree with her. If we conduct the pre-adoption suitability assessments rigorously and guide adoptive parents well in their adoption journey, it should suffice to offer support services to those who may need them. That said, under the Bill, even after proceedings have concluded, the Court can order parties to undergo support services such as mediation or counselling. Such orders can be made till the adopted child turns 21, as needed. 

35         Ms Ng also asked if we will introduce support services for adopted children whose adoptive parents decide to undergo divorce, and the criteria that the Court may use in determining custody matters for such children. The Women’s Charter provides guidance to the Court in determining custody matters. If adoptive parents unfortunately have to contemplate divorce, these same principles apply. The support services that are given to all divorcing couples with children are also available and extended to adopted children.

II. BALANCING THE INTEREST OF THE BIRTH PARENTS AND THE CHILD 

Grounds for dispensation of consent 

36         Several MPs, such as Mr Gan Thiam Poh, expressed that dispensation with a birth parent’s consent to adoption should only be allowed under very strict conditions. Mr Louis Ng also asked for more information on how the grounds for such dispensation are determined. 

37         Let me start by assuring Members that MSF acknowledges the sanctity of parental rights, and that a child’s birth parents should be primarily responsible for caring for him or her. 

a.         Our intent is for a birth parent’s consent to adoption to be dispensed with only when he or she is unable to provide consent or is unreasonably withholding such consent, and adoption would be in the child’s welfare.

b.         We have calibrated the grounds for dispensation by balancing these two considerations.

c.         We also looked at other jurisdictions’ laws on dispensation, examined the adoption applications that MSF has seen over the years, and consulted professionals involved in contested adoption cases to determine the threshold. 

d.         Hence, the grounds are based on actual cases where it has been tested and shown clearly that the child is unlikely to be reunified safely with his or her birth family, and adoption would be in the child’s welfare. 

38         Ultimately, it is the Court that will decide whether to dispense with consent, taking into account the case-specific facts and the GIA’s recommendations. To Mr Melvin Yong’s query, our intent is to build upon prevailing case law to give more guidance on when dispensation of consent would be in the child’s welfare.

39         Specific to children in State care, Mr Henry Kwek and Mr Yip asked how MSF decides when to pursue adoption for such children, instead of fostering or other care options. Mr Mark Chay asked if there would be opportunities for birth parents to reconcile with their children.

a.         When a child is removed from his or her parents due to care or protection concerns, they are placed in foster care or in children’s homes to provide the care and safety that their homes of origin are not able to provide. Once the child’s immediate safety has been assured, MSF works with the child’s birth family to resolve the problematic circumstances so that the child can return home as soon as possible. This entails collaborating with them on safety plans and trying to address safety concerns. We also share with them the plans that we will put in place for the child’s welfare should they not be able to resolve these safety concerns. Officers from the Child Protective Service use an evidence-based Structured Decision-Making framework and consultations with an independent panel of professionals to guide their decision-making.

b.         In some cases, birth families may be unable or unwilling to resolve safety concerns despite extensive and prolonged assistance from professionals. In such cases, rather than leaving the child in long-term State care, adoption is a permanency option which would give the child more stability, certainty, and a better outcome in life. Hence, it is only at the point where reunification seems unlikely that we look at facilitating the adoption of that child and cease efforts at reunification.

c.         Generally, for children below three years of age, working with birth parents for a period of 12 months provides MSF a good indication of the likelihood that the child can be reunified. For children above three years of age, a longer duration of about 24 months is taken.

d.         Should unhappy birth parents harass prospective adopters, our existing laws on protection against harassment will accord them protection.

III. PUTTING IN PLACE A SOUND REGULATORY SYSTEM FOR THE ADOPTION PROCESS

40         I will now move on to Members’ queries relating to adoption agencies. 

Accrediting adoption agencies

41         Mr Louis Ng and Ms Denise Phua spoke about accreditation of adoption agencies. Mr Jamus Lim suggested developing a registry of agencies. Our 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.

Adoption fees

42         Mr Melvin Yong queried about the number of cases where children identified for adoption were offered to prospective adopters willing to pay the most. MSF does not have the data. However, we have heard of such practices, and the Bill seeks to introduce measures to deter children from being commodified. 

43         Mr Ng also asked about the mechanism to ensure adoption-related payments are published and declared. When applying to Court, all applicants must list every payment they have made or received for adoption-related matters. The GIA will cross-reference these payments against the figures published by adoption agencies. Where they do not tally, the GIA and authorised officers will investigate further to determine if an offence has been committed.

44         Ms Denise Phua asked about guidelines for adoption fees. This depends on the services that the agency provides to prospective adopters and could vary depending on factors such as whether the child identified to be adopted is local or foreign. In this Bill, we have focused on regulating payment categories, rather than payment quanta directly. Payments for adoption-related matters outside permitted payment categories would be an offence.

IV. OTHER SUGGESTIONS ON MATTERS NOT MENTIONED IN THE BILL 

45         Last but not least, some Members raised queries on adoption-related issues not directly covered in the Bill.

a.         Mr Yip Hon Weng and Ms Rachel Ong asked if MSF will actively raise awareness and encourage adoption of children in State care. Mr Yip further asked if we would encourage respite fostering as an option for prospective adopters to determine their readiness for adoption.

b.         Mr Don Wee and Mr Jamus Lim asked about adoption leave. Mr Wee also asked about school fees for foreign step-children seeking to be adopted by their Singaporean parents.

c.         Mr Melvin Yong also requested for more information on MSF’s efforts
to encourage more to step forward to become foster parents and to provide them with additional childcare leave.

d.         Mr Dennis Tan suggested that the requirement for adopted children to take mandatory oaths of renunciation, allegiance and loyalty be dispensed with.

e.         We thank the Members for raising these issues. We will look into  the suggestions.

V. CONCLUSION 

46         Mr Speaker, having addressed the comments and suggestions raised by Members, I will now conclude.

47         This Bill seeks to achieve three main outcomes.
 
48         First, to find a good home for every child identified for adoption.

a.         An adoption order terminates the legal ties between a child and his or her birth parents, and creates new ties between the child and his or her adoptive parents.

b.         This is no simple matter.

c.         Given the gravity of an adoption order, it is crucial that the child is placed with adoptive parents who can provide a safe, stable and loving home for him or her. 

49         Second, the Bill balances the interest of birth parents and the child.

a.         This is done by clarifying the grounds under which the Court can dispense with birth parents’ consent.

b.         It is not in a child’s welfare for him or her to linger in the State care system.  Adoption will give such children an opportunity to have a fresh start, experience stability, and achieve better outcomes in life.

50         Lastly, the Bill seeks to deter undesirable practices in the adoption sector by putting in place a strong regulatory system.

a.         The life of each child is precious. We must guard against any attempts to commoditise or exploit our children for financial or other gain.

51         Ultimately, this Bill will contribute to building strong families in Singapore.

a.         Like I said in my opening speech. Families form the bedrock of our society. They are our foundation that nurture and build resilient individuals. Providing the best source of safety, love and care for our children, so that they can learn, grow and lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.

52         I would like to take the opportunity to thank MSF’s stakeholder and the public for their contribution to this Bill. Their valuable comments and suggestions have helped to shape and refine the proposals. 

53         I would also like to thank prospective adopters and adoptive parents for opening your hearts and homes to the children who need it, so that they can have a good start in life and fulfil their potential. 

54         Finally, I thank Members for your support for this Bill.

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