The recent fiasco surrounding the case of Malaysian toddler Angie Tiong shows what can go wrong when adoption remains an unregulated trade.
In highly regulated Singapore, it is perhaps an anomaly that adoption agencies - given the life-changing and emotionally charged issues involved in the process - have remained unregulated here.
There are no checks on who can be an adoption agent, and how they operate, for instance.
While most agents here are law-abiding and above board in their dealings, it is an area where things can get dicey, as there is often big money fuelling the baby trade.
The line between selling a child, getting reimbursed for expenses related to giving a child up for adoption, and the offer of a red packet as a token of goodwill, can be a fine one.
It is illegal to pay or reward birth parents for giving their children up for adoption - except with the sanction of the Family Justice Courts.
In reality, it is common practice for birth parents to receive a red packet from the agents and some birth parents even demand a certain sum. The amounts that are given in such a situation can go up to $18,000.
With the demand for children to adopt outstripping the supply of foreign and Singaporean babies, adoption agents are now charging between $25,000 and $35,000 for the service - up from $15,000 to $25,000 a decade ago.
Agents say this is because their foreign counterparts are asking for more money. Medical and other expenses involved in the care of the mother and child have also risen.
The sums paid include the agent's fee, delivery and other medical bills, lawyer's fees and a hongbao for the birth mother.
Agents say they report all these expenses to the courts here, as it is a requirement that adoptive parents in Singapore provide details of the financial transactions involved in adopting the child.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) says its officers also check with adoptive parents if they made any payments to the birth parents and they are required to state these transactions, for example, for pre- and post-natal expenses of the birth mother, in their court affidavits.
The profit motive in the adoption trade is problematic - especially if it remains largely unchecked - as the child's interests can be compromised.
Just take the example of Angie Tiong, two.
Her father made a report to the Malaysian police that his daughter was kidnapped. It turned out that he gave Angie up for adoption to a couple living in Singapore and the adoption was arranged by a middleman, whose identity is unknown.
Angie's relatives accused her father, a drug addict, of selling the girl. He received RM$12,000 (S$3,920) from the Singapore couple.
The prevailing view is that the father probably saw adoption as a quick fix to his money woes.
The relatives said they had been caring for Angie since she was a baby as her mother had left the family. And they want to continue to care for her.
After all the hoo-ha, the Singapore couple said they decided not to adopt Angie as her background was too complicated. The girl was shuttled from her relatives to the Singapore couple, and is now in the care of a children's home in Johor Bahru.
An MSF spokesman told The Straits Times that while the ministry does not regulate adoption agencies, there are safeguards to protect the children.
Birth parents who give their child up for adoption have to give notarised consent. Adoptive parents and the middlemen who facilitate the adoption have to make a statutory declaration that the child was not obtained through illegal means. MSF also checks on the child's identification and other documents.
But these checks are far from enough.
It is paradoxical that while MSF has put in place stringent checks to assess prospective parents' suitability to adopt, few checks are made on the people and processes that enable the adoptions to happen in the first place.
If the child's interests are to be truly protected, one approach is to remove the profit motive totally and allow only non-profit groups to help prospective parents find children to adopt.
As it stands, charities here such as Touch Adoption Services, Fei Yue Community Services and Apkim Centre for Social Service do a good job of matching babies placed for adoption with adoptive parents.
Among other things, their social workers and counsellors provide both the birth and adoptive parents the necessary counselling and support before and after the adoption.
Unlike the for-profit agents, charities helping pregnant women in distress say no money changes hands for the adoptions they facilitate.
The adoptive parents usually pay for the birth mother's medical check-ups and hospital bills. Some give a token sum out of goodwill, often less than $1,000.
That is a preferable model because social workers make their decisions, such as matching which child to which family, based on what's best for the parties involved, unlike agents, who are likely to be driven by monetary considerations.
While removing the for-profit agents from the adoption scene is likely to lead to fewer babies being placed for adoption and a longer waiting time to adopt - given that there are few children put up locally - adoption should never be a numbers game.
What matters first and foremost is the interests of the children involved.
This article was first published on January 14, 2016.
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