Sunday March 3, 2013
Rescued children pay the price
By WINNIE YEOH
Children can suffer immediate or long-term trauma if they are subjected to frightful experiences, such as being separated from their loved ones.
FOUR-year-old Lin Lin* used to be a bright and cheerful child, always laughing and enjoying the attention of her doting parents.
She loved it when her parents played with her after work or watched her favourite cartoons with her on weekends. And during thunderstorms at night, she would creep up to her mum and dad who would soothe her fears and hold her till she slept.
Over the last seven weeks, however, the little girl from Penang has become withdrawn, cries constantly and has even refused to eat at times.
In a sudden turn of events, Lin Lin's life dramatically changed when the police showed up in her adoptive parents' house one night in early January. Both Lin Lin and her parents were brought to the police station and the child was later sent to the hospital for a medical check-up.
There, Lin Lin could not stop crying for her parents despite the efforts of a kind policewoman who tried to console her. A relative was subsequently called in to calm her down.
Today is Lin Lin's 50th day away from home. She is now in a children's shelter in Johor, one of 32 children rescued by the police after they busted a baby trafficking syndicate last month. Except for two children who have been returned to their adoptive parents following a court order, the others have been sent to welfare homes pending investigations.
Lin Lin is among the first batch of 10 children rescued during a month-long operation codenamed Ops Pintas Sayang I that started on Dec 24. The other 22 children are from a subsequent operation Ops Pintas Sayang II carried out simultaneously in six states on Feb 21.
The syndicates allegedly offered pregnant foreign Thai, Indonesian or Bangladeshi women between RM2,500 and RM4,500 for the babies. Once born, the babies were sold to childless couples together with original birth certificates for between RM18,000 and RM30,000.
Lin Lin's plight is highlighted in a Facebook campaign (https://www.facebook.com/PleaseHelpMeToGoHome) set up by child therapist Priscilla Ho who is helping some of the adoptive parents to reunite with their children.
Ho, who has worked with young troubled children, says the sudden separation can be terrifying for them.
“The young ones are innocent and might not understand what is happening. This is a confusing situation for them as they might think they have done something wrong and blame themselves for it,” says Ho, who is urging the authorities to put the needs of the children first, saying the Child Act emphasises the best interests of a child.
Lin Lin's adoptive parents brought her home when she was just five days old and she became the apple of their eyes.
“We were very happy when she came to us,” her adoptive father, Tan*, told Ho.
The distraught father, in his 40s, also told Ho that he and his wife are counting the days when Lin Lin can return home.
“Not a day goes by without us missing her. We hope to hear her laughter again. Our little one can be quite manja, always wanting people to carry her even though she can already walk.”
Early last week, an adoptive father managed to obtain custody of his two children a nine-year-old boy and a nine-month-old baby girl at the Bukit Mertajam court under Section 53(5) of the Anti-Trafficking In Persons Act 2007. It allows the children to be with their guardian/parent on condition they provide a security of RM5,000 for each child. The order also states that the children will be under police supervision.
After they were reunited, their grandfather Ang* told The Star that his daughter and son-in-law had no idea anything was amiss with the adoption process as they were given all the necessary papers and documents to sign.
“It never crossed their minds that becoming parents to two children and providing them with a home and better life would turn out to be a crime,” he said, relating how the police had shown up at their home one night and arrested his son-in-law.
For Judy*, another adoptive parent who was earlier remanded, adoption was the only option as she and her husband could not have a child of their own after being married for more than 20 years. She confides that it affected their relationship. So when someone approached her, offering to help her get a baby, she immediately accepted.
“We were so happy when our baby arrived, even though he was very thin and sickly. We nursed him back to health and took good care of him over the last four months.
“He has put on weight and is healthy again. Now that he's been taken away, I just can't stop worrying. Is my baby well-fed? Will he be comfortable in another place? What if he falls sick again?” she agonises.
Another adoptive mother, Sally*, says age was catching up so she and her husband decided to adopt.
“We really wanted to have a baby and that was why we took the risk (of paying for the child). And we have come to love him like our own,” she says.
“It hurts not knowing how the child is faring,” she adds.
According to Penang Hospital senior consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Lai Fong Hwa, children who experience separation from their parents can suffer from immediate and long-term trauma.
“The sudden loss of security and safety can cause fear and anxiety. Children might feel that everything has become uncertain and they can become angry,” he explains.
He says welfare homes, shelters or orphanages are not ideal for the children as there is no parental love.
“Although there are wardens, there is no substitute for parents,” he stresses.
If and when the children are returned to their adoptive parents, Dr Lai advises the adults to take note of any behaviour change in the children. They might continue to experience fear or display anxiety for fear they can be taken away at any time, he says.
“The children will need a lot of assurance and in the beginning, they can be more clingy which is understandable. It will take some time before they become less fearful.
“Most of the children will be more settled after a few days but for those who continue to experience fear and difficulty sleeping or refuse to go to school, the parents will need to bring them to consult professionals or to go for counselling,” he says.
Consider other laws
Women's Centre for Change (WCC) executive director Loh Cheng Kooi is urging the police and Welfare Department to work closely together and to not only use the Anti-Trafficking In Persons Act 2007 where the children are removed drastically from their adoptive parents.
“Under the Child Act 2001, the Social Welfare Department and the child protection team can implement the Fit and Proper Persons Regulations 2009 to return the children back to these parents who are deemed fit. Putting these children in welfare homes is treating these children as objects of the law. It is unacceptable and inhumane,” she says.
“The emotional and physical well-being of these children cannot be made secondary to investigations.”
The case, she says, also raises societal issues such as poor parents having to give up their babies, unwanted pregnancies, the desperation of childless couples and difficulty in registering adopted babies, which must all be addressed to prevent similar crimes from recurring.
Child advocate Dr Hartini Zainudin, who is also founder of the Chow Kit Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, agrees.
Dr Hartini, who flew to Penang to meet some of the adoptive parents, tells of their anguish and despair after being separated from their babies.
“I was close to tears, seeing their confusion and bewilderment and I realised how much they love the children. At the same time, (they showed) no anger towards the authorities because I think they knew they had broken the law.”
Dr Hartini commends the authorities for being vigilant in arresting the alleged traffickers and for gathering more information to ensure those guilty are brought to justice. However, she notes that there has been a great disservice to the children involved.
“I do not condone the adoptive parents buying the children but in most cases, I understand it was for adoption and to bring the children up as their own. I cannot understand the reason behind letting the traffickers out on bail while holding the parents in remand for days and keeping the children in centres for even longer.”
On the two children who were returned to their adoptive parents under certain conditions, she says the court order should be adopted as a standard practice for any child and family in similar circumstances.
She says there is a need to discourage people from buying children but raises the question of why people still do it.
“We're not talking about them buying children for labour, sexual or other forms of commercial exploitation but for adoption. While forging documents and lying about being the biological parents are offences, they are not trafficking.”
Dr Hartini believes that illegal adoption is happening because the country's adoption laws are archaic and out of touch with today's reality.
“The Adoption Law is from 1952. The criteria for adoption is stringent, not standardised, and vague. The system to adopt is convoluted, arduously long and painful and there seems to be never enough babies and children to adopt.
“On the other hand, we have abandoned babies and people flushing their own flesh and blood down the toilets or throwing them into rivers.”
She also stresses that the adoptive parents would not be getting off scot-free.
“They now have to go through the proper adoption process, legally adopt the children; and where there is no record of who or where the child is from, the child will become stateless. So they now have a child who is not considered Malaysian, not a foreigner either because you can't prove either way with no legal documentation.
“Without the documents, the children cannot go to school, cannot apply for passport, MyKad, get a job, own property or get married.”
Penang police chief Dep Comm Datuk Abdul Rahim Hanafi says the police are zeroing in on two other baby-selling syndicates believed to be still active in the state.
Describing the operation, Penang CID chief Senior Asst Comm Mazlan Kesah says the children were handed over to the Social Welfare Department (JKM) after police obtained the interim protection order for them.
“On our side, we acted on information that there was a baby trafficking syndicate and what they were doing is wrong. We just want to stop such activity and smash the syndicate,” he says.
He suggests that the adoptive parents appoint lawyers to apply to the court for custody of the children.
“Only the court can grant such permission while the police work on the investigation,” he says, adding that the adoptive parents have been released on bond and would probably be called as witnesses.
JKM Children Division director Arfan Sulaiman says there is a long waiting list of applicants wanting to adopt babies nationwide. A total of 71 children were legally adopted in 2010, 93 in 2011 and 61 last year.
“The demand is much higher than the available supply of children,” he notes.
“The process for adoption normally takes about a month but some factors could delay it, such as the applicant being too selective,” he explains, adding that those interested in child adoption can visit the department's website http://www.jkm.gov.my.
On children who are victims of baby-sale syndicates, he says they will be put up for legal adoption after the prosecution process.
Dr Hartini urges that if there is any subsequent operation by the police against the syndicate, the children should not be removed.
“It's unnecessary trauma. You can still punish the parents, arrest the traffickers and register the children.”
(* Names have been changed to protect their identities.)
Reading the law on trafficking