The little girl is singing her heart out. She is holding a stick, her pretend microphone. The lyrics to her song are barely intelligible, but her captive audience—her mother and father—don’t even notice.
She is Lucy, the light of Rina and Alvi Siongco’s lives.
“She’s not only light,” Rina says. “She’s a spotlight. My God, she’s bigger than life!”
Outgoing, strong-willed, and independent, Lucy has brought joy and chaos into the couple’s lives. To her little sister, Lucy gives infinite kindness.
It’s hard to imagine that only seven years ago, Rina and Alvi had almost given up hope of having a child. But now, they are parents to two children—Lucy, whom they adopted in 2010, and Ari, their biological daughter born two years later.
They are among the handful of parents who completed the legal adoption process. Out of 779 children whom the Department of Social Welfare and Development declared legally available for adoption in 2010, Lucy among them, only 67 were placed in families in the Philippines.
A possible two-year court process and lawyers’ fees as high as P100,000 discourage prospective parents from going the legal adoption route.
Out of those 67 families, DSWD estimates only four, or six percent—including the Siongcos—would complete the legal process of adoption.
Many don't know how to navigate the administrative and judicial processes of adoption.
Maila (not her real name) is one of them. She took a newborn into her care 10 years ago but never attempted to adopt the child legally.
Maila and her husband tried for 12 years to conceive. One morning in 2006, an elderly neighbor brought a newborn girl to their house. The baby’s mother was at the birthing clinic and needed a couple of thousand pesos, which Maila gladly gave. The mother gave birth to the baby girl, and Maila instantly had a daughter.
The midwife registered Maila and her husband as the baby’s biological parents on the birth certificate.
Maila says legal adoption was not an option at the time because she believed she would not pass DSWD’s standards anyway.
“I think I won’t be qualified because my husband’s job is not stable, even if my job is,” she says.
Maila works for an NGO in Metro Manila. (Her name was changed in this story to protect her adopted daughter’s identity.)
Maila’s fear is one of the many myths surrounding adoption, DSWD Director Rosalie Dagulo says.
Sky-high legal fees are another myth. These could be as low as P30,000--or even free. Rina and Alvi know of lawyers who offer their services pro bono or at a discount to those who cannot afford it.
“You don’t need to be rich,” says Dagulo, an adoptive mother to a 10-year old girl. “A government employee like me can raise a child decently.”
The couple married rather late—Rina in her late 30s and Alvi in his early 40s. They decided to adopt when fertility work-ups and in vitro fertilization failed.
Rina and Alvi’s journey started with NORFIL, one of only two child-placement agencies in the Philippines accredited by DSWD.
Applying for adoption
The couple attended an adoption forum in December 2009 to learn about the process and requirements, which Alvi likened to applying for a visa.
It took the couple only three weeks to gather their birth and medical records, clearances from the barangay, the police, and the National Bureau of Investigation, bank documents, and two recommendation letters. When they submitted the documents to NORFIL, they had to indicate their preference.
“We always wanted a girl,” Rina says. “In fact, we already had a name—Lucy.”
Two months later, the Siongcos opened their home to a social worker from NORFIL. She asked Rina and Alvi questions, including what would happen if Rina got pregnant while the adoption process was still underway.
“We said: ‘OK, we’ll have two kids. We’ve decided on this and we’re not going to pull it out,’” she says.
During the visits, the NORFIL social worker spoke with Alvi’s parents about the couple’s decision to adopt and asked for family photos to match them with a child who resembles them.
“Does a person want to adopt,” Dagulo says, “because he wants to have a companion when he is older? If the couple is childless and couldn’t conceive, have they settled that issue?”
It was an uncertain time for Rina.
“We were being judged. I felt like we had to put our best foot forward.”
But Alvi felt otherwise.
“I was excited,” he says. “It was part of the process so that means we’re getting there.”
Matched with Lucy
Alvi and Rina’s application went through a matching conference at a DSWD regional office.
The conference is like a court hearing, but instead of lawyers, social workers represent the prospective adoptive parents and the child. A psychologist, a lawyer, a doctor, a DSWD-approved NGO representative, and a child-caring agency participate in the conference.
“The child is at the fulcrum of this process,” Dagulo says. “Which family is best for the child? Not the other way around.”
The match came a month later.
“We were excited. They told us her name, showed us her records,” she says.
The social worker told them that Lucy’s mother was at NORFIL’s halfway home for pregnant mothers. She gave birth in a hospital and breastfed Lucy for a week. She then left the baby with NORFIL, along with a letter for Lucy to read when the baby comes of age.
While waiting to be adopted, Lucy lived with a foster family.
The social worker gave Rina and Alvi a picture of seven-month-old Lucy and told them to go home, think it over, and decide the next day.
“We said, ‘we don’t need time to think. Game na! Can we get her tomorrow?’” Rina says.
But the couple had to wait another week for NORFIL to process the baby’s papers.
On June 23, 2010, six months after the adoption forum at NORFIL, Alvi and Rina finally met Lucy.
The couple was waiting in the NORFIL office lobby when they saw a woman carrying a baby and a teenage girl enter the building.
“We were watching from afar and thinking: ‘Is that her? I think that’s her’,” Rina says.
And they were right.
Lucy came with her foster mother and sister. Her foster father stayed at home crying. When it was time to hand Lucy over to the Siongcos, the mother and daughter began to cry too. And Lucy cried all the way home, despite offers of milk and toys.
“We didn’t know her,” Rina says. “We didn’t know what she wanted. We were trying everything. She was fiddling with her ear. I didn’t know what that meant.”
They finally got home at 4 pm. Alvi’s mom was waiting at the doorstep.
“She was beaming, waiting for her grandchild,” Rina says.
Lucy immediately fell asleep. They would eventually learn that Lucy starts fiddling with her ear when she is tired.
“And when she woke up, it was as if she’s been living in our house for 10 years. She was smiling, laughing, playing with everyone,” Alvi says.
It was a good thing too, because Lucy had to welcome her 10 godfathers and 10 godmothers who came to visit that day and well into the night.
The family celebrates June 23 every year as Lucy’s Gotcha! Day, the second most important day in her life, next only to her birthday.
Filing in court
Lucy has long been part of the family. But it was a long court process before she legally became a Siongco.
In the next six months, Rina and Alvi had two more visits from the social worker. Once she was satisfied Lucy was adjusting, they then received a document of permanent placement from NORFIL. The couple could finally begin the court process.
Within 30 days, Rina and Alvi hired a lawyer to file a petition for adoption at the Family Court. It was a seven-month wait before the first court hearing.
In preparation, they had to publish the court order for the hearing in the newspaper, a step to ensure that the child being adopted was not kidnapped or trafficked, DSWD’s Dagulo says.
A multitude of hearings
The court process of adoption normally takes a year with only three court hearings. But a number of factors made the process drag on for two years for the Siongcos. Factors such as a change in judge in the middle of the process, additional documentation requested by the prosecutor at the last minute, and hearings cancelled by the court.
“I would have loved to pull strings,” Rina says, “because my dad works in the Supreme Court. But he’s not like that. We’re also not like that. Considering we had connections, but we went through the process.”
Yet the Siongcos consider themselves lucky because their court hearings had been scheduled every month. Other adoptive parents had to wait two to three months for their next court date because many courts had huge caseloads due to a shortage of judges.
Throughout the ordeal, the Siongcos took comfort in the fact that Lucy was already with them.
After 12 court hearings, the judge finally issued Lucy’s adoption decree.
“I just remember how happy we were with that ruling. That was really it,” Alvi says.
In all, the Siongcos paid their lawyer P70,000.
Alvi says the cost of the adoption process was just like the cost of childbirth.
“You have to think about it in the context that you are acquiring a new life. You have to be prepared. You can’t think that it should be easy,” he says.
It was another six months to get Lucy’s new birth certificate because of red tape. It bore their names as Lucy’s parents and was just like any other birth certificate.
DSWD and NORFIL have been pushing for reforms to simplify the current procedures to encourage more people to adopt legally.
Dagulo says the DSWD long wanted to make the court process of adoption administrative, like in other countries. Even judges seem to like the idea because it would help to reduce their huge caseload, she says.
A shorter adoption process would also mean lower costs for the prospective adoptive parents, says Ma. Teresa Nuqui, Norfil executive director.
A chance for Maila
Maila’s daughter is now 10. She thinks it is too late for her to legalize her daughter’s adoption because she tampered with her daughter’s birth certificate; it’s called “simulated birth,” a criminal offense in the Philippines.
The Domestic Adoption Act of 1998 provided a three-year amnesty to give parents like Maila a chance to correct what they did. Only 364 families out of an estimated several hundred thousand took advantage of the amnesty from 1998-2001.
Although the amnesty period has ended, Nuqui says she has not heard of a single parent who had simulated a birth being charged.
“Because if you look at it, the parents did it with the best interest of the child in mind,” Nuqui says.
DSWD supports the proposal to revive the amnesty. Rep. Xavier Jesus Romualdo filed the measure, House Bill No. 328, last June, but no senator has filed a counterpart measure as of writing.
Maila is looking forward to the day when the reforms in the adoption process become law so she can legalize her daughter’s adoption.
“At least my daughter’s future will be secure if I will pass away. Because who knows what will happen in the future?” she says.
The risk of not having a child legally adopted is great, Nuqui says, because the child’s birth parent could appear anytime to reclaim the child. This happened to a former client, she says.
Dagulo also recalls a case where relatives questioned the validity of a child’s birth certificate. The child stood to receive a huge inheritance. The case was brought before the court, which eventually decided that the child had no right to his adoptive parents’ estate because his birth certificate was falsified.
Such cases show how both the child and the parents are not protected, Nuqui says.
Rina and Alvi had also heard of similar stories and wonder what could have happened if they did not persevere with legal adoption.
“I’ll always be scared,” Rina says. “We can’t travel. I can’t claim any medical benefits for her because she’s not my dependent. And eventually, how do you explain it to the child? When she goes to school, when she gets married. It will come back to haunt her. It wasn’t worth it.”
Says Dagulo: “Do you really love that child? Because if you do, you should legalize the adoption. You are not omniscient.”
*Che de los Reyes is a fellow of the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University. She wrote this piece as part of her MA Journalism fellowship.