What looked like a nursery filled with babies was a storage, processing and shipping center for Filipino babies.
When policemen entered a house in Jala Jala, Rizal just southeast of Manila on the night of December 15, 2008, they had a warrant to arrest a suspect accused of writing bouncing checks.
The last thing they expected to find was a room full of crying, cooing newborn babies.
“We were amazed to see so many babies,” Jala Jala town police chief Larry Malaybalay told Newsbreak.
There were nine diapered infants; each snuggled in a crib with stuffed toys for company. Each crib had a name on it. The room had the look of a bright and cheery nursery.
There was only one problem: there were no parents. Instead, the house had 11 adults including seven nannies and one Singaporean woman who repeatedly told the town police chief, “I love babies.”
“We asked for papers” to explain the babies' presence. “They couldn't show any,” he said.
“We arrested them all.”
Chief Inspector Malaybalay said “I felt something was wrong. Why were there so many babies (when) that was not an orphanage? Of course we became very suspicious.”
It turned out he had grounds for suspicion. Digging into the babies' backgrounds, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) realized that the police may have stumbled on an international baby trafficking ring operating under its very nose since 2006.
DSWD Secretary Esperanza Cabral described the case as “very important” to her agency. She gave Newsbreak access to other agency officials.
The DSWD now suspects that what looked like a nursery filled with babies was actually something more chilling: a storage, processing and shipping center for Filipino babies.
Possibly involving more than 30 babies, it may well turn out to be the biggest and only case of highly organized and systematic baby trafficking in years. It shows how easy it is to smuggle babies out of the country, authorities said.
The operators preyed on the anguish of women, buying their unwanted babies from P2,000 to P7,000 each, some while still in their mothers' wombs. The babies were stored initially in a place in Pililla town and later in neighboring Jala Jala.
The Pililla town operation was ostensibly an orphanage called Hope for the Homeless Angels. It was registered with the Pililla government but never registered with the DSWD nor the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as required by law.
Authorities believe that while the babies were in Pililla then later transferred to Jala Jala, they were fattened up, vaccinated, provided genuine or fake birth certificates, then flown to a commercial adoption agency in Singapore owned by Irene Low Ai Lian, who was caught red-handed with the babies in that December raid in Jala Jala.
The babies lived a regimented life, their bodily functions and milk intake closely monitored. For instance, according to a schedule provided to their nannies, they all had to be exposed to sunlight by early dawn.
If the police had not found the nine babies when they did, two would have simply disappeared, flown out of Manila as hand-carried baggage by December 22, 2009, according to a handwritten schedule taped to the babies' bedroom wall. Two other babies had been flown out earlier on December 6, the same schedule showed.
Authorities are now trying to trace up to 30 babies who were processed and shipped in this manner starting 2006, Supt. Malaybalay said.
A number of babies allegedly never made it to the airport, though. “I was told babies died on them in their previous location in Pililla which they called Hope for the Homeless Angels,” claimed Voltaire Gellido, one of Low's co-accused. Gellido was included in the charge sheet since he owns the house in Jala Jala where the babies were found and he was the original object of the police manhunt.
Gellido, a former mayor of Jala Jala, claimed in an exclusive interview that Low had decided to lease his Jala Jala residence in order to move out all the babies from Pililla because three of them nearly died there of pneumonia. She referred to the former site, located in a squatter area as “that dinky place,” he said.
The babies who did reach Singapore allegedly ended up with Low's Singapore-based agency, where they were turned over to foreigners who had each paid a “processing fee” of at least P600,000 (US$12,500) per baby. Upon request, though, this fee could be discounted or paid on installment, interest free.
In comparison, legal adoptions which all have to be coursed through the Philippine government, cost at least US$3,200 in processing and other fees, according to the Inter-Country Adoption Board (ICAB), the lone state agency to authorize all foreign adoptions and accredit all foreign adoption agencies.
Low's adoption agency in Singapore, the Fox Family Services Pte. Ltd., is not in the ICAB registry and therefore not authorized to facilitate foreign adoptions of Filipino babies, said Sally Escutin, chief of the DSWD legal service.
“Singapore is a transit point,” she said. Many babies eventually ended up elsewhere like Australia or Germany, she said.
Because of this, sources told Newsbreak that the Australian Embassy had contacted Philippine authorities to learn more about the case.
A passion for babies
It was the presence of a middle-aged Singaporean matron in an obscure lake shore town, two and a half hours drive from Manila, that set off alarm bells for the police.
Slim of build with her hair in a bun, the conservatively dressed Low, 51, was the picture of bewildered sincerity. “Her allegation was that she was shouldering the costs of the orphanage in good faith,” Supt. Malaybalay recalled her telling him.
“She said to me, 'I love babies'.”
She refused to give any statement, written or verbal at the police station.
But she gave interviews, especially to Singapore media, disowning any crime. She said she was merely a visitor and a donor to the orphanage housed in Jala Jala, now renamed The Jala Jala Home for the Needy Angels, Inc. She said she was an innocent, gullible and misguided do-gooder who was conned into donating large sums to what she belatedly realized was an illegal scheme.
According to Singapore's leading daily, The Straits Times: “She said she was staying in the house to oversee its refurbishment and to distribute food and clothes to the infants while the home awaited license by the authorities.'I am not here to match babies (with couples), but as a donor to support the home,'” she said. (read The Straits Times' story Facing prosecution)
“I am not a baby-trafficker,” she also told The New Paper, Singapore's second largest, days after her arrest. “I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.” (read The New Paper's story S'porean adoption agency owner accused of baby-trafficking)
Since her arrest last December, DSWD officials have been trying to find a link between her Fox Family commercial adoption agency in Singapore and the babies recovered outside Manila.
Atty. Escutin told Newsbreak she had stumbled on a definite link while surfing in Fox Family's official website. But the website disappeared and was replaced by an “under renovation” sign. She could no longer access it, she said. She called her discovery very revealing.
(click images to enlarge)
Newsbreak also encountered the same “under renovation” sign and therefore phoned Low's lawyer, Reynaldo Directo, to get her side of the story. Repeated requests for a return call were ignored.
Newsbreak therefore searched the web again and managed to retrieve portions of the Fox Family website and phone numbers.
Newsbreak was just as surprised as Irene Low was when she personally answered one of the numbers posted on the internet. “I'm somewhere around (the Philippines) but how did you get my number?” she asked.
When told it was from her website, she said, “but my website is no longer up.” Later, she said, “I have pulled out my website as you know until my resolution is clear.”
Out on bail but barred from leaving the country, she said, “I'm still waiting for a resolution. It's not over yet. I'm just waiting. Don't know why it's taking so long. I don't know if it's good or bad.”
“I did it out of my heart....That's what my passion is. I want to help people. I help kids and I help families....I just wanted to (help), because I've adopted two kids and they were wonderful.”
She sounded fragile and hurt - “It (the case) just affects me emotionally. I just can't get back on again until everything is clear.”
She was also very wary. She refused to discuss the case and told Newsbreak to talk to her lawyer because “he's got all the right words.”
Newsbreak asked her whether she was getting her babies from Pililla and Jala Jala. She flatly denied this. “I'm not getting babies from there. I don't like these questions because it may implicate me from what I'm saying. Not that I'm guilty, I'm not.”
Her denial ran contrary to the introductory statement posted on her company website which said: “Fox Family Services Adoption Centre was established primarily to find good families for unwanted and abandoned infants and toddlers in the Philippines and elsewhere and to assist you in finding a child.”
When Newsbreak pointed that out, she said, “Well, it is not only in Philippines. In Philippines basically, in fact, I'm working with the DSWD.”
When asked whether she was referring to Maria Lourdes Martinez, the social welfare officer of the town of Pililla who is her co-accused in the case, she said, “Sorry, you've got to speak with the lawyer about this.”
Pressed further which DSWD official she had been working with, she said, “I really do not know if I should tell you at this point in time.”
Low also made the assertion that her adoption agency in Singapore could operate freely in the Philippines without need of accreditation from the Philippine government.
“It's not necessary for any adoption agency to be accredited...by any government,” she said.
She gave Newsbreak this parting advice: “Before you write a story get your facts right, get a lawyer. You don't just get half a story from me.”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Department of Social Welfare and Development has said that parents who have adopted Filipino babies through Fax Family can legalize their adoption by coordinating with Sally Escutin, chief of legal services. Ms. Escutin may be reached through her direct line +63-2-951-22-38 or through her email [email protected]
About the author:
Raissa Robles is currently Manila correspondent of South China Morning Post (HK) and Radio Netherlands. She has reported for Asiaweek Magazine and BBC Radio and was once investigative reporter for Philippine Star and reporter for The Manila Chronicle and Business Day newspapers.