Irene Low Ai Lian, a Singaporean national who was arrested for being in possession of nine babies in a house she was renting outside Manila, once said she was ordained by God to save unwanted Filipino babies.
“I do believe in the Lord Jesus. My life path has been crafted by HIM,” she posted last year on the website of Fox Family Services Adoption Centre, her commercial adoption agency in Singapore.
“I don't know what it is and where it leads, but as I am here as a facilitator....to those who desperately want to adopt a child.”
“My fees are a little high but my intentions are good,” she said.
Early last year, Low seemed particularly at pains to reassure clients she was getting her babies legally. Her highly personal 2008 New Year message said: “I try my level best to provide the best that I can, even by getting valid certifications from the Social Welfare to verify that the children for adoption are not trafficked or bought.”
“They are surrendered by the mothers to the Department of Social Welfare (and Development) as they are too poor to upkeep them,” she said.
The reality was somewhat different. According to Maura de la Rosa, DSWD chief of operations for Region 4A which oversees Jala Jala and Pililla, not one of the babies was obtained from the DSWD. They all came from a certain Maria Lourdes “Malou” M. Martinez, the social welfare officer of Pililla municipality.
Surprisingly, De la Rosa knew Martinez. “We used to see Malou during seminars we would conduct” and she never aroused suspicion, she said.
Atty Escutin also said Martinez was never with the DSWD. And Low never transacted with the DSWD, only Martinez did, she said.
De la Rosa said they tried to trace the parents of the nine babies the police recovered last December. Four could not be traced back since they had no birth certificates. Two had genuine certificates but with fake mothers listed on them – which is a punishable offense. Only three had genuine certificates stating their real mothers.
“Some parents actually admitted they sold their children,” Escutin said adding, “if you check out the birth certificates, they were really unwanted – born out of wedlock, of adulterous relationships or to minor mothers.”
In Low's Fox Family website, she made it clear she knew it was wrong for mother to sell their babies: “It is illegal to receive or ask for monetary payment in exchange for giving up your child for adoption, unless the payment is approved by the court.”
Escutin noted that not only were babies exchanged for money, “some of the (real) parents were also offered some kind of work abroad. They were being offered to bring their child with them (to Singapore).” The ploy exploited amended DSWD guidelines allowing parents to bring their offspring abroad without prior clearance from DSWD, she explained.
This startling discovery made by the DSWD, that mothers (both genuine and fake) were being used as mules to smuggle babies instead of drugs abroad, is somehow confirmed by Low herself in her 2008 New Year message posted on the Fox Family website.
She said: “Apart from doing the adoption agency, I also try to get the guardians a job in Singapore as a domestic maid! I don't even charge them an extra cent; I only asked to reimburse me for the airfare.”
“I have successfully placed about four guardians (in) a job in Singapore!” she wrote.
Was Low aware she was breaking Philippine laws on adoption and child trafficking?
In her company website she made the following assertion: “We adhere to the law and regulations of the host country and Singapore.” Host country referred to the Philippines where the babies she was putting up for adoption were coming from.
In a Newsbreak interview, Low said she was “working with the DSWD”.
Curiously, if she was working with the DSWD, she might have been apprised that Fox Family was repeatedly violating Philippine laws. A page on her agency website displayed “babies for viewing”. Two of them - Jethro and Agatha - were described as “newborn”, while two others - Santy and Eric – were four months old.
“That's a violation of the Domestic Adoption Law,” De la Rosa said. Section two of this Republic Act 8552 bars parents from putting up for voluntary adoption babies below six months old to “safeguard the biological parent(s) from making hurried decisions.”
One of the “Frequently asked Questions” posted on her website is, “How do we get the babies?”
The answer: “The biological mother surrenders her child (born or unborn) to the social welfare or hospital. The social welfare contacts us to facilitate the adoption.”
De la Rosa, whose office covers Jala Jala, said the DSWD has never contacted Fox Family for any adoption nor has Fox Family contacted it on any adoption.
Besides, Newsbreak learned, a mother's consent for foreign adoption can be obtained “only after the birth of the child,” based on The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption, which Manila signed.
In line with the Convention, the Philippines formed in 1995 its own Inter-Country Adoption Board (ICAB) through Republic Act 8043. It requires ICAB to approve all foreign adoptions and accredit all foreign adoption agencies. Fox Family is not accredited. (Read the Inter-Country Adoption Act of 1995 here)
Low told Newsbreak “it is not necessary” for any Singapore adoption agency to be accredited by the Philippine government through ICAB or by any government.
But Atty. Escutin noted that under RA 8043, foreign adoptions without ICAB approval could constitute child trafficking if done by three or more persons and it involves two or more babies.
The same law stipulates that foreign adoption should be the last resort after domestic adoption efforts are exhausted.
One of ICAB's mandates is to “prevent improper financial or other gain in connection with an adoption.” Its website lists the expenses for each adoption to cost at least US$3,200.
Fox Family charges the equivalent of US$12,500 to facilitate one adoption. Its website states: “There are many fees for professional services to complete any adoption. They include the legal fees, medical checkup, immigration paperwork, travel and the care of the baby. We do all we can to keep our fee as low as possible....You can pay by installment.”
“My fees are a little high but my intentions are good,” Low wrote in the website.
“All fees are paid to assist social welfare in the Philippines and elsewhere and in covering our overheads in Singapore,” the website said. The statement was a definite acknowledgment of a link between her adoption agency and the Philippine orphanage in Pililla called Home for the Homeless Angels.
In fact this orphanage was also known by another name – Fox Children's Home, according to Low herself. Low told the New Paper of Singapore that “it was just a coincidence that her adoption agency (in Singapore) and the Home shared the same name.” (See the story here)
Low also told New Paper that her involvement with the Philippine orphanage only began in January 2008 - “I have donated about 8,800 Singapore dollars (P300,000) so far this year and visited it around five times.”
She said she did it for humanitarian reasons, being herself a mother of two adopted children ages two and five.
The tale of Agatha
Low indirectly confirmed with Newsbreak that she was getting babies from Pililla, Rizal.
So did three adoptive parents in the website singaporemotherhood.com which contains a lively forum among successful and would-be adoptive parents. Discussions became heated early last year over one particular subject - Irene Low and her Fox Family adoption agency.
In the forum, members Tracey Escalante and Chelah Ann castigated another member named Chris for “badmouthing” Low over his failed adoption of a baby named Agatha. Low's agency had trouble getting Agatha past immigration authorities when Chris had already prepaid for the baby and flown to the Philippines to hold Agatha in his arms.
But Chelah Ann defended Low saying “I know Irene personally...she is an adopted child herself.”
“She started a home in Philippines and take(s) in abandoned children, with caregivers to look after them 7 days a week 24 hours a day...Every cent comes from her pocket. She does not take a salary,” she said.
She said she witnessed this when she went with Low to the Philippines. “I saw the caregivers and the children in the home. I followed her as she traveled hours deep into the remote villages to meet the biological parents. There are many good works she had done quietly behind the scene.”
Low is also very particular about her clients and rejects those who “are not able to provide the children a loving secured environment,” she said.
Tracey Escalante also defended Low and called Chris an “idiot”. She said she and her husband had adopted three children through Fox Family. “And I believe the little girl we received must be the one Chris (Crany) decided not to adopt.”
She asked other members to understand how difficult it was for Low to process adoptions from the Philippines. “The Philippines is an extremely poor country, especially in the mountains which is where the babies were coming from. I have had to have patience, as everyone does when adoption is occurring. But I can personally say, the Philippines do not work like most countries. They process at their own pace and no one can demand more of them.”
But Chris said, “You obviously have no idea what my wife and I went through...I cut short my trip from the US and my wife and I flew to the Philippines.” They visited the Home where Agatha was. “We spent a considerable amount of time with Agatha...we went to the home at least 2 or 3 times. We bought stuffs for the home, clothes, diapers and a fan cos they were really really lacking. We saw everything.”
“She (Low) promised to bring our baby down on 15 Feb 2007 in time for CNY (Chinese New Year) but lo and behold, they realized that the "foster mother does not have the required documents and this resulted in delays!!” Chris said.
The adoption fell through. Although he eventually got a baby from another agency, Chris complained commercial adoption agencies “seemed to be increasing their cost for no particular reason.”
He also accused the women of hawking babies on Low's behalf. This unusual use of a multi-level marketing scheme, in this case using adoptive parents to look for potential business, was also mentioned by Low in the Fox Family website.
(Read the heated exchange here)
Newsbreak asked Low if she once had a client named Chris who went to Pililla to try to adopt a baby named Agatha through her agency.
She confirmed that “he went to my agency and he went on his own as well, I think. I'm not sure.”
“All I know is that he tried and then I think it was not approved,” she said.
Irene Low's local partner
In the same forum, Tracey Escalante spoke of personally meeting and working with a social worker in the Philippines.
The only social worker involved in Low's operations was Maria Lourdes “Malou” Martinez, social welfare officer hired by Pililla town hall.
After Low was arrested, she claimed she was deceived by Martinez, her co-accused. Low told The Straits Times, “I was misguided. I trusted a lot of people and I won't be so gullible again,” but refused to elaborate.
Low refused to discuss Martinez with Newsbreak.
Low's first lawyer Hercules Cabug-Os even told TV Patrol: "My client has been coordinating with the DSWD for a long time. She was made to believe that everything is in order.”
Martinez “knew enough to know how to manipulate the system,” according to Amihan Abueva, national coordinator of Asia Acts, an anti-child trafficking NGO.
Newsbreak was shown one of the copies of a “Certification” which Martinez signed. Dated August 7, 2008, it stated that a certain baby was “voluntarily surrendered” by the mother. It said that while the baby awaited a fostering license that was “in process” at the DSWD, “the baby is under the shelter of Hope for the Homeless Angels, that is under my supervision in coordination with DSWD Field office.”
The certification was a masterpiece of double talk. It stated that “the baby is ready for adoption upon passing all the requirements in the Philippine Law.” The statement was true but it also insinuated that the baby could already be adopted.
Such certifications were probably used to fool Singapore authorities into thinking the baby had passed Philippine legal processes, Escutin said.
DSWD found that Martinez had filed at least two requests with the DSWD for travel clearances, which are required whenever a child is not accompanied by either parent. “She's also one of the people who constantly travel to Singapore. She's part of this scheme,” Escutin claimed.
Abueva noted that “she knew it was possible to get travel clearances from other regions even if you don't belong to that region.”
Double-cross gives game away
Another co-accused in the case surprisingly backed Escutin's assertions. Gellido, the Jala Jala house owner, told Newsbreak that Martinez herself told him she arranged foreign adoptions for Low. He said he was eating at a Jollibee outlet in Tanay, Rizal sometime in November 2008 when he spotted his friend, Martinez. “I saw Malou. She bragged to me that she goes to various countries interviewing foster parents.”
Then Malou introduced him to Low who he said was looking to lease 1,000 hectares in Jala Jala to plant to jatropha.
Being in the realty business, Gellido showed Low around and brought her to lunch in his house in Jala Jala. When she learned he no longer lived there, she asked to rent it as a welfare home. She complained to him that the welfare home in Pililla which she was supporting was “in a dinky place”, a squatter area, he said.
He said he agreed because he expected her to lease in turn the jatropha plantation through him. He was also looking forward to meeting Low's husband, Australian national Robert Fox, who wanted to find a local buyer for his supply of cheap imported crude oil.
“I called Malou and told her Irene was intending to rent my home,” Gellido said. He showed Newsbreak the five-year lease on his 6,000 square meter home that Low signed at P10,000 pesos a month starting December 1, 2008 or two weeks before the raid.
He stipulated in the contract that it would be used “strictly for the purpose of placing and caring for surrendered babies from the various DSWDs in the Philippines and other directly incidental activities.”
He claimed it was only days later he discovered that the Pililla orphanage run by Martinez and Low was unregistered with the DSWD and therefore illegal. He also discovered that Martinez had been overcharging Low, making her pay P10,000 per birth certificate and passport when these should cost only P140 and under 1,000 pesos, respectively. Because of what he told Low, she started auditing Martinez's expenses.
And when Martinez told Low that the municipal government of Pililla was demanding a one million peso bond for the Pililla orphanage, Gellido exposed the lie. “There's no such thing,” he told Low.
He also claimed he tried to help Low correct the situation by registering for her on December 3, 2008 – or 12 days before the raid - a new charitable foundation with the Securities and Exchange Commission called the Jala Jala Home for the Needy Angels, Inc.
“I said to Irene, I'm not in the orphanage business, so you will still manage that,” Gellido said.
Newsbreak found its registration papers at the SEC. Low heads the list of incorporators; Gellido's name follows and he is named treasurer. But Martinez's name is nowhere to be found. Gellido's raided house in Jala Jala is the corporate address.
Among its functions is to match abandoned children with adoptive parents. Its starting capital is P2,500 but it can solicit donations.
Stapled to the papers is a directive from DSWD director Alicia Bonoan informing the SEC that the Home should not operate unless “it shall first have registered with the DSWD.”
Because of Gellido's revelations about Martinez, Low flew to Manila on December 12. “She was surprised to learn. Why like that? For two years she thought she was talking to honorable people in the Philippines,” he said.
He believes Martinez tipped off the police about the babies in his house because his one-million-peso bouncing checks case had long been resolved. “I suspect it was Malou because she lost her milking cow.”
Martinez remains at large and could not be contacted.
Surprisingly, Low has chosen to cast even Gellido aside. She told The New Paper it was all Gellido's idea: “About three months ago (in September 2008 and not November as Gellido claimed), the Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development introduced me to Mr. Gellido, who is a former mayor of Jala Jala. He said he wanted to build a home for babies who had been given up for adoption. He asked me to help finance the project and I agreed.
“That's wrong,” Gellido told Newsbreak. It was other way around. “I'm not in the orphanage business.” Gellido said he was willing to testify and tell the truth on the matter.-with research assistance by Anna Bueno