Alicia Wang, CEO of the Child Welfare League Foundation, is hoping to take her fight for Taiwan’s children to the Legislative Yuan in 2012. Pushing for subsidies for adoptive families will be her first priority if she is elected. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Alicia Wang, CEO of the Child Welfare League Foundation (CWLF), is always calm and rational when defending the basic rights of disadvantaged children. She has initiated investigations over missing children, child abuse, abandoned babies, and people trafficking, issues that often attract a great deal of media focus.
With 18 years’ experience in the CWLF, she has progressed from frontline social worker preparing posters for missing children, to nowadays heading up nearly 200 staff and managing an annual budget of NT$200 million.
She has accepted KMT nomination for the 2012 nationwide constituency legislator election, and currently ranks second in popularity only to the incumbent president of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-Pyng. So she looks destined to become the first child welfare advocate in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan.
“From past experience, the CWLF has found that without the support of someone in the Legislative Yuan, it’s very difficult to get anything worthwhile done,” says Wang.
Thus, after considering the matter deeply, she has decided to run for the Legislative Yuan. While this step is going to mean a dramatic change in her role, the issues of child and youth welfare will remain her foremost concern. The following is a summary of a recent interview with Alicia Wang.
Q: Can you comment on the recent amendments to the Children and Youth Welfare Act (CYWA)?
A: Any legislation to protect stateless children constitutes important progress. (Editor’s note: Under Taiwan’s Nationality Act, for a child to acquire ROC citizenship at birth, at least one parent must be an ROC national. If both parents of a child born in Taiwan are foreign workers, the child may become stateless.)
The CYWA doesn’t only protect ROC nationals. As long as a child lives in Taiwan, the government has the responsibility to provide essential protection and care. The new amendment conforms to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; that is, children’s rights must be respected regardless of nationality.
New regulations for adoption have also been introduced, stipulating that except in cases of adoption by step-parents or relatives, only government-approved institutions can provide adoption services.
Looking back to the 1993 amendment to the Child Welfare Act, for the first time the law required the courts to assign social workers to investigate and assess adoption cases. Previously, adoption was seen as an agreement between adults, so the 1993 amendment made major progress, but didn’t completely check people trafficking.
Children of unmarried mothers, for example, were often passed on to carers, providing the opportunity for child trafficking. There were not a few cases in the past where midwives or obstetricians illegally sold newborn babies at a price of several hundred thousand NT dollars to infertile couples or people wanting to adopt.
The new amendment greatly reduces the opportunity for adoption through individual deals, and requires all adoptions to be arranged by government-approved institutions. The body authorizing adoptions has been changed from local government to the Child Welfare Bureau of the Ministry of the Interior, which will assess whether particular adoption agencies are genuinely protecting the welfare of the child.
Q: Currently there are no standards on fees or the level of services provided by adoption agencies. Does the government need to specify standards here?
A: Absolutely. The government must strictly ensure the quality of social workers and service providers, and essential services such as interviews, consultations and home visits, but it’s unnecessary to standardize all procedures. Different institutions may have their own way of doing things. For example, the CWLF provides opportunities for adoptive families to share their experiences with others. Some institutions arrange every year for children who have been adopted abroad and who are now grown up, to return to Taiwan to look for their biological parents. Maintaining diversity of services can promote positive competition between agencies.
Adoption agencies can legally charge fees for their services, but some tend to focus on “quick deals,” regarding adoption as merely a major revenue earner. This is really inappropriate. Helping children to find a suitable family should be their main focus. If adoption agencies consider their economic interests above the rights of the child, are they in fact any different from child traffickers? The interests of the child must always be the key consideration for agencies dealing with adoption.
Q: In recent years, some 250 to 450 Taiwan children have been adopted abroad each year. Why can’t Taiwan keep these children at home?
A: There haven’t been many Taiwanese organizations running domestic adoption services, and generally there has been little attempt to get rid of bias against the idea of adoption. The CWLF has tried to develop the service domestically, but we’ve found that changing people’s attitudes is a very slow process. For a long time, most Taiwanese regarded adoption as a means of meeting the needs of adults, rather than protecting the child. From this point of view, it’s very easy to set conditions for selecting children: age limits (over three is too old), gender, good health, and family background. I’m afraid we haven’t shown much tolerance.
Children who have been adopted by foreigners are in fact the victims of these selection criteria. The color of a child’s skin is also a concern for many—Aboriginal children or children of immigrants from Southeast Asia tend to have darker skin and look quite different from the majority of ethnic Han Taiwanese—so it’s very hard to find local families who are willing to adopt them. Offering them for adoption overseas is often the only option.
And because of the tendency toward smaller families, not many are willing to adopt siblings. This is particularly true if the children are a little older, when their chance of being adopted is sharply reduced. For all these reasons, children must be offered for adoption abroad.
The 2011 amendment to the CYWA makes domestic adoption a priority. We expect the number of foreign adoptions to gradually fall as the new policy is put into effect. For agencies that are currently looking for families to adopt healthy babies, we should encourage domestic adoption.
Any considerations we make must respect the child’s best interests, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. At present, Taiwan’s adoption system is still unable to cope with disabled or older children, so if we keep these children in Taiwan without providing an appropriate environment for them, we will not be meeting their best interests.
A family environment best meets children’s interests. Orphanages are unsuitable places for children to grow up, mainly because of the shortage of carers. Only those who for some reason cannot stay with their biological parents, cannot be placed with foster families, and cannot find an adoptive family either domestically or overseas, are appropriate for long-term placement in an institution. It’s a last resort. We shouldn’t assess overseas adoption simply from the point of view of the nation’s reputation. While I agree that Taiwan should have more adoption agencies to provide quality services, foreign adoption should be maintained as a second-best choice at least until the capacity of domestic services can be improved.
Q: Are people in Taiwan changing their attitudes toward adoption?
A: Recently the CWLF has made a film, Hi! Baby, recording the stories of adoptive families both domestically and overseas, and has set November, 2011 as Taiwan’s first “Adoption Month.” We hope to promote the concept that an adopted child is just as much part of a family as any other: “with love, we are a family.” Adoptive families deserve our respect.
In the early days, adoptive families were often afraid that their adopted children would learn their origins, so they wouldn’t allow their children to see the household registry. In some extreme cases, parents would ask their local obstetrician to sign a birth certificate to show that they were the biological parents, thereby avoiding adoption registration procedures and covering up the child’s true identity.
People’s attitudes toward adoption have improved slightly in recent years, and an increasing number of adoptive families are willing to come out of the closet.
The view of other people towards adoptive families is changing very slowly. Adoptive parents often suffer from the gossip of neighbors, friends and relatives: “Ooh, I wonder where the baby came from? She wasn’t pregnant, so how did she get a baby?”
Taiwan people need to come to terms with the idea that every time adoption is mentioned, they should express their blessing and encouragement: “How wonderful. The child is not their natural offspring, but they are a family.”
Q: What legislation will you push for if you gain a seat in the Legislative Yuan?
A: I’ve been thinking about the feasibility of an adoption subsidy. If I’m fortunate enough to become a legislator, the first thing I’ll do is to listen to opinions from different quarters. Adoption isn’t just a family matter. Adoptive families are in fact helping to solve a serious social issue. The time involved and the economic burden are indeed great, especially to look after a sick child who may need regular medical treatment. If Taiwan wants to promote domestic adoption, adoptive families must be given sufficient support.
And the child abuse issue isn’t improving, with more than 18,000 cases in 2010, and over 10,000 in just the first six months of 2011—probably well over 20,000 cases by the end of the year.
The current CYWA has increased penalties for anyone causing serious harm to children by 50%. But are our courts applying appropriately severe punishment in their judgments?
In one case, a father allegedly killed his two children. The two judges’ opinions were completely different: one advocated a heavy sentence, but the other gave more consideration to the father’s circumstances and thus recommended a lighter sentence. I believe if someone has killed two children and is only sentenced to three or four years, there is really something wrong with the system. One wonders what standards the judges follow. Are they providing real justice to children who have been harmed?
Child protection is a responsibility belonging not just to the Ministry of the Interior—health and social affairs departments should also be accountable. Families who don’t vaccinate their children or fail to register their newly born children on time should be investigated by household registration officers. The police should take action to protect children in families where the parents have been convicted of drug abuse or other crimes.
The latest amendment to the CYWA increases the number of situations when those in close contact with families have a legal responsibility to inform authorities of an issue. This would include doctors, teachers, social workers, nannies, policemen, and village officials. But even that may not be enough. Perhaps even people like security staff in urban apartment complexes should be given more responsibility by law to protect children and youth? This issue needs constant attention. Further amendments should not be ruled out.