The Manila North Cemetery, where Michelle Sambalilo was abandoned as a young child, is a sprawling, trash-strewn squatter camp where thousands of people eat, sleep and play among acres of colorful crypts.
Rescued from life among the dead, Sambalilo then lived for years among the Philippine capital’s notoriously negligent state-run shelters.
Throughout, she dreamed of someday belonging to a family of her own. But in the end, all it took was one document — one blow from the country’s adoption authorities — to send her dreams crashing down to earth.
The Philippines has an abandoned children problem. About 1.8 million children in the country, more than 1% of its entire population, are “abandoned or neglected,” according to the United Nations’ Children’s Rights & Emergency Relief Organization. Some are victims of extreme poverty; others of natural disasters and armed conflicts in the country’s riven south.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development is responsible for ensuring that many of these children find homes. (Some end up overseas — American families adopted 1,350 Filipino children between 2009 and 2015, according to the U.S. State Department).
Yet the country’s adoption bureaucracy is so forbidding that scores of aspiring adoptive parents are left in the cold, and abandoned children left to grow up without parents.
In 2014, a privately funded child care agency prepared to place Sambalilo with an American adoptive family. Then the country’s Department of Social Welfare and Development determined that she was 15 years old, two years older than previously assumed — and too old to be adopted. It denied her application.
“My dream was to be adopted, so that someone will love me,” Sambalilo said on a sweltering morning in early May, staring down at her polka-dotted pajama bottoms and anxiously grasping her hands. She is now a slight 18-year-old with full cheeks and a shy smile. “When I found out I was too old to be adopted, I was really sad, because I really wanted to have a family.”
Then she looked off to the side, wiped away her tears, and said nothing.
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