Adoption By Law
99 per cent of adoptions in India aresaid to be done informally and illegally. Officially...
- 3,853 Children in recognised adoption agencies
- 1,565 Children certified for adoption
- 2,131 Parents waiting for inspection or home study
- 5,064 Parents who have uploaded all documents
- 9,093 Parents waiting to adopt a child
Source: Central Adoption Resource Authority
American couple Ira (42) and Michelle (39) Johnson have been waiting to adopt an Indian child for over six-and-a-half years. After four years of waiting and changes in rules, they were finally matched up with Meera, who was seven then. Today, she’s nine. Not only has the couple not been able to take Meera home yet, they have helplessly watched as Meera was shifted out of the agency to the state government-run institution for orphaned children in Lucknow, after the adoption agency was shut down following a legal suit.
Their experience is not unique. Most couples waiting to adopt babies complain of red tape and harassment. The government, though, claims to have computerised the process (see interview with Union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi) and done away with human intervention. The fresh guidelines notified in August 2015 have triggered a minor controversy with one of the better organised chains of adoption homes—run by the Missionaries of Charity—opting to stop facilitating them. With fewer than 4,000 children in the country in legally recognised adoption homes, the withdrawal of the nuns has added to the confusion and crisis.
Ira and Michelle claim to have visited India 22 times since 2008. The process, comprising cumbersome paperwork, seeking legal help and studying Indian adoption rules, keeping up with the changes etc, has so far cost them several thousand US dollars, they say. They also worry about the child’s care because Meera is what the state calls a ‘special needs child’. She has only one eye.
Some 13 years ago, the couple had spent a year in Mussoorie where Ira had been posted as an engineer by the NGO he worked for. “That is when we fell in love with your country and its people,” Ira wrote in an e-mail interview. “That is also when we decided to pursue the adoption of an Indian girl.” The Johnsons’ story, shared over six months through e-mails, is one that other adoptive parents (even Indians often have to wait for 2-3 years) can fully relate to.
“Back in 2002, we decided that we’d first have biological children and then pursue children through adoption from India. We wanted to adopt a daughter from India, rather than the US, because we were moved by the plight of girls who are abandoned simply because of their gender,” says Michelle. The couple had their first son in 2003 and their second in 2006. “We began the process of adopting a baby girl in 2008 when the boys were 2 and 5. Now they are 8 and 11 and we still haven’t got our daughter home.”
The few ‘successful’ parents who agreed to speak to Outlook say they were “lucky to get their child in a few months”, and that they were familiar with “the horror stories even before they got into the process”.
There is a long waiting list of 9,000-odd prospective parents registered with the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA)—the nodal agency overseeing adoptions in India. But there are fewer than 3,900 children available for adoption in the 411 registered adoption agencies (excluding MoC) across the nation.
It’s a little hazy where the rest of the 20 million orphans in the country are. “Many agencies are not registered. Over 50 per cent of the orphanages in the country are not recognised either as adoption agencies,” admits a senior CARA official. “Like in Tamil Nadu, there are 11,000 orphanages, but only six of them are recognised,” he adds.
Most illegal adoptions take place in hospitals where children delivered by unwed mothers are sold to willing parents. “Even in institutions like AIIMS and Safdarjung, doctors are involved in this trade for huge sums of money,” alleges the head of a Delhi-based adoption agency who has been involved in the process for over 30 years. “We are informed by trusted hospital staff about such children, but even before we reach AIIMS the children disappear.”
“The law has been inexplicably complicated over the years and the state and central adoption agencies have continued to be apathetic. So much so that even Indians abroad are looking to adopt Korean and Chinese babies,” says Maneka Gandhi. “The new guidelines, enforced from August this year, will ensure that parents are not harassed, corruption is reduced and that cases move rapidly.”
Earlier, state adoption agencies and orphanages were solely responsible for all domestic adoptions. Ministry and CARA officials say agencies would show children only to parents who paid large sums, while others were kept waiting for years. “There was also no paperwork being maintained. Now an online registry with a list of all adoptable children in the country will streamline the process and make it transparent,” claims a CARA official. This would require that parents approach the agency through CARA and the agency has no way of choosing parents at will. Earlier, the process of online registry was restricted to foreigners adopting Indian children, while agencies interacted directly with Indian parents. Now the latter too have to register.
When they began the process in 2008, the Johnsons’ agency in the US worked almost exclusively with the one in Varanasi and the process was, they say, “relatively predictable”. “After a change in the law in 2011, everything came to a screeching halt,” writes Ira. “We were required to register on an online database called CARINGS and wait for someone to match us with a child. From that point in May of 2011, it took almost two years for CARA to process our family into their system.”
Michelle has written long e-mails explaining the arduous effort that it took to get adjusted to the new system, the amount of time spent waiting for a single response to e-mails sent to CARA and the several times she was asked to re-send documents she had spent days collecting and filing. “We went from a fairly smooth and easy-to-understand system and timeline (where we were No. 2 in line for a referral of a child) to being dumped into a giant mess at CARA that took over two years to fix,” she writes.
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The new rules
In one e-mail, she mentions that the worst thing about not having Meera home with them was that while she was missing an eye, medical and therapeutic interventions could have started early so that the skull shape remained unaffected. Now Meera is too old for that kind of surgical intervention. She also shares the numerous failed attempts by her US agency to get information from the orphanage about Meera. “I finally had a friend translate a letter into Hindi and sent it directly to the orphanage (knowing I was not allowed direct contact). Even then, all I received was a basic update that yes, she is still alive, and she eats biscuits and drinks milk. And they attached a blurry picture,” recounts Michelle. “Just imagine if you had a child who lived half a world away and you received no information for years about her or about when she can come home...it’s torture.”
Many of the adoption agencies across the country are agitated by the new guidelines. Earlier, only international adoptions were directly under the control of CARA. “Under the new guidelines, our role is equivalent to that of an ayah or nanny. We take care of the child and deliver them to their adoptive parents. It’s like we are clearing agents expected to conduct home studies of parents sent to us from CARA,” says the director of a renowned orphanage and registered adoption agency under the Delhi government. “The ministry and CARA are like tyrants...none of our queries and concerns are addressed.”
The agencies argue that they earlier developed strong relationships with registered parents, many of whom had been waiting for years. Now, parents from an entirely new seniority list are being referred to them from CARA. “Today, we just conduct mechanical home studies of families and give them the child. And to think we have taken care of that child for months, sometimes years,” complains an orphanage social worker.
CARA officials, on their part, refute the claim. “Agencies can even now deny the child to any parent who they believe is unfit to adopt based on any circumstance that arises during the home checks,” says a senior official. “They only have to give a description reasoning why they are rejecting the couple. The next parent in the online waiting list will then be considered. The only difference under the new guidelines is that agencies will no longer be able to select the parents as per their choice.”
Agencies also complain about the lack of transparency in CARA. While the central agency has been blaming them for corrupt practices, adoption agencies say in the past two months there have been several cases of couples with bureaucratic connections approaching them and insisting they conduct immediate home studies. There have even been cases, they allege, of prospects receiving a baby within three days.
Agencies also claim they are finding it financially unviable to pursue adoption services under the new guidelines. While they earlier survived on donations given by the parents and other individuals, they are now mandated not to accept ‘donations’. “The fees charged to the parents has been limited to Rs 40,000. This is barely sufficient to pay the lawyers and salary to our staff. We spend up to Rs 350 on a child per day and most children are in the home for at least 10 months. At this rate, we’ll be forced to shut down due to lack of funds. We wrote to the ministry but it has had no effect,” says a staff member of the Welfare Home for Children in Delhi. The orphanage is now functioning with external funding.
The most time-consuming steps in the process are getting clearances from the state child welfare committees (CWC), waiting for the home study report of the prospective parent and getting the final court order. Currently, 1,074 children of the 3,853 children in adoption agencies have been waiting for over four months for CWC clearance. As many as 700 children are awaiting the court order, which will allow them to be taken. “We have now written letters to all chief justices, across states, to ensure that they pass orders with utmost urgency keeping in mind the child in institutional care and the desperate parent,” says Maneka Gandhi.
The Johnsons had written directly to the Union minister in April, after dealing with inaction for over two years, asking to be ‘unmatched’ from the CARA website. (Their case was referred to Outlook by the minister during an interaction in April. She had just then tabled the new guidelines, drafted to rectify such persistent delays, in Parliament.)
But six months have passed since the minister personally forwarded the case to CARA for immediate action. Yet the couple is still awaiting their court order. Of the six hearings scheduled since August to hear their case, three never took place. On the last date, October 13, the judge did not turn up. They continue to hope against hope that they will be able to take Meera home soon.
(Names of the couple and child have been changed to protect their identity.)
By Pavithra S. Rangan in New Delhi