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Lost and Found: Adoption in India

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In March 2007 I was in Northeastern India, on my third trip to the country and in the midst of writing my book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India. I had first come to India two years prior to volunteer in an orphanage; the beautiful, parentless children had touched my life so profoundly that I had been inspired to write a book about their lives. Some of them had been orphaned by death, but far more had been orphaned simply by poverty: their parents were too poor to feed them. In a way this seemed a greater tragedy, and I set about trying to discover why more of these children weren’t adopted.

It turned out to be an extremely complicated subject in India. Many of the children are never eligible for adoption, because they have not been truly orphaned or the requisite relinquishment forms have not been signed. Although there is a four-year waiting list for domestic adoption in both Delhi and Calcutta, the laws and regulations are exceedingly burdensome and not easily navigable, even for government and social workers. And the biggest hurdle of all seems to be corruption; it is rampant in this country, particularly when it comes to international adoption. In my research and interviewing process for the book, I heard story after story about children who weren't really available for adoption, being taken from their parents and sold to wealthy, unsuspecting foreigners; children whose adoption papers were forged; orphanages where the children available for adoption were fed and healthy, while those unavailable were malnourished and abused.

On this particular day in March 2007, I was on the front porch of the Miracle Foundation orphanage cradling eight-month-old Luane, who was fast asleep and drooling on my arm. I looked down at her sweet, innocent face as I contemplated the unfair difficulties that prevented a child such as Luane from having a true home and parents. As I sat there rocking, orphanage director Dr. Manjeet Pardesi walked out to join me. I had been reminding him all week that I wanted to ask him more in-depth questions about his work and adoption in India.

Manjeet sat down next to me, gazing at the sleeping child on my lap. The turban he wore that day was bright red, and sweat stained his beige polo-style shirt. He looked tired.

“Next year, these babies will be gone,” he said. “They will be adopted domestically, by Indian families. But there will be fifty more.”

“The adoption program is going well, then?”

“We are not doing adoptions at the moment,” Manjeet replied, to my surprise. I had not known this, and asked what happened. “The government revoked all adoption agency licenses a couple of months ago, and we had to reapply.”

“Why did they do that?”

“It was due to some problem adoptions, and so they stopped all of them. Adoption is a very sensitive and controversial issue. Protecting children from exploitation is paramount. There are many unethical and abusive organizations involved in the ‘business’ of adoption.” He went on to explain that Pumi, his wife, had recently gone to Cuttack to meet with Orissa state ministers for the new license. “We foresee being able to resume adoptions by October,” Manjeet said.

In Andhra Pradesh to the south, just days before I had arrived at Manjeet’s, I had read two different newspaper articles about people trying to sell babies right on the street. The Calcutta Telegraph ran the story of a woman who had her three-day-old daughter up for sale at a bus station. She was asking for bus fare in exchange for her daughter – seventy rupees, less than two U.S. dollars – who lay on a cloth at her feet. Her husband had left her after the baby’s sex had been determined by a prenatal test; it was their sixth girl, and the woman told police that she wanted to give away her other five daughters as well.

The newspaper article described a similar, but widespread, scheme in the woman’s tribal hamlet a decade before, which had involved the illegal adoptions of hundreds of female children. According to tribal welfare minister Redya Nayak, the village was known to “get rid of the babies in various ways,” either through selling them or, if that was unsuccessful, simply starving them.

The second story also involved a woman from a village in the same area who had seven daughters and, like the first woman, wanted to sell her newborn girl. Both of these infants were taken to Sishu Vihar, a home run by the Women and Child Welfare Department. Unfortunately, many children who ended up in institutional care would still fall victim to unethical adoptions because of the large number of fraudulent orphanage and adoption organizations, and the lack of adequate regulations and government oversight. Both accredited and unauthorized placement agencies have been raided and accused of commercializing adoption.

Using scouts or brokers to identify children in these tribal hamlets, they prey on destitute and illiterate parents and falsify records in order to adopt the children out, making big profits. The well-respected magazine India Today ran an expose of this practice in 2001, illuminating hundreds of children who had been “rescued from institutions with a question mark, up in the shop window, their souls commodified, a profit margin marked against their existence.”

In other cases, children were not bought from their parents but simply kidnapped. In May 2007 a four-year-old boy, Mohit, who had been reported missing, was taken from a Delhi railway station to Delhi Council for Child Welfare. Unlike the image its name implies, the enterprise is actually a private adoption agency better known as Palna. When Mohit’s frantic parents finally located him, officials at Palna were uncooperative and refused to let them take the boy home. The couple had to enlist the help of the local Child Welfare Committee. The government has established such committees around the country and vested them with judicial powers. Finally, on these legal orders, the parents were reunited with their son.

The Indian Department of Social Welfare (DSW) reported that such agencies “are getting children through legal or illegal means and are selling them in the market. The foreigners give higher prices therefore they prefer to sell them to the foreigners.” Despite a long waiting list of hopeful adoptive parents, adoption agencies ignore poor prospective parents in favor of wealthy Indians and foreign nationals. A senior DSW official said that if Mohit’s parents had not been so persistent and sought legal government help, their son would likely have languished at Palna for months while the agency secured an illegal relinquishment and then given the child to complete strangers – for a large profit, of course.

I had been told by non-profit organizations that some sort of fraud was present in sixty to seventy percent of orphanages and adoption agencies. I asked Manjeet if he agreed with that figure.

“Yes, yes, it is what we see. There is much corruption in India.” He held up a hand with three fingers outstretched. “There are three main areas of corruption: siphoning off government money; bribes to officials – usually a ten percent kickback; and misappropriation.” He ticked each of these off as he spoke. I knew that as a former government auditor, Manjeet was an expert on this subject. 

“The money is not being used for the stated purposes. Donors have no recourse but to stop their donations. There is no transparency, and auditing is very weak. There are some very good government leaders, but the problem is so huge, so imbedded…” He trailed off and sighed heavily. “It’s hard to make change happen.”

In spite of Manjeet’s discouragement that day, he has gone on to pursue legal, safe domestic adoptions for children as well as many other programs at his home – including reaching out to area villagers with initiatives for food, education, and medical care that helps them keep their children in the first place.

If you are interested in finding out more about adoption within or outside of India, here are some reputable resources to further explore this topic. And, I’m happy to report, each month it seems that things are getting easier, more reliable, and safer for children in India.

• World Association of Children and Parents
• iChild (Contact: Beth Peterson)
• Central Adoption Resource Agency
• SOS Children’s Villages Stand on Adoption

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About Shelley Seale