Australian families caught up in India adoption scandal

Date: 2009-02-22

It is a confronting thought for any unsuspecting family that their adopted child may have been trafficked.

But the truth is hundreds of Indian children have been stolen and sold for adoption, and some have found new homes in Australia.

It is impossible to get an accurate picture of the true extent of child trafficking in India, but one thing is clear - it has been going on for years.

In Indian terms, there is big money to be made and the temptations are everywhere.

In the late 1990s the child traders were brazenly kidnapping babies and young children from these streets.

One lawyer claims that out of the 400 or so Indian children who found new homes in Australia in the past 15 years, at least 30 were stolen from their birth families.

The issue is complicated further by the fact it is remarkably easy for anyone posing as a parent to "surrender" a child to an orphanage - presumably for an under-the-counter fee.

The big flaw in the system is that the orphanages oversee the surrender of children without any adequate checks by government, an open door for the traffickers.

The orphanages can then make thousands of dollars in fees for every child that is sent overseas.

Sold by their drunken dad

For 10 years, in a small Indian village north of Chennai, Sunama lived with an agonising loss; Missing from her home are her two eldest children.

In 1996 they were taken away and sold by their drunken father for the equivalent of $50. The children, aged two and three, were traded by child traffickers.

The loss was unbearable for Sunama, who did not even know if her children were dead or alive.

But Akil and Sabila were happy and healthy on the other side of the world, in the suburbs of Canberra.

Akil, now 15, and his 14-year-old sister had become part of the Rollings family of eight children, including six adoptees.

Julia and Barry Rollings had always believed that Akil and Sabila had been given up by their sick parents.

But soon the Rollings began reading reports that the MASOS orphanage, where they adopted the pair, had been caught up in a kidnapping scandal.

They started to doubt the story they had been told about Akil and Sabila's origins.

"That really was the hardest part trying to decide whether we should look or whether we should just leave things as they were," Ms Rollings said.

"It was the realisation on the crux of that decision, that if we set forward, if we walked through this door, that's it ... There's no turning back. That we are then duty bound to follow through to the end.

"That unknown was pretty damn scary."

The Rollings felt they owed it to their children to search for their biological mother, despite the dangers.

"My overriding fear was that we might lose the children, that there may be some legal avenue that we could end up in a situation that whatever our motives for searching might be, that we might find another family that were demanding the return of their children," Ms Rollings said.

They managed to track down Sumana and ABC1's Foreign Correspondent accompanied the families on their emotional journey.

Stolen in the street

Thirteen-year-old Jabeen was also kidnapped in India, but family reunifications have not worked out like in the Rollings case.

It was late in 1998 and Jabeen had only been out of her mother Fatima's sight for a moment, as she walked along the street.

The traffickers were looking for good-looking children they thought would be attractive for adoption.

She was snatched from the street by a woman travelling in an auto rickshaw and the traffickers changed the child's name. They claimed she had been surrendered by her mother.

Jabeen was adopted by an unsuspecting Australian couple who are now aware of the truth, but have chosen to maintain their privacy and the case is now before the courts.

Geetha Devarajan, the lawyer for Jabeen's biological parents Fathima and Salya, claims Jabeen was sold by traffickers to an orphanage called MSS.

She says corrupt orphanage officials forged the relinquishment papers.

"Children are so vulnerable in that situation, especially poor children who come from a difficult background," Ms Devarajan said.

"This will not happen to any upper class, any well-to-do family. It only happens with poor families.

"The easy target is children who are on the street playing or sleeping and where the parents are working or the parents don't have a proper residence where they can protect the children from these kinds of vultures.

"They just take the child and disappear and once these children get into these orphanages it's a big screen where nobody can penetrate."

The MSS organisation has now been banned from adopting children, but it still canvasses charity support from Australia.

ABC reporter Sally Sara visited Jabeen's orphanage and confronted the director, who is now facing charges.

Reporting on the scandal from Chennai, Sara also found there are many Indian families who would love to adopt a child, but the laws around domestic adoption are so Draconian that most give up and foster kids instead.


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