Time: Stolen Children
By Rory Callinan/Chennai
YEARS OF HEARTBREAK: Zabeen's birth mother Fatima at a local tea shop; her daughter was taken as she played outside
Fatima thinks it was her daughter Zabeen's beautiful smile that attracted the child stealer. Playing outside the tea shop near their home in the north Chennai suburb of Washermanpet, with only her four-year-old brother watching, the bright two-year-old was an easy target. While Fatima popped around the corner to the market, Zabeen was bundled into a motorized rickshaw and vanished into the mass of humanity that swirls through the city's squalid alleyways and slums.
"I thought someone had taken her for her kidney," says the weeping mother, clutching a photocopy of her daughter's picture that she keeps in a special place in her tiny two-room flat. "Many, many places I looked. My husband traveled everywhere looking. I was all the time crying for my daughter." Her husband says: "My wife was half mad with grief."
Fatima hoped she might one day be reunited with her daughter, but as time passed she lost hope. "I gave her up to Allah," she says. It would be seven years before she learned the truth. Zabeen had been snatched by a gang of criminals who hunted pretty children in the poorest parts of southern India and spirited them away, giving them new identities before dispatching them to adoptive parents in the West. Stolen from a mother's arms while they slept on the pavement, kidnapped as they played, or taken from gullible parents who thought they were being sent to boarding school, the children were processed through an adoption agency and orphanage known as Malaysian Social Services, at Tiruverkadu in Chennai's northwest.
Indian police say MSS staff renamed the children and fabricated histories for them, complete with photos of fake mothers supposedly offering them for adoption. False signatures were appended to documents giving vague reasons like "the social stigma of the child being born outside marriage" to justify the infant's surrender. Children were then shipped to wealthy countries, including Australia.
Police say Zabeen was given a new name and biography and, together with a purported sibling, adopted to an Australian couple through the Queensland Department of Families, Youth and Community Care. The sibling is also listed as stolen, from a different family. Queensland's Child Safety Minister Margaret Keech says the allegations are "very concerning," and promises that Adoption Services Queensland "will work very closely with federal and state agencies to investigate these claims." MSS documents sighted by TIME reveal that Zabeen was one of 13 children sent to Australia by the agency; it may also have passed stolen children to other Indian agencies that handled adoptions to Australia and are themselves implicated in trafficking cases.
A TIME investigation of Zabeen's case and other Indian adoptions reveals alarming procedural flaws. While Australian authorities often took months to vet prospective adoptive parents, monitoring everything from their weight to their fertility, they continued to deal with dubious Indian agencies that had repeatedly been associated with illegal practices, including child stealing. In the Netherlands, which received about 50 MSS children, the government has implemented three inquiries into the adoptions and tightened procedures as a result.
India-based human-rights lawyer D. Geetha represents parents whose children were adopted overseas by MSS and other agencies. She estimates that at least 30 of the nearly 400 Indian children brought into Australia in the last 10 to 15 years were trafficked. "The Australian government needs to appoint some kind of investigation about all the children who came through this agency; look at their background, look into their documents," she says. "These children are going to want to find their parents. The communication is being lost."
For ill-resourced Indian police dealing daily with rapes and murders, missing-child reports are a low priority. Zabeen's and other cases were uncovered by chance in 2005, after two men became involved in an argument in a Chennai slum bar and loud accusations of child stealing reached the ears of police. The men, Sheikh Dawood and Manoharan, and two women, Sabeera and Nawjeen, were arrested.
According to court documents, the group confessed to being part of a gang that stole children and sold them to MSS for 10,000 rupees ($280) each. Manoharan was a former employee of MSS, and eventually the agency's owners, P. V. Ravindranath and his wife Vatsala, were arrested. Officers raided the premises and found the files of 120 children who had been sent overseas for adoption, including at least 13 dispatched to Australia. The pictures were then compared with those on missing-children reports in local police stations.
One file held pictures of a girl who had been sent to Australia in 2000. One of the gang confessed to stealing the child from Washermanpet, and the photo was matched to the missing Zabeen. Her parents had left the city to escape the bad memories, but in mid-2005 the police found them. "They said, We think we have found your daughter," says Fatima. "I was so happy. We both went to the police station and it was midnight when we got there. They took us into separate rooms and showed us photos from the MSS books. Separately we both picked out Zabeen."
The investigation was widely publicized. More than 30 parents visited the police station seeking information about missing children, but overworked police restricted their investigation to five obvious cases. They soon encountered problems as they sought DNA samples from children thousands of miles away in different jurisdictions. Eventually, a writ of habeas corpus filed by human-rights lawyers brought action from the High Court in Chennai, which ordered the country's Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI) to take up the case.
Three weeks ago the CBI, which investigates corruption and terrorism, sent an Interpol request to Australia to interview the Queensland authorities and the couple who adopted Zabeen. CBI sources tell TIME the investigation in Australia will also attempt to discover how much money was paid to MSS: kidnapping a minor is seen as a far more serious crime when the perpetrators profit from it. The CBI believes Australian parents were tricked by MSS and will face no charges over their adoptions, but insists that the biological parents should be allowed to see their children again in India. "When she knows that she has her parents here, I'm sure that she will come looking for us," says Fatima. "I am yearning. I must embrace her."
Zabeen's adoptive parents are horrified by the revelations. "There isn't sufficient information available, and nobody capable of giving us the advice we need to sort it out," they say. A spokesman for Australian Attorney-General Robert McClelland says the allegations "show why there cannot be any relaxation of standards when it comes to verifying the identity of children adopted under the inter-country program." While he says the government "is endeavoring to improve Australia-wide practice in respect to overseas adoption," Zabeen's parents would like to see firm control taken, with foreign adoptions handled by federal rather than state agencies. "It has been extremely nerve-wracking," they told TIME last week. "So far we have managed to keep this all away from the children. We won't allow pictures of them on websites. We are always wary of strangers and concerned about suspicious-looking cars. It's a constant, nagging worry, and you feel so helpless."
TIME has learned that Australian authorities had plenty of warning that MSS was a suspect agency and could have ended adoptions from it well before Zabeen's was processed. Five years earlier, a Western Australian family had their MSS adoption of a five-year-old girl canceled after an Indian court found the orphanage was lying when it said she had been abandoned. In reality, she'd been claimed by her uncle. Orphanage director Ravindranath told authorities the child was hallucinating when she insisted she had a family.
Documents obtained by TIME show that the Department of Community Development in W.A. was so concerned about the case that it sought a report on it in the mid-1990s. TIME has also been told that after the traumatic experience nobody in the state, including the government adoption unit, would deal with MSS. W.A. Child Protection director general Terry Murphy says he is unable to comment on the case until archived files are recovered, but notes: "We are aware that MSS are not currently licensed by the Central Authority in India to undertake inter-country adoptions." Elsewhere in Australia, it was a different story. MSS admission papers reveal that after the W.A. case, children were adopted to Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland. Some of the documents bear the same suspiciously vague details of mother and address as Zabeen's MSS papers do.
Authorities had another warning in 1999, when MSS' licence was suspended after one of its staff was arrested for handling four babies stolen from a hospital. He passed the children to another adoption agency, Madras Social Service Guild, known as MASOS, which has also sent children to Australia. Charges against the agencies were dropped, since it could not be proved they knew the children were stolen; both had their licenses restored.
In 2001, India's Central Adoption Resource Agency, which is responsible for clearing children for inter-country adoption, inspected MSS' home. It found there was no midwife or nurse present and that medical files were not properly kept. MSS had made little effort to place children with parents in India — something they were obliged to do before offering them for adoption overseas. And in most cases the surrender forms were signed by the same two witnesses. The inspectors also found that MSS was double-dipping on government funding, taking money from two sources for the same group of children. Key documents on child admissions were missing. Children listed at one unit did not exist, while children in other units had no records. Many children were neglected, undernourished and had diarrhea.
MSS director Ravindranath died in 2006, but his wife Vatsala, who was the organization's president, last week denied all charges, saying MSS had no idea the children were stolen. "I'm not handling the surrender. I don't remember it," says the grandmother, who must report daily to police in Chennai as part of her bail conditions. "I trusted [my staff] because I asked them, If there is anything, please tell me. They are promising on the heads of their children."
At least two parent support groups in Australia are still collecting money for MSS. As recently as last week, Adoption Support for Families and Children in W.A. was seeking donations on its website to help MSS with sponsorships and to fund its medical clinic. Mrs. Ravindranath says MSS has no medical clinic. Documents seen by TIME indicate that ASFC last year paid nearly $7,000 to MSS. The group launched an investigation into the issue this week after being contacted by TIME; president Khris Ryan-Wilson says it has been donating sponsorships, but there has been no suggestion they were not above board: "ASFC has had no reason to doubt that those funds do reach and benefit the children for whom they are intended."
MSS says it received about $3,420 last year from Victoria's Australian Support for Intercountry Aid (Children). President Glenys Chandler says she liaised closely with a number of families who adopted from MSS, and dealt with the agency herself, but was unaware of any problems. The Victorian Human Services Department is aware of two adoptions through MSS, but a spokesman says it had received "no approaches about the adoptions from India." One of the adopting families has told TIME that their two children were personally delivered to Australia by Dinesh Ravindranath, son of MSS's principals. "We would definitely like to find out what has happened," says the mother. "You are telling us more than we have ever been told." MSS records indicate the children were transferred from the Crying Children's Adoption Agency; it claims their mother surrendered the pair because they were born out of wedlock, although the children were born a year apart.
"Each department needs to contact those families," says ASIAC's Chandler. "If the children get wind that their placement may be in jeopardy it would be very concerning." She says inter-country adoption is "a very splendid thing, and when it runs off the rails it's extremely sad." MSS says it received funds from both agencies, but that the money was destined for children not connected to the adoption agency, to help with their schooling. ASIAC says it is sure its money is being used for that purpose.
Indian human-rights organizations are now studying donations made to the suspect agencies. "Payment sustains the whole trafficking network," says Sujatha Mody, a lawyer who runs the Malarchi Women's Resource Centre. "Some people say, Why are they bothered about one child? But [payment for] one child sustains the whole philosophy of making children a commodity."
For the unsuspecting Australian parents, the potential custody cases are a nightmare in waiting. But former Family Court Judge John Fogarty, who compiled a Victorian government report on inter-country adoptions, says the chances of the biological parents reclaiming their children are remote. "I wouldn't like to be acting for the Indian parents," he says. "You might get pro-bono lawyers, but the bottom line would be the best interests of the child, and that may be a one-way street. If you compared the position of the child in Australia returning to poverty in India, you would have to be a pretty dramatic judge to send a child back to the slums."
Fatima knows the chances of her daughter returning to Chennai are slim, but she still dreams. "If she wants to come back we will embrace her," she says. "But if it is her desire to stay where she now is, we will only wish her well."