The pains and pleasures

Date: 1999-04-24
Source: Frontline
A look at changing trends on the adoption scene.

by DIVYA RAMAMURTHI

JUST a few months before the furore over the alleged adoption rackets broke out in Hyderabad, a brief classified advertisement appeared in a leading Chennai-based newspaper. It said: "Brahmin baby available for adoption. Contact (telephone number) after 10.00 a.m." A prospective adoptive parent contacted the telephone number in Chennai and a woman at the other end offered to hand over the baby for a consideration of Rs.75,000. The police, who were informed, raided the woman's house and found evidence of collusion between her and a nurse in a city hospital. A letter allegedly written by the nurse asked the woman to find adoptive parents for the child soon. "There is great demand for the baby because it is a boy born to a Brahmin," she wrote.

The Hyderabad and Chennai instances point to the commercialisation that has crept into the adoption process. These also raise questions on the relinquishment process by biological parents. The decision, it would seem, is increasingly influenced by offers of money.

The number of children adopted in India is still quite small, compared to the number, particularly of girls, abandoned at birth or soon afterwards by parents. While the number of children adopted by Indian parents is only about 1,700 a year, thousands are in orphanages if not on the streets. India has 11 million street children, one-third of them in the 6-10 age group.

Despite the evolution of a more congenial atmosphere for adoption in recent years, commercialisation of the adoption process, government procedures and inherent biases in the law are stumbling blocks to wider social acceptance of the practice.

Social workers say that the social stigma attached to adoption is less prevalent now. Couples are now more open about adoptions. The increase in the number of adoptions has been gradual - not dramatic or sharp as some agencies would like people to believe.

Figures obtained from the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA), the regulatory body under the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, reveal that the number of in-country adoptions increased from 1,409 in 1994 to 1,746 in 1998. Inter-country adoptions increased from 1,128 to 1,406 during the period.

In 1996, one-third of all in-country adoptions took place in Maharashtra. One-third of all inter-country adoptions were through agencies based in West Bengal. Half of all the adoptions - in-country as well as inter-country - were made through agencies in Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta.

One of the factors that has impeded the growth of adoptions is the commercialisation of the process. The financial terms stipulated by some adoption agencies - up to Rs.40,000 for a child in some cases - have meant that adoption remains outside the reach of lower middle class couples. The absence of secular national legislation on adoption has also deterred minority communities from adopting children. The present laws do not allow couples from the minority communities to become full-fledged 'parents' but only 'guardians'. Guardianship means that the adopted children will not enjoy inheritance rights, unlike children adopted by parents who are Hindus.

At Karna Prayag, an adoption centre in Chennai.

Adoption is no longer a secretive process; it is now open and transparent. A social worker at Bala Mandir, a Chennai-based charitable trust dealing in adoptions, says that 15 years ago people would quietly slip into the institution and speak in hushed tones about their mission. Adoption agencies say that couples who face the problem of infertility are now more willing to adopt. Andal Damodaran, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW), says that growing awareness about adoption has contributed to the higher numbers in recent years. "Earlier," she says, "people were more rigid about the caste of the child, for instance. Now they believe that a child is a child."

As a result, in-family adoptions have increasingly given way to adoptions from recognised institutions. Andal Damodaran thinks that this trend has been influenced by the "two-child norm" which means that fewer children within the family are available for adoption. Earlier, couples adopted children so that they would have someone to take care of them in old age and also to perform their last rites. Social activists say that such purely functional motives have given way to other, more 'progressive' motives.

Many parents now consciously go in for adoption even though they have or may decide to have a biological child of their own. There are some couples who decide to adopt out of a social conscience. These are people who, despite being able to have a biological child, take in an abandoned child. There are also women who prefer adoption to going through the pains of child-bearing.

AT present the laws governing adoption in India are the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 (HAMA) and the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890 (GWA). HAMA is the only codified law on adoption and it equates the status of the adopted child to a biological child born in the same family. Muslims, Parsis, Jews and Christians come within the purview of the GWA.

A landmark Supreme Court judgment in 1984 laid the basis for the adoption process becoming more child-centred. In 1982, Laxmi Kant Pandey, a lawyer, filed a public interest petition before the Supreme Court, alleging malpractices, including child trafficking, in the guise of adoption. The judgment, which established a regulatory framework for adoption, was delivered by Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati. It emphasised the need to safeguard the interests of the child. It prescribed systems and procedures regulating inter-country adoptions and norms for adoption agencies.

The Supreme Court guidelines allow agencies to apply to the competent authority directly for inter-country adoption of children above the age of five. A source in the ICCW says that adoption agencies increasingly prefer giving children to parents overseas because this is more rewarding financially. Although Indian parents are now more willing to accept older children, there are fewer children available for them to adopt. There are also children with special needs, children with mental and physical impairment. Adoptive parents abroad often have no problem accepting them.

One of the consequences of the Supreme Court order was the establishment of CARA at the apex of the regulatory system governing adoptions. At the State level, there are Voluntary Coordinating Agencies (VCAs) serving as a link between prospective adoptive parents and adoption agencies. At the bottom are agencies that handle the actual adoption. There are now 80 recognised agencies in India handling inter-country adoptions, and 278 agencies in 25 countries enlisted to sponsor inter-country adoptions.

The ICCW and the Indian Council for Social Welfare (ICSW) are the scrutinising agencies for inter-country adoptions, but they are not directly engaged in aiding adoptions. The ICCW and the ICSW scrutinise the adoption papers submitted by the agencies to the courts and ensure that all norms and guidelines are adhered to and that the adoption is in the child's best interest.

CARA acts as a clearing house of information on children available for in-country and inter-country adoption and it regulates, monitors and develops programmes for the rehabilitation of children through adoption. Adoption agencies have to obtain a "no objection" certificate from CARA before processing applications for inter-country adoptions.

Another important consequence of the 1984 order was the licensing of agencies. While agencies dealing in inter-country adoptions are licensed by CARA, State governments license those working on in-country adoptions. The Supreme Court wanted strict separation of the scrutinising agencies, the VCAs and the adoption agencies.

The children available for adoption are those relinquished or abandoned. In case of relinquishment, the parents have to sign a letter which gives them 30 days to reconsider their decision. Ideally the social worker should first try and counsel parents to keep the child, offering material assistance if needed. Vidya Shankar, secretary of the Adoptive Parents Association, thinks that the development of alternative methods such as foster care and training of women for employment can help reduce the number of children abandoned for reasons of poverty.

Parents who wish to adopt have to register themselves with one of the licensed adoption agencies or the VCA. They are interviewed by social workers on their motives, and their family environment is assessed. Then a search for a child begins. Agencies try, as far as possible, to match the physical appearance of a child with that of the prospective parents. All children in the adoption agencies undergo comprehensive medical tests for congenital defects and developmental problems. Prospective parents also have to undergo medical tests.

When a suitable child is found, it is shown to the prospective adoptive parents. Upon acceptance, the child is placed in pre-adoptive care for three to six months while the adoption is registered in court by the agency. The court decides the period of post-adoptive study, during which agencies maintain contact with the adoptive parents. But the shortage of skilled social workers often means that this study, as important as the pre-adoptive study, is seldom done.

When an adoption agency is unable to find a suitable home for a child, the case is referred to the VCA. If the VCA is not able to find parents for the child within 30 days, the child is listed for inter-country adoption. CARA introduced this deadline so that children could be moved out of institutional care and into a family environment at the earliest. Couples from abroad who choose a child have to pay for its maintenance till the adoption is validated by a court.

A social worker at VCA, Tamil Nadu, says that about 50 per cent of the couples registered at the VCA in Chennai are from rural areas such as Neikarapatti near Palani, Dadagapatti near Salem and Chittiyappanoor near Vaniyambadi. These people are mostly small farmers or traders. "Rural folk," says a social worker, "make far less demands about the child's colour, sex and caste than urban couples." However, the 30-day period is too short a time to communicate with prospective parents in rural areas.

After a child is registered with the VCA, social workers visit the child in the adoption agency and select a couple from their list. The parents are sent a picture of the child and given two days to decide. This process takes a week or more. The child's medical tests take up to 10 days. If a child is rejected by the couple at this stage, the VCA will have difficulty finding another couple before the deadline. Vidya Reddy, VCA secretary, says that the change made by CARA has only "prevented a large number of Indian couples from becoming parents."

The Supreme Court judgment allows parents between the ages of 25 and 45 to adopt. It stipulates that the average age of parents wishing to adopt a baby below the age of one must be 45 years or less.

ALTHOUGH the number of adoptions has increased, the picture is far from rosy. Biases concerned with gender, complexion and looks are prevalent. A source at Karna Prayag, an adoption agency in Chennai, says that a few years ago, when adoption was still not very common, parents believed that they could choose from among several babies. Although parents are aware that it is not possible to select a 'dream baby', they still list out specifications. Sheila Jayanthi of Karna Prayag adds that some parents look for a "porcelain doll", not realising that children cannot be "made to order" here. Agencies lay stress on pre-adoptive counselling to prepare parents to accept the children as they are.

To solve the problems of adoptive parents the Adoptive Parents Association was formed in Tamil Nadu four years ago. With a strength of 90 members, it acts as a support system. Vidhya Shankar believes that adoptive parents and adopted children have problems quite unlike others.

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