Children as commodities

Date: 2001-05-12
Source: Frontline
The Andhra Pradesh government initiates action to check the adoption racket, but the lack of clarity about rules and procedures at various levels raises doubts about its effectiveness.

RAVI SHARMA, in Hyderabad

STUNG by the criticism of its attitude to the murky business that has been going on in the name of inter-country adoption, the Andhra Pradesh government issued on April 18 an order banning the 'relinquishment' of children by their biological parents. While it may help curtail the business in babies in the short run, it might ultimately prove counterproductive as parents who are desperate to relinquish their children may just abandon them or resort to practices such as infanticide. Further, there is the question whether the ban will pass the test of legality. Lawyers have expressed the view that it could be violative of the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA) guidelines that govern both in-country and inter-country adoptions. Many people feel that stricter enforcement of these guidelines could have been a better way of handling the situation.

Officials of the Andhra Pradesh State Department of Women and Child Welfare shifting children from Precious Moments, a home run by Anita Sen, wife of an IPS officer, in Hyderabad.

While the G.O. has evoked different reactions among those associated with adoption, there is unanimity in the view that the State government was slow to react. For over a month, investigations by the police, the media and voluntary agencies have prima facie shown that adoption is a lucrative business in Andhra Pradesh.

A number of institutions, most of them based in Hyderabad, have been asked to stop operations relating to adoption or have been put on the watch-list. The Action for Social Development (ASD), a voluntary organisation, had been functioning despite CARA cancelling its licence in 1999. On April 20, officials of the Andhra Pradesh Department of Women Development and Child Welfare (WD&CW) transferred 34 children in the case of the ASD to the State government-run Sishu Vihar (Children's Home) in Hyderabad. On April 21, they shifted 60 children from the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home at Tandur, 110 km from Hyderabad, to Sishu Vihar and Niloufer Hospital. The Home has been accused by the Karnataka Police of violating adoption procedures. Hospital records showed many children from the Home as having been immunised months after they died. The authorities of Bethany Home had even buried an infant in the backyard of the home, that too without obtaining a death certificate.

On April 24, the Andhra Pradesh Police rescued from a house in Hyderabad six children who were in the custody of the staff of the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home. On April 26, WD&CW Department officials shifted to Sishu Vihar 61 children from Precious Moments, an adoption centre at Miyapur on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Similarly, children from adoption centres such as Sparsh, Radhakrishna Home and the Social Action for Social Development, all located in Hyderabad, were shifted to Sishu Vihar. In all 188 children, the majority of them below two years, were moved to Sishu Vihar.

The WD&CW Department hopes that these children, who were relinquished to middlemen or to adoption homes, will now be reclaimed by their biological parents. A notification inserted in leading newspapers asked such parents to reclaim their children within a month after producing documents in support of their claim - a photograph and the birth certificate of the child, evidence of having handed over the child to the adoption home, a copy of the complaint lodged with the police about the missing of the child, and so on. A similiar exercise carried out in 1999, when 228 children were 'rescued' from adoption centres, was not a great success; only parents of five children responded.

Asked whether they would now reclaim their children, a number of Lambadas replied in the negative. The practice of giving female children for adoption is widely prevalent among this nomadic community (Frontline, May 11). But WD&CW Department officials are confident of a better response this time. On May 1, Kaiser Begum and Mahabub Ali 'reclaimed' their six-year-old daughter Sahivi whom they had lost in November.

Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has announced that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) would inquire into the working of the adoption agencies. But the police are not sure under what provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) they can book the accused. Said M.A. Basith, Additional-Director General of Police (ADGP) and head of the CID: "We will decide under what sections to book them after we complete our investigations." That Basith's job will be tough is clear from the fact that Anita Sen, the wife of his colleague Swaranjit Sen (an Additional DGP) and a director of Precious Moments, has been charged under Section 175 (omission to produce documents) and Section 471 (using forged document as genuine) of the IPC.

The State government has announced a reward of Rs.5 lakhs for anyone providing information on Savithri Samson, co-founder of the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home, who has been absconding since April 6, and Rs.1 lakh for information on voluntary agencies violating adoption guidelines. The search for Savithri Samson has prompted politicans to ask why Anita Sen has not been arrested.

The Chief Minister has announced the formation of a special cell to monitor the adoption homes and orphanages in the State. According to WD&CW Department officials, the Cell would give licences and recognition to such homes and maintain a master list of children who have been either abandoned or relinquished. It will also have the power to inspect and seal any adoption centre if it violates rules. The State government will evolve the rules after the formation of the Cell.

The recent events led to a war of words among the representatives of CARA, which functions under the Union Ministry of Welfare and Social Justice, the Voluntary Coordinating Agency (VCA), the nodal adoption agency in the State, and the State government. CARA grants recognition to child adoption agencies on the recommendations of the respective State government, but Andhra Pradesh government officials refuted accusations that they had failed to check the illegal business. Said an official: "The homes were not under our control. Those who had given the homes licences, such as CARA, have to monitor them. It is only after the crisis broke out that the State government is thinking of framing rules and giving us the power to monitor these homes."

At the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home, Tandur.

CARA denied the charge that it had been careless in issuing licences. Its chairperson Andal Damodaran said: "Sitting in Delhi, we are not in a position to cross-check documents." An agency that will have to take much of the blame is the VCA, a voluntary body that is registered under the Registration of Societies Act and recognised by the State government. Andal Damodaran said that the VCA in Andhra Pradesh had not sent CARA even a single note. "An active VCA should be coordinating with all the adoption agencies and scouting for prospective Indian foster parents," she said.

Defending the VCA, one of its members said: "We are a very small voluntary body, not a State or Central government body. It is impossible for us to stop the relinquishing of children. The relinquishing document is a secret document. We have written several times to CARA to permit us to see the document, but nothing has happened. We only get to know of the relinquished child when the adoption process is already into two months. By then anything could have happened. Till May 2000 we did not even have an inspection committee, which is mandatory under Chapter 3 of CARA guidelines. Similarly, we did not have monitoring rights till May 2000. That function had to be done solely by the State government.

The VCA also criticises the State government for having failed to create an advisory board on adoption under Chapter 3 of the CARA guidelines. "In 1999 it existed but no meeting ever took place. The board has to meet regularly and specifically to discuss child welfare measures to promote in-country adoption," the VCA member said.

A myriad of rules are also causing problems. Said a State government official: "We wanted to cancel the licences of some of the adoption agencies. Since they are registered under the Registration of Societies Act, we wrote to the Registrar. He said that he had the power only to register (societies) but not to cancel or withdraw (the registration). After a further reading we got to know that the government alone is competent to cancel (the registration). But then the question was which government, State or Central? CARA should be more vigilant and active since it can take action under the Juvenile Justice Act."

The adoption agencies have their own list of complaints. Said Roda Mistry of the Indian Council for Social Welfare (ICSW), one of the four recognised agencies in Andhra Pradesh for inter-country adoption which is now in trouble because of its connections with Precious Moments: "We are doing things according to CARA guidelines. Under Sections 429 to 431 a recognised agency can take babies from an unrecognised agency, rehabilitate them and send them for adoption. Why then this hullabaloo? Anita Sen (of Precious Moments) was getting babies from Joan Reddy, the wife of a village sarpanch in Devarkonde, rehabilitating them, and then sending them to me. Let them (State government) also talk of their mistakes. Even today no agency has been registered for in-country adoption in Andhra Pradesh. We are currently doing Indian adoptions on the strength of CARA guidelines. The State Government can inspect us tomorrow and say that what we are doing is illegal." Mistry is also annoyed that the WD&CW Department, which had recommended that her licence be renewed in January, complained against her institution after the scandal broke out.

Many non-governmental agencies question the provision to give the ICSW a licence to facilitate adoptions. According to them, it is only a scrutinising agency. The ICSW's office is located in the premises of Niloufer Hospital - a violation of the CARA guideline which states that an adoption home should not be located in the same compound as a hospital/nursing home/ maternity ward since it could lead to unhealthy practices.

Similarly, St. Teresa's Tender Loving Care Home (TLCH) is located in the premises of St.Teresa's General Hospital.

Said P. Jamuna, secretary, Gramya Resource Centre for Women, "CARA and the VCA are controlled by people who are in the adoption business. How can there be effective monitoring or rules? It is quite natural that they will make rules that suit themselves."

In the wake of the scandal, agencies such as the TLCH act with a modicum of caution. On the basis of advice from their advisory boards, they have become less aggressive in procuring children. But it is the children who continue to suffer, as state agencies meant to regulate adoption look the other way, while adoption agencies make "comfortable money."

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