'The final objective is the child's interest'

Date: 2005-05-21
Source: Frontline
Interview with Dr. Aloma Lobo, Chairperson, CARA.

There is a lot of money to be made in sending Indian babies in inter-country adoption (ICA). An autonomous body under the Central government's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA) has to ensure that Indian placement agencies follow rules. But is it doing its job?

Dr. Aloma Lobo who was last October appointed for a two-year term as the Chairperson of CARA hopes to address the "business of money in ICA" and to educate people on the social aspects of adoption. Dr. Lobo is also president of the Karnataka Voluntary Coordinating Agency (VCA). The VCA is the body that oversees Indian adoptions in each State.

Excerpts from an interview she gave Ravi Sharma in Bangalore:

Adoption, especially ICAs from India, have been clouded by scams. There have also been accusations of gross violations including fabrication of rejection letters and written complaints from parents accusing agencies of extortion. But besides making feeble complaints to the Ministry of Social Welfare and Empowerment, why does CARA rarely initiate action?

CARA certainly has the powers to initiate investigations but in the final analysis it is the State governments that have to take up the matter. If CARA finds an agency not conforming to rules, it can delicense that agency. And once that happens the agency cannot do ICA. CARA can only delicense an agency, it cannot arrest anyone. CARA will address issues if we have credible complaints without going on a witch-hunt.

Would you like to see CARA being given more powers?

CARA is an autonomous body but funded by the government. So we have necessarily to abide by rules and regulations, and continuously work in consultation with the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment. But if CARA had more teeth it would be good. We are hands-on, more familiar and have a greater relevance with what is happening in adoption, among adoption agencies, with the VCA, and so on.

Would you advocate change in the rules?

I would not want change in the rules and stop ICA just because some agencies are flouting the rules. The final objective has to be the interest of the child. But on the way there are bound to be hiccups. We have to address those hiccups, not throw out our final objective. Placing a child with a family in the shortest possible time is the objective. The longer the child is in an institution the more we are contributing to his inability to function normally later.

Under the present CARA guidelines, siblings and twins can be directly placed for foreign adoption without trying to place them in Indian families. Certain agencies in a bid to circumvent the process of showing children to Indian adopters have been known to `manufacture' siblings by pairing unrelated children together. What is CARA's role in this?

Siblings do not have to go abroad. In Karnataka, we have placed several siblings, often twins, with Indian families. Some families even ask for twins. But all Indian families ask for healthy twins. Siblings over two are difficult to place. If agencies are `manufacturing' siblings it is wrong. If I had complete statistics I would certainly take action.

Even the various state VCAs have come in for criticism. What is the role of the VCA?

The VCA coordinates the work done by the agencies. To create the awareness that Indians can adopt a baby. It also creates a databank of Indian families wanting to adopt. So even if an agency does not have a family wanting to adopt a child, the VCA can provide a family from its databank.

The VCA's trained social workers conduct seminars, counselling sessions and services for children who have been adopted. The VCA also has a listing of all children from all agencies in the State. Besides, the VCA also has a list of families, which it has home-studied.

Ideally this is how the VCAs are supposed to function. But are they? In Andhra Pradesh thanks to the 2001 scam - when babies were traded as a commodity - the government disbanded the VCA and it has taken over the role of the VCA...

I'm not going to pretend that VCAs are functioning as they should. But the situation in Andhra is not ideal either. Adoptions have to be done by people who are trained and have the experience. You have to be in tune with the process.

Tell me which person in government has the time or even the inclination to counsel parents? Abandoned/relinquished children feel that they have been given away because of their fault. As a parent you have to fill those little gaps. That is why parents need counselling from professional, experienced people (VCAs). This comes not just from following rules, but from the heart.

In Andhra Pradesh, the VCA and the agencies had established a nexus. There is a charge-sheet filed against the secretary of the State's VCA.

There should not be a nexus. Andhra Pradesh was warned in writing about the breaking of rules by the agencies (by the American Embassy) long before the scam was exposed. But they did nothing. Why? There are so many levels of checks and balances: the child welfare committee, the judiciary, officials from the State government, the VCA itself... But no one thought it fit to investigate the complaints.

At present the VCAs are not monitoring agencies, they only facilitate. Would you like to see a monitoring role for them?

No. The more you monitor the more the distrust. You have to give the agencies a certain amount of freedom, and hopefully they will respond. I am not for sitting on anybody's (agencies) head.

The VCAs hardly interact with one another. Interaction could ensure that babies who do not find an Indian family in a particular State can be placed with an Indian family in another State and so on...

Yes, but nothing happens. It's a redundant exercise. In all these years of listing babies there have only been two such placements. In India, there is chauvinism about region, community, religion, and so on. There are very few Indian families who will go anywhere and adopt. Not so with foreigners who are prepared to adopt from anywhere.

Many Indian families have also told me that they would rather not adopt a baby whose mother was unwed. The absurd assumption being that an unwed mother was promiscuous and hence her daughter would also be promiscuous.

ICA has been clouded by scams. Why cannot ICAs be banned for a while. May be then the VCAs will push for Indian adoptions.

What is the alternative to ICA? Institutionalisation? You weigh the two and decide.

But I must agree that for many agencies though the hassles in placing a child in ICA are far greater (than in an Indian family), they don't mind going the extra mile since the monetary attraction is higher. But by banning ICA you will be making the child the victim. You are condemning the child to death or a miserable existence in an orphanage. Banning ICA will not be in the interest of the child but in the interest of monitoring somebody's purse.

There is a lot of money to be made in ICA leading to agencies using unethical and illegal means to place children with foreign parents...

That is what I am unhappy about. Adoption is a ministry of service. It should not be undertaken in isolation, only as a part of other programmes. The main programme should be taking care of the battered woman or hurting families - adoption should be only an incidental option. It should not be the end all. I am trying to do something about this. There has to be some regulation.

In Karnataka, the VCA gives prospective adopters a letter saying: "This is all you need to pay, nothing else". We also recommend that if someone wants to make a donation, they do so after all the paperwork is completed. Certain kinds of fees will have to be laid down. But if people want to be damn stupid and pay more there is nothing we can do.

CARA guidelines stipulate the maximum amount to be paid to agencies. But foreign agencies charge a hefty "India fee", which, on an average, is $10,000 (Rs.4.5 lakhs) and is directly passed onto the Indian partner. But since this money does not come directly from the adopters to the agency, CARA has been overlooking it...

I am against this "India fee". We (CARA) want to stop it. No one should be allowed to start an agency if they do not have a corpus fund to look after their children. If they do not have one, let someone else do the work. I know you cannot stamp it out because you are going to have unscrupulous people who will deal with children as commodities. But you have to regulate it.

Agencies claim that they need ICA funds to look after their children...

That is rubbish. Of course, it costs to look after a child but that is the work the agencies have undertaken to do. Maintenance costs are another form of dowry. Run your agency but have a corpus fund. Agencies must have a means of supporting their ministry of service.

So `no corpus, no agency'. What are you going to do about it?

Change the rules. There are going to be certain rules that are going to be framed for ICA. In Karnataka, all the agencies have agreed that they will charge a (maintenance) fee of Rs.15,000 (for Indian adoptions) whether the child has been with them for three or 33 months. A request will be made to the prospective parents if there are any medical fees. And there is a cap of Rs.5,000 for legal fees for Indian adoptions, and Rs.7,000 for ICAs. However, there is no agreement on the maintenance fees for ICAs. Some charge $1,000, others $15,000. CARA would like to put a figure into place. Otherwise, agencies will be tempted to keep children longer. You have to find a suitable family at the earliest possible time.

Finally, has CARA undertaken any special programmes after the recent tsunami?

Soon after the tsunami, CARA staff went to the affected areas. Thereafter, the State governments are undertaking the work. But if there are any adoption-related issues CARA is prepared to step in. As of now (orphaned) children are either with extended families or in the state home. It must also be pointed out that there are not many orphaned children. There are more orphaned parents than orphaned children.


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