Minnesota couple caught up in apparent adoption fraud
A Minnesota couple were excited to become parents of sisters from India -- until they made a shocking discovery that raises questions about the U.S. effort to stop international adoption fraud.
By David Shaffer
In court papers that paved her way to Minnesota, Komal is described as a 12-year-old girl from northern India, eligible for adoption in the United States.
She liked to assemble puzzles and briefly attended fifth grade, but the 112-pound orphan displayed a violent streak that soon left a Mayer, Minn., couple wondering if they were told the truth about the two Indian siblings they spent $30,000 trying to adopt.
Within months of their arrival, and before the adoption became final, Komal confessed: She was 21. Her younger sister, Shallu, admitted she was 15, not 11 as advertised. The sisters said they were told to lie about their ages and backgrounds by orphanage officials and an India-based representative for Crossroads Adoption Services of Edina, which handled the failed placements.
At 21, Komal wouldn't have been a candidate for adoption. In fact, she wouldn't have qualified for an orphan visa to the United States. Under the rules, foreign children must be under 16 for adoption proceedings to begin.
Maria Melichar, who once hoped Komal and Shallu would become part of the family she and her husband, Carl, are raising, said Komal's rights were grossly violated.
"To adopt her against her will, when she has a life, had an identity [and] she was an adult, is unthinkable," Maria Melichar said.
The sisters' lies reverberated halfway around the world, from a quiet farmhouse in Carver County to a noisy orphanage in Chandigarh, India, raising fresh questions about an international adoption treaty and the United States' commitment to investigate alleged corruption in the orphan pipeline. During the past decade, adoption scandals have erupted in at least six countries, including India, sometimes shutting off the flow of children from those nations.
A U.S. immigration judge ordered the sisters sent back to India in July 2008 for visa fraud, after medical tests confirmed the age discrepancies. It appears to be the first time the U.S. government has expelled orphans under such circumstances, experts said.
The Melichars complained about the misrepresentations in 2007, but the organization that probes questionable adoptions for the State Department said it didn't hear about the case until this year. Even then, officials postponed the investigation for months.
The United States implemented the Hague Adoption Convention last year. The State Department handed the job of policing international adoption agencies to the nonprofit Council on Accreditation, which enforces the treaty's ethical standards. The reforms directly affect Crossroads and 13 other agencies in Minnesota, which has the highest rate of international adoptions in the United States.
Critics of the United States' commitment to the treaty say the Melichars' case shows the government is not aggressively investigating adoptions that go wrong. "I can't understand why the U.S. government is moving so slow on these cases," said Arun Dohle, founder of the Belgium-based advocacy group Against Child Trafficking and author of a 2008 law review article on Indian adoption fraud.
Attorney Mark Solheim, who represents Crossroads, said the agency "never instructed any adoptive children to lie about their age." Over the past 33 years, Crossroads has successfully placed 3,500 children, including 500 from India, he said.
'It felt right'
In 2005, the Melichars decided to expand their family. They already had four children, including a girl adopted from India with Crossroads' help in 1993. The family lives on a farm once worked by Carl Melichar's parents next to Lake Berliner near Waconia.
"We were both getting older," said Maria Melichar, a nurse practitioner who is now 46. "If we were going to do it, that was the time."
"It felt right,'' added Carl Melichar, a wildlife painter who recently turned 58.
In February 2005, Maria contacted Crossroads and was told two Indian girls were available. Photos soon arrived showing a pair of pre-teen siblings. Maria and two daughters traveled to India in November 2006 to pick up Komal and Shallu at an orphanage about 170 miles north of New Delhi .
In India, the Melichars were assisted by Rajeev Agarwal, who was then Crossroads' representative there. Agarwal is a businessman who helps with paperwork and travel for foreign adoptions. An Austrian adoption agency paid him more than $300,000 in 2005 and 2006, according to Austrian attorney Eric Agstner, who reviewed the agency's books in an unrelated investigation.
Maria Melichar said she gave Agarwal $635 for expenses and another $1,000 in cash for undisclosed purposes at the request of Crossroads' former director, Ann Sinnott.
Sinnott, who left the agency in 2007, said she doesn't recall the $1,000 payment. Agarwal, who also left Crossroads that year and is now working for a Texas adoption agency, denied receiving it.
After returning to Minnesota, the Melichars delayed taking steps to finalize the adoptions. Komal's behavior had them worried. She wouldn't eat meals with the family. She was defiant and aggressive, and often bullied and slapped her younger sister. She even threatened to kill Shallu, Maria Melichar said.
Though both girls spoke English, Komal sometimes spoke to Shallu in Hindi to undermine the Melichars' authority. One day, she threw all of Shallu's possessions out of their shared room.
Under pressure from her older sister, Shallu refused to do homework and once told the Melichars that "Komal likes it when I show bad behavior."
Despite Komal's increasingly violent temper, Maria Melichar said she and her husband didn't immediately suspect that they had been misled. Maria said she was more concerned that Komal "wasn't allowing us to parent her."
Maria said she didn't start wondering about the girls' ages until February 2007, when Shallu revealed that the sisters' birthdays fell on separate national holidays in India, an improbable coincidence. That prompted the first of several medical tests on the girls. Komal was moved from fifth to 10th grade when an X-ray exam suggested she was older than claimed.
In July 2007, Maria Melichar said, she decided to confront Komal with her suspicions. She said Komal finally admitted her age and said she wanted to go back to India. The sisters later told federal investigators that Agarwal, the Crossroads intermediary, falsified the ages. In an interview with the Star Tribune, Agarwal insisted that the girls' original birth dates are accurate.
To confirm the sisters' ages, the Melichars turned to two medical experts: Dr. Mansur Ahmad, a native of India and director of Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, and Dr. Leah Willson, a pediatrician and adoption medical specialist at Hutchinson Medical Center in Hutchinson, Minn. Both experts agreed that the sisters are years older than their Indian records indicate, medical reports say.
While India has been criticized for changing children's ages to make them seem younger to adoptive parents, experts said a nine-year discrepancy is unusual.
The Melichars said they were misled about other important matters. They said the girls admitted that the photos sent to the Melichars in 2005 were actually taken years earlier, and that they had different fathers, contradicting information from Crossroads. They also said they spent much less time in orphanages than claimed by Indian officials, and were separated from a younger brother.
Inquiries, but few answers
Living a lie took its toll on Komal, according to the Melichars, who believe her bad behavior is partly traced to her conflicted feelings.
Maria Melichar said Komal and Shallu were robbed of their "identity, human rights and personhood."
Komal and Shallu now live at a boarding school, an Indian official said. They could not be reached by the Star Tribune.
The Melichars claim that Crossroads put them in an impossible position as guardians of a resentful young adult who didn't wish to remain in the United States and who grew increasingly abusive in their household. They are suing the agency for fraud and negligence, seeking more than $50,000 in damages.
Solheim, the agency's attorney, said Crossroads had no basis to challenge the girls' ages, which were reviewed by Indian officials before the agency got involved with the children. He belittled the medical testing done on the Melichars' behalf, dismissing it as "junk science." He said the agency denies any wrongdoing, but he said privacy rules prevent him from commenting in detail on the case.
Poonam Sood, whose agency runs the Chandigarh orphanage where the sisters once lived, admitted that an Indian medical review revealed that the girls are older than their records indicate, but she maintained that her organization did not provide any false records.
The sisters' return to India in 2008 prompted an Indian government review of the failed adoption. J.K. Mittal, chairman of India's adoption oversight agency, said that the investigation isn't finished, but that no fraud has been found.
In the United States, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation concluded that the sisters' visas had false ages, but agents didn't examine the actions of Crossroads or others. The Melichars' complaint about the agency wasn't considered when the Council on Accreditation reviewed Crossroads to see if it met ethical guidelines under the Hague Treaty. If the agency failed the review, it wouldn't be allowed to pursue adoptions in 77 treaty countries. Crossroads was approved in April 2008.
Last month, U.S. officials decided that the Melichars' complaint could be investigated under the Hague treaty -- a delay blamed on a lengthy State Department jurisdictional review.
"Our concern would be whether or not this adoption service provider [Crossroads] knew or should have known that someone in its employ was involved in falsifying records," said Richard Klarberg, president and chief executive of the New York-based monitoring group.
Sanctions for violating treaty standards could include losing the right to arrange adoptions in treaty countries like India.
In Minnesota, state regulators cited Crossroads for failing to act on the Melichars' complaint. The Minnesota Human Services Department, which regulates adoption agencies, said Crossroads now must respond to the family -- or face possible penalties. On the fraud allegations, the department found no violations of state adoption regulations, but suggested that federal agencies have jurisdiction because it is an international adoption matter.