In search of the stolen children
Charities are normally keen to get some publicity to raise their profile and help with fund-raising. But that's not the case for orphanages and adoption agencies in Chennai, India's fourth biggest city.
They have closed ranks after years of negative stories about an adoption "scam" at a local orphanage called Malaysian Social Services.
Police say MSS received children who had been taken from poor families, fabricated new identities for them and then offered them for adoption in Western countries including Australia. The investigation has dragged on since 2000 and is now in the hands of India's premier police agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.
But the scandal flared again this week when it was revealed a child called Zabeen had been taken from her family in Chennai and adopted by a Queensland couple in 2000.
The Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, stoked the controversy when he said the right thing might be to return the children to India, if it was proven they had been taken from their parents. Nelson's comments were given prominent coverage in some sections of the Indian media.
Many Chennai charities not being investigated have become paranoid.
"We have been told not to speak to reporters," says K.N. George, the honorary secretary of the adoption program at the Guild of Service, a long-established Chennai charity. "Journalists are after us."
George says the responsible state minister has instructed agencies involved in adoption to avoid publicity at all costs: "And orders are orders."
There was a similar response at orphanages across Chennai.
"We are not allowed to say anything," said a nervous administrator at the Balmandir Kamraj Trust when the Herald visited this week.
J.K. Mittal, the chairman of India's main adoption authority, the Central Adoption Resourcing Agency, is frustrated by the fresh publicity about Chennai's dodgy orphanages.
He says "strict action" was taken against MSS in 2002 and that "no such incident has been reported in recent times against any Indian adoption agency by any fostered parents or an agency from any part of the world.
"This sort of thing just raises questions in the minds of everyone. It is very unfortunate."
Mittal says new guidelines introduced in 2006 have improved India's adoption system. "The rules and regulations are now foolproof," he says.
"I fail to understand why this story is getting repeated after a gap of six or seven years. It is my feeling that some groups or individuals may be trying to damage the inter-country adoption system in India."
Mittal's concerns are echoed by Australian advocates of inter-country adoption. Marilyn Nagesh, the Indian program co-ordinator for the Inter-country Adoption Resource Network and member of the attorney-general's peak body on inter-country adoption, says that on the whole, adoption from India is "a great success story".
"We have to be careful that people are not getting the impression that every child adopted from India … is likely to have been child-trafficked - that's just not true," she says.
"I have worked with agencies in India for 24 years and I believe the vast majority of organisations … are very professional and very careful.
"Some Indian children, no matter how big the local waiting list, will not be taken up in local adoption …
"The truth is that many India children would not have had families if there were no families overseas ready to take them."
The labyrinth of bureaucracy in both Australia and India makes it a time-consuming and often frustrating process for parents who want to adopt a child from India. In 2006-07, 25 adoptions from India were finalised in Australia, 6.2 per cent of all inter-country adoptions, down from a total of 34, or 8.1 per cent, in 2005-06.
But Shayne Sidhu, the NSW Indian information officer for Australian Support for Inter-country Aid for Children, says those who adopt children from India often develop a deep affinity with the country.
"In my experience the families that commit to welcoming an Indian child into their hearts and homes have a strong and very particular cultural or spiritual connection to India," she said.
Even so, the orphanage controversy highlights India's struggle with inter-country adoption. Several Indian states have been plagued by rackets where children being offered for adoption have been "illegally sourced".
In 2006, a "sting" operation by a TV station caught officials from the Preet Mandir adoption agency in Maharashtra state talking about high adoption fees. Despite protests, the agency's licence has not been revoked.
There were a series of scandals during the 1990s in Andhra Pradesh that led to reforms that have put a halt to inter-country adoptions from that state.
The scams are a small part of a much bigger challenge for the Indian Government: child trafficking.
The Indian subcontinent is one of the world's worst trouble-spots for child trafficking, according to international NGOs working with children.
A 2006 study by the human rights organisation Shakti Vahini found evidence of trafficking in 378 of the 593 districts in India - about 10 per cent of which was international.
It is estimated that between 44,000 and 75,000 children are registered as missing across India each year. More than 90 per cent of them come from very poor families.
D. Geetha is a feisty human rights lawyer who works in a cramped office amid pavement-dwellers, street vendors and the occasional bullock dray on a noisy laneway opposite the Raj-era high court building in Chennai.
She represents parents whose children were adopted overseas by MSS and other local agencies.
"My clients want their children back in their family," she says. "But I'm not sure practicality will permit it."
Geetha says Australia must pressure India to improve its adoption system.
"We don't have adequate laws to deal with adoption," she says. "The Australian Government should campaign to get India to put its system in order."
Geetha claims that the "guidelines" administered by CARA are inadequate. It does not have the capacity or the power to properly monitor adoptions and the system lacks transparency, she says.
Sujata Mody, a lawyer with the Malarchi Women's Resource Centre, undertook a comprehensive investigation of adoption in Chennai and concluded the system is "fraught with problems". She believes many poor women are being pressured into giving up children.
She cites the example of Varni, a mother of four, who was left destitute when she was abandoned by her husband and her father died.
"She went to a charity hostel and they told her she must let the children be adopted," Mody says. "They virtually told her she could get lost if she did not [relinquish the children]."
Varni agreed and the children were placed with families overseas.
It is a decision she deeply regrets.
"Now she says, 'I know that I signed for them to go, but I just wish I could see them again,"' Mody says.
Varni now lives alone and works sweeping floors.
"She is truly destitute now because she has lost her children," Mody says.
Some Indian charities run refuges for young women with unwanted pregnancies as well as orphanages. Women who end up in the refuges are under great pressure to give up their child, Mody says.
"The impression given by Indian adoption agencies is that there is so much poverty here it is always better to go and live abroad but that is not always true."
Agencies are allowed to charge foreigners a fee of up to $US3500 ($4060). But both Mody and Geetha say their investigations show some agencies have received large unexplained donations from some Western countries.
More detail about these practices should be revealed when the investigation into MSS goes to court.
That could be some time yet. Singaravelu Murugan, a senior Chennai police officer, told the Herald that the investigation was "still in its initial stages".
Geetha believes the investigation's slow progress is symptomatic of a wider malaise. "This shows how little the bureaucracy and even the judiciary care," she says.