Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Why is the number of adoptions in India declining?

Putting the application process online was supposed to make things easier but procedural delays continue to mar the adoption experience

New Delhi: The phone is ringing off the hook at Palna, a state-run orphanage, whose website describes it as a home for abandoned, homeless and destitute children. The caller is a prospective parent who wants to know how to fill out an online registration form for adoption.

Register online, Palna assistant director Lorraine Campos explains, create an account, upload details like proof of residence, income and family details, and then, wait.

Putting the paperwork online was meant to make it easier to adopt. It hasn’t quite worked out that way—adoption rates in India are falling, and most cite procedural delays as the main reason.

In 2013-14, just under 4,000 children were placed for adoption, fewer than the 4,964 in 2012-13 and 5,964 children in the previous year, minister of women and child development Maneka Gandhi told the Lok Sabha in July.

The government has drawn up fresh guidelines to make the process easier and to cut down the time it takes to adopt, she said. These guidelines have been incorporated in the draft Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, which was introduced in Parliament in August. It is yet to be passed.

Suggested guidelines include linking orphaned and abandoned children in institutions across the country to CARA, short for the Central Adoption Resource Agency, the nodal agency for adoption, as well as cutting the time it takes social workers—currently up to two months—to assess prospective parents. The idea is to cut the waiting period for an adoption to a few months from the year or even more than it takes now.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 930 children were abandoned across India in 2013. This could be a massive underestimation—by more than 10,000 times, according to statistics presented to the Supreme Court in a PIL filed in 2011 which estimates the figure to be closer to 11 million, 90% of them girls.

There are no official records on the number of children at orphanages but ChildLine India Foundation, a Mumbai-based non-government organization, reckons there were 25 million orphans in 2007. Only 0.04% of these abandoned children are adopted every year, says a report by India Spend, a data journalism initiative.

“It is very important that we first get a handle on how many children are actually available for adoption." says Sunil Arora, executive director, Bal Asha Trust, a home for abandoned and destitute children in Mumbai. “Out of these, how many are abandoned? How many are cleared for adoption? It is only after these questions are answered that we can look at simplifying the process," he says. But while pinpointing the exact number of children available for adoption will give a clearer picture, it won’t cut procedural delays. Earlier, prospective adoptive parents could register with adoption agencies directly. But since 2011, everything has to be routed through CARA.

Murphy Baby Syndrome

Delays are also caused by what social workers and activists call the Murphy Baby Syndrome, a spin on pictures of a cherubic baby used to advertise Murphy radio sets back in the 1970s.

“Adoption is a hurdle race. The more expectations you have, the more hurdles you are creating for yourself," says Arora, referring to the preferences most prospective Indian parents have. These can range from fair complexion to gender, but most centre around age and physical health.

“Families want a choice of babies, sometimes the attitude can lead to major conflict between (prospective) parents and agencies," says Madhavi Mhatre, formerly of ChildLine India Foundation.

Falling adoption levels have also been put down to the rise of surrogacy, which has also given Indian couples an alternative. “Artificial reproductive technology is giving stiff competition to the cause of adoption," says Shemantika Nag, chairperson of Atamaja, an association of adoptive parents in Kolkata.

An adoptive parent herself, Nag has seen several couples who have been undergoing fertility treatments for over a decade decide upon adoption only as a last resort, when they are in their 40s. “India does not allow couples whose combined age is more than 90 to adopt an infant," she says.

Most Indian couples prefer adopting babies under the age of one and are unwilling to accept a child with any medical complication or physical disability. “If a biological child is born with a health issue, parents will leave no stone unturned to find a medical solution, but they are completely unwilling to entertain the notion of adopting a child with a medical condition," says Mhatre.

Mhatre says she has seen cases where parents have even returned children to agencies citing behavioural issues. “They are not commodities to be returned if you find that the performance is not up to the mark," she says in anger.

Couples’ insistence on adopting infants has left adoption agencies with a glut of children aged 3-4 years. Couples are being increasingly encouraged during counselling to consider a three- or four-year-old child.

Campos talks of having recently placed a three-year-old with a couple—but this, she says, is quite rare. “We don’t really get a lot of infants. This year I have received only six healthy, normal infants. Earlier we would get at least three to four every month," she says.

Black market

There is also a growing black market for babies. “Children are being adopted every which way, through nursing homes, hospitals and institutions that don’t figure in the adoption set-up at all," says Bharti Ali of Haq: Centre for Child Rights.

Stories of babies from poor families being sold off are not unheard of. “Some parents get very frustrated by the delay in legal adoptions and turn to touts and middlemen. It’s a scary situation," says Nag of Atmaja.

In 2010, Mathew Rayappa Yanmal, head of the Gurukul Godavari Balak Ashram—an orphanage that was operating in Pune—was arrested for illegally procuring and selling an HIV positive child to a Mumbai-based couple for 1 lakh. The couple filed a complaint after the child died and said they hadn’t been told the child was HIV positive.

The same year, Joginder Singh Bhasin, founder of Preet Mandir, one of Pune’s biggest adoption agencies, was arrested for illegal adoption practices. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) alleged that Bhasin had fraudulently obtained children from poor parents with the sole purpose of selling them to foreigners for adoption at exorbitant rates. It was also alleged that Bhasin was charging money from Indian adoptive parents.

Earlier still, in 2005, the Chennai Police had unearthed a kidnapping ring that supplied children to adoption agencies. “Children are being kidnapped and forcibly taken away from their parents. Even abandoned children are fraudulently shown as available for adoption, all in a bid to make money," says Anjali Pawar of Sakhee, a children’s rights NGO in Maharashtra. Her organization filed a public interest litigation in 2012 asking for a complete ban on inter-country adoptions, saying it bred corruption and malpractices in the form of children being sold.

“So many agencies misuse surrender of children. Orphaned children are taken away from grandparents and relatives and are never seen again. The law requires that the police make all efforts to trace abandoned children but not much is done, making it easier for adoption agencies to get a declaration from the court that the children are free for adoption," says Ali of Haq.

Cross-border adoptions

According to a report in Firstpost, Haq helped reunite a father from Delhi with his children after they had been abandoned by their mother and placed with a ‘placement agency’ recognized by CARA in the city.

According to CARA, RIPA (Recognised Indian Placement Agency) is recognized to place children in inter-country adoption. The agency had begun the formal process to have the children adopted by an Australian couple and Haq was able to help the father stop the process.

Currently, foreign couples are required to pay an official fee of $5,000 to the agency from which they are adopting a child. In the black market, this figure can be $20,000 or even higher, says Pawar. Indian parents are required to pay 46,000, out of which 1,000 is for registration and 5,000 for home study. The process of evaluation as laid down by the government is an exhaustive one that includes counselling sessions apart from home visits by social workers associated with adoption agencies. There are also guidelines that place a cap on the combined age of both the parents (it is 90 years of age.)

In 2013-14, 430 inter-country adoptions from India were to countries such as the US, Italy and Spain. This number was a jump from the previous year’s tally of 308 but less than the 629 children who were adopted by foreigners in 2011.

Foreign couples are more open to adopting a child with a medical condition than Indian couples, say agencies.

Marco and Daniella Barbieri of Bologna, Italy, who, in their late 30s, are at Palna adoption agency at the end of a five-year-long process to adopt an Indian child.

Pappu, 10, is dressed in his Sunday best. Abandoned by his parents when they discovered he had a heart problem, he is shy around the Barbieris at their first meeting. He is clutching a bag of sweets the Barbieris have given him and Daniella gently encourages him to share it with those around. Pappu still refers to them by their first names, though both Marco and Daniella prompt him with ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ from time to time.

“We saw a documentary film on Indian orphans a few years ago. It was emotionally very wrenching for us. When we decided to adopt a baby, we remembered the film and felt that adopting an Indian child would be the right thing to do," says Marco. The Barbieris say they don’t plan to change Pappu’s name.

In spite of many such happy endings, inter-country adoption still remains a thorny issue in India.

Fine balance

Activists want all institutions that deal with adoptions to be covered by CARA. They want strict checks in place to rule out malpractice. But there is a yawning chasm between expectation and reality. Even though nearly 400 agencies are registered, little is done to ensure that follow all guidelines.

A worker at an adoption agency in Delhi narrates her experience when she recently sent prospective parents to a registered agency in Uttar Pradesh. “It was a dingy, cramped building but the couple just wanted a baby and they did settle on one," she said, requesting anonymity. However, medical tests revealed the child to be HIV positive, a fact that even the agency was completely unaware of, she says, adding: “There are measures in place to ensure that agencies meet all standards but who is keeping a check?"

CARA wants to streamline the system so that prospective parents can be matched with available children online. It’s a move that makes adoption agencies unhappy. “This is a human process, it can’t be done online. We know the child, we know the temperament and we spend time with the parents. Based on our interactions, we decide which child will be a good fit with which family," says Sudha Khanderkar of Children of the World, a Delhi-based registered orphanage.

Campos agrees: “An online match will tell you the age and physical characteristics of the child, but there are many things you can’t put on paper." Others question whether an online process will work in all agencies or in smaller towns.

An oft-repeated statement in the debate about the government’s proposed guidelines is to remember that adoption is a human process and thus every care needs to be taken to ensure that it remains error-free. It won’t be easy to find the balance between satisfying the demands of eager and impatient parents, and ensuring that a child is not just legally available but also adopted in the right manner. It’s a fine balance that the ministry of women and child development will need to strike.

Close