Over the past three years, a group of social workers and counsellors from Karnataka, all working with non-government organizations (NGOs) in the field of child welfare and adoption scrutiny, started noticing a disturbing trend in the adoption cases they were handling. They realized that a fairly large number of adoptions were failing—the children were being “returned" by parents to the Specialised Adoption Agency (SAA) that had handled their case. Finally, with a sense of growing unease, a few of these social workers submitted an RTI application seeking information about the number of failed adoptions to the Central Adoption Resource Authority (Cara)—the main government body handling all inter- and intra-country adoptions in India.

Children at the Palna home in Delhi
Children at the Palna home in Delhi (Photo: Hindustan Times)

When the responses to the RTI application came in earlier this year, their apprehensions proved to be overwhelmingly correct. It turned out that in the two years between April 2017 and March 2019, the period for which the data had been sought, 275 children had been returned to the system across states—almost 5% of the number of children adopted in India in the same period.

Though hard data on the number of disruptions that happened before 2017 is not yet available, after talking to several child welfare activists and former Cara office-bearers for this story, it seems clear, anecdotally, that the number of children being returned are on the rise. Social workers who have worked in this field for decades maintain that the number of children being given up by adoptive parents either during the foster-care period or even after the adoption has been finalized in a court of law is seeing an alarming rise.

Why are these children being returned? What is the psychological impact of this on the child? Are Indians sensitized enough about adoption and all that it entails? What happens when adoption, which is supposed to provide an abandoned child with a home, fails?

At the Palna home for abandoned and homeless children in Delhi’s Civil Lines area.
At the Palna home for abandoned and homeless children in Delhi’s Civil Lines area. (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

“It is huge trauma for the child. Any separation is traumatic, and we have to remember that these children have usually suffered multiple separations," says Sindhu Naik, member of the Karnataka State Council for Child Welfare (KSCCW), a Bengaluru-based non-profit founded by Lady Lokasundari Raman, wife of Nobel laureate Sir C.V. Raman, in 1961. The KSCCW is the only legally authorized agency for scrutinizing adoption petitions in Karnataka and Naik is one of the social workers who was alarmed by the rising number of disruptions.

A trained counsellor, she has been tracking the issue and its impact on children for some time. “Firstly, the child has been separated from its biological family, either because the child was lost or was given up by the birth mother. That itself is traumatic—even if it’s a two-day-old baby. We feel that every separation from the parent does cause trauma, the repercussions of which will probably not even be seen in the first few years of the child’s life," says Naik. An older child may even remember this separation, she adds.

“Now the child has found a home. You are separating the child again from that home. So the child has gone through two instances of trauma. And in between this, when the child comes to the institution, she also bonds with the caregivers in the institution and makes friends. So one separation, second separation, third separation...this is disastrous for the child’s life."

Why adoption fails

In January 2017, a set of updated adoption regulations under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, came into effect. This was the first time the disruption terminology entered the adoption system, with Cara clearly defining ‘disruption’ and ‘dissolution’ while laying down the standard operating procedure to follow when this happens. ‘‘‘Disruption’ means the child being unmatched from the adoptive family due to non-adjustment of the child with the adoptive family after placement, but prior to the completion of the legal process of adoption; ‘dissolution’ means the annulment of the adoption legally, due to non-adjustment of the child with the adoptive family, after the court decree for the adoption has been obtained," said the gazette notification from the Union ministry of women and child development.

“If you read the juvenile justice Act, there is still no provision for anything called disruption or dissolution, nor will you find a provision in the Act which talks about returning adopted children. However, the 2017 adoption regulations clearly lay down the concept of disruption and dissolution," says Naik.

Adoptions disruptions across states
Adoptions disruptions across states (Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint)

To understand where it all might have started, one has to go back to 2015, when the Union ministry of women and child development made several comprehensive and far-reaching changes to the adoption system, including digitization and centralization. The new digital system (Child Adoption Resource Information and Guidance System, or CARINGS), was aimed at making adoptions faster and more transparent by giving prospective adoptive parents access to a centralized list of children available for adoption across states, and putting the parents on a national waiting list.

Then, in 2016, Cara introduced a category called immediate placement, which allowed parents to bypass a long waiting period if they chose to adopt children from this list, which loosely comprised children who had been labelled “hard to place". The immediate placement list also has older children (above five years of age) and children with special needs. “Some of these children might be those who have been referred several times to prospective adoptive parents but have not found a family...and this could be for a variety of reasons, such as minor ailments or even skin colour," explains Gayatri Abraham, founder of Padme, an adoption resource for parents which provides online information and guidance. Abraham, who also conducts workshops and counselling sessions, is a “parent by adoption"—she prefers the term to the more common “adoptive parent"—to two girls, 10 and 17.

“There are pros and cons to the digital list. There is certainly more transparency—for instance, many children in rural areas who were not getting placed earlier are now getting placed. But there used to be a lot of hand-holding of adoptive parents, as well as a real connection between the workers handling the case at the agency and the child, which is not there any more because of the centralized list. This gives rise to a gap in the psychological preparation of both the parents and the child, and is possibly contributing to the rising number of disruptions," says Abraham.

“In my 30-plus years of association with the process of adoption, I saw possibly two cases of disruption or failure, when the child was returned to the state," says Aloma Lobo, who has worked with adoption coordination agencies in Karnataka and is a former Cara chairperson. “It is true that the numbers are much higher now."

Dr Lobo, who has worked as a counsellor with several adoption agencies, says that in the past, “parents were very well counselled". “We told them about unusual circumstances. In the case of older children, the interaction between parents and the social worker was very extensive. The same agency and social worker would see the entire case through and do follow-ups post-adoption. The present system is a good system, with one serious lacuna—the actual contact between the social workers and parents is very limited."

For instance, under the present system, a gap may arise in understanding the motivation behind the parents’ desire to adopt. Earlier, parents who had just lost a child, say, would be dissuaded from opting for adoption right away and be told to wait until they had come to terms with their grief. Under the present system, parents looking to adopt can select a child from any state online, while their local SAA only acts as a conduit. So a parent in Bengaluru may select a child from, say, Odisha, and have minimum interaction with both SAAs handling the case—the one in Odisha that places the child, and the one in Bengaluru that facilitates the legal process.

Also, since children are placed from a national list, this can create adjustment issues for the child and the family—especially for older children, who have decided preferences in terms of language and food. In the absence of thorough counselling, barriers to acceptance become that much higher.

These barriers are even higher when the adopted child has special needs. Dr Lobo, who adopted her daughter Nisha, who has a rare genetic disorder, 18 years ago, says the decision is never an easy one “but sometimes, you do what you feel you have to do".

That’s what drove 40-year-old HR professional Koushumi Chakraborti, a single mother who was on the adoption waitlist for almost two years before, to look at the immediate placement list—she found her child through an agency in Maharashtra. The child, whom the agency called “transgender", was born with sexual characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies—an intersex individual.

Despite her family’s reservations, Chakraborti was determined to see it through. “My logic was, if not me, who? I am convinced I can give this child a good life, but will there be anyone else ready to do it?" she says. The final adoption order came through six months ago, and Chakraborti says she has enjoyed every moment of motherhood—except a small hitch during the final court hearing when the judge refused to assign the child the female gender because their birth certificate said “male". “The judge said go and get sex reassignment surgery done and then we will see. But I don’t want her to go for surgery right now. When she grows up, she may choose to do so, but that will be her choice."

’After staring at his face for a while, somewhere in my heart I felt that this is a child I want to love,’ says parent-by-adoption Sarmishta Venkatesh about her son, Abhi, in the documentary film ‘(Un)Conditional Love’.
’After staring at his face for a while, somewhere in my heart I felt that this is a child I want to love,’ says parent-by-adoption Sarmishta Venkatesh about her son, Abhi, in the documentary film ‘(Un)Conditional Love’. (Photo: Meha Dedhia)

Chakraborti feels she was well counselled by social workers during the entire process, but in some cases there are gaps in the information made available to parents. “When I was looking through profiles of children under the special needs category, I realized that not every agency gave a great report," says adoptive parent Sarmishta Venkatesh in (Un)Conditional Love, a new documentary on special needs adoption by Mumbai-based film-maker Meha Dedhia. “Probably within the first 10 or 15 in the list was my sweet Abhi’s face. After staring at his face for a while, somewhere in my heart I felt that this is a child I want to love," continues Venkatesh in the film, talking to the camera.

Abhi Venkatesh
Abhi Venkatesh (Photo: Abhishek Scariya)

“Next to his photograph was this diagnosis report. He has like four or five physical and mental disabilities. It was a lot to process and I couldn’t understand (some technical terms). They also gave a glowing profile of the child. However, most government agencies simply label the child as ‘dumb’ or ‘deaf’ with no regard to the personhood of the child," says Venkatesh.

After speaking to many such parents, Dedhia believes some adoption agencies put out a “problem-oriented" report of children with special needs. “While it makes sense to provide a parent with all the disability information, it is also important to write a report that sounds ‘solution-oriented’," says the young film-maker.

THE MISSING LINK

At south Bengaluru’s Matruchhaya Foundling Home, an SAA run by the NGO Canara Bank Relief and Welfare Society, it’s a busy Monday. In the waiting area, a large colourful picture board is covered with happy photographs of parents and children who have recently joined their families through Matruchhaya. A hand-drawn chart gives the number of children who have been placed in various countries, including India, by the organization between 1979-2018.

Sumangala Angadi and Malathi Mohan, two of the NGO’s officers, escort me inside. It’s almost lunchtime and they press me to join them for lunch—a hot thali of rice, sambhar, rasam, cabbage poriyal and curd. Behind the office are the quarters where the children live. While we eat, the children are fed by their caretakers. “You can come inside, but no photographs," says Mohan, as she shows me around.

There are two large roomy living areas, besides a common prayer room, dining area and kitchen. Currently, there are nine children at the home—all below three years of age. Curious toddler eyes look at us as we enter the rooms, which are lined with cradles, playmats and stacking toys. A few of them have bad colds and have been quarantined in one room.

Back in her office, Angadi tells me how she still talks on the phone to a young teen whom she had placed with a family in Bengaluru nine years ago. “She recently lost her father and stopped going to school for a while. I call her and ask her every morning if she’s getting ready for school. That’s the level of contact we have with our earlier kids," says Angadi when I ask her about the changes in the system over the past few years.

Angadi and Mohan believe the process of adopting older children in particular should be slow and easy. “Before the immediate placement option, when parents wanted to adopt older children, they would spend around six months getting to know the child, meeting them every weekend, building trust. So it rarely failed when the child went home," says Mohan, who has handled several cases of older child adoptions (ages 6-9) in what she calls the “offline system"—both for Matruchhaya and other childcare institutions that house adoptable children but are not authorized to facilitate the process.

Both social workers emphasize that while the new system will have a positive impact on adoptions overall, especially if it brings more children into the fold, the discretion and common sense of people like them is also very important. “Earlier, when we would place older children, it would mostly be within the state so that the child would be familiar with the language, food habits, etc. Nowadays many of the older children from other states can’t even talk to the judge during the finalization process because they don’t know English or the local language," says Angadi, recalling a recent case of disruption when a nine-year-old boy adopted by a single female parent came back to them. Thankfully, the boy was placed again with a family in Kerala and is doing well.

the human touch

What happens when adoption fails? According to Cara’s protocol, the child generally goes back to the SAA that coordinated the adoption, or in the case of inter-state adoptions, he or she is sent to the custody of the State Adoption Resource Agency in the state where the child is residing. Once the disruption or dissolution is finalized, the status of the child is updated as “legally free for adoption" in the CARINGS database.

Cara has taken note of disruptions—in June 2018, it sent a circular to all SAAs acknowledging that “some instances of disruption have come to our notice where children taken in pre-adoption Foster Care have been returned by the domestic PAPs (prospective adoptive parents). This is more in cases of older children from CCIs (child care institutions) who do not counsel and prepare the children for adoption.... It is important to ascertain the reasons/factors behind such return/disruptions of the children from adoptive families to undertake necessary course corrections."

Lounge has reached out to Cara through emails and phone calls but is yet to receive responses to emailed questions; the story will be updated online if and when we hear from the organization.

The psychological effect of adoption failure on individual children has not yet been studied in India
The psychological effect of adoption failure on individual children has not yet been studied in India

The psychological effect of adoption failure on individual children has not yet been studied in India and adoption coordinators are naturally wary of letting journalists talk to such children. According to several child psychologists spoken to for this story, children who have been separated from their biological parents or early primary caregivers, even in infancy, may suffer from what is called reactive attachment disorder (RAD), which can hinder bonding with adults. According to the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association, RAD may occur when “the child has experienced a pattern of extremes of insufficient care as evidenced by at least one of the following: social neglect or deprivation, repeated changes of primary caregiver, rearing in unusual settings".

Child psychologists say children who have been separated from their biological parents or early primary caregivers may suffer from reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
Child psychologists say children who have been separated from their biological parents or early primary caregivers may suffer from reactive attachment disorder (RAD).

A social worker at an adoption agency in Karnataka, which has seen two older children (and an infant with a disability) return to the institution over the past two years, says individual children “react differently" to disruption. “One of the kids was happy to come back to his friends and familiar environment, but of the other two, the girl, who is 8, was quite upset. For older children, who see infants and toddlers being taken home by happy parents while no one seems to want them, to be rejected after adoption is very, very traumatic. We are trying to make her cheer up but she seems quite depressed. Initially, she would cry a lot but of late she’s playing with her friends," says the social worker, on condition of anonymity. Two of the three adoptions had taken place under the immediate placement system, she adds.

But not all such adoptions are doomed, of course. In April, Nita Madiman, a 49-year-old government officer in Bengaluru, brought home her daughter Samiksha (who just turned 7) from a childcare institution in Nagpur. Being a single parent over the age of 45, Madiman was only eligible to adopt an older child, and though she had reservations about being able to cope with a child who might be set in her ways, she preferred it to taking care of an infant or toddler.

There have been challenges along the way—especially at school, where Samiksha had a few behavioural issues—but Madiman is understanding about this. “It’s a whole new life for her. New home, new city, new school…of course, there will be a period of adjustment during which the child can act out a bit. I have spoken to the teachers about her background and they are being supportive," says Madiman. She talks fondly about how well Samiksha has adjusted to her new family. “She’s a go-getter. An achiever. And she’s very sweet with my 84-year-old mother, who lives with us. She calls her Ammamma."

The breakdown and failure of adoption is not easy on anyone—neither the child nor the adoptive parents, nor the social workers who facilitate it. It takes a lot of nurturing by every adult involved in the process to see a child through this transition—and by reducing the role of certain vital human links in the process, the system might be creating a situation where the risk of failure becomes much higher. While digitization is certainly helpful in creating transparency and an efficient system, it has to be supplemented by robust dialogue and counselling. All you need is love—but sometimes, therapy is just as important.

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