India’s Abandoned Children in The Time of Covid-19

IN MARCH, AN orphanage on the outskirts of Hyderabad in Ameenpur asked a teenage girl, who alleged she was raped, to leave the institution following the lockdown. Police said that the 14-year-old, whose parents had died years ago, may have been subject to repeated sexual abuse at the orphanage. Finally, she was forced to return to her relatives who had put her in the orphanage in 2015. Shortly, while at her relatives’ home, she had to be admitted to a hospital due to the injuries she had sustained from repeated rapes. The girl died in a government hospital last month, bringing to the focus, yet again, multiple jeopardies children face in orphanages in India, especially when relatives and even their parents are too uncaring to pay a visit even after years.

All this is an outcome, avers Pune-based child-rights activist Smriti Gupta, of our officials not “defining the word ‘caring’ by family” of children forced to live in government-run or privately operated childcare centres, also called shelters and orphanages. The inadequate definition of ‘caring’ means that children are not freed from the clutches of their indifferent parents and not placed for adoption. While it is true that poor parents, especially migrant workers, do place their children in shelters and maintain warm ties with them, Gupta rues the policy of prioritising parents and not the kids.

Gupta is the CEO of the meaningfully titled charity organisation ‘Where Are India’s Children?’ Her argument is that the mindset of lawmakers and officials is to focus on what parents want, notwithstanding their dubious record as uncaring ones. Her organisation’s title verbalises her own vision and purpose. “I had made up my mind as a student that I would not have children of my own, but would adopt them. I didn’t want to marry either, but then when I was doing my master’s in electrical engineering, I met my husband and Cupid struck. I told him we would adopt children, and he readily agreed,” says this former US-based employee of Wikimedia Foundation, the parent company of Wikipedia. Both her children are adopted. It was when she decided to adopt the second one, after the first one turned three, that she realised it was not a cumbersome process, mostly because new rules stipulated that prospective parents would be allotted options by the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), a statutory body that falls under the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

Yet, in the CARA pool, there were very few children compared with those living in childcare institutions. So, while many parents want to adopt, there are very few children available. That was the trigger for Gupta to launch her NGO to help identify more children who needed to get adopted and live with normal families. “The Hyderabad girl should have been in the adoption pool,” she says with a whiff of regret.

Over 30,000 parents in India are waiting to adopt while the ‘pool’ has barely 2,000 children. According to the Government, the CARA, which maintains this pool, functions as the nodal body for adoption of Indian children and is mandated to monitor and regulate intra-country and inter-country adoptions. Its website says, ‘CARA is designated as the Central Authority to deal with inter-country adoptions in accordance with the provisions of the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption, 1993, ratified by the government of India in 2003.’ The new rules came into force in 2013.

When Mumbai-based Jyotsna Nair adopted her daughter more than seven years ago, these new rules were not yet implemented. This meant that she did not have to apply to the CARA, which works closely with agencies and NGOs that offer shelter for lakhs of abandoned and orphaned children in India. Nair was lucky to choose and adopt a child from an agency within a few months of her applying for adoption. “Back then we had to deal only with the agency that runs orphanages. Of course, my husband and I had to furnish all documents, including academic qualifications and financial status, to be able to adopt our child, but we had to deal only with the agency,” says Nair, an HR professional whose husband is a paediatrician. Though her own experience of meeting her daughter as an infant is the stuff of adoption fairy tales—the baby instantly stopped crying as Nair picked her up, and they hugged one another for minutes in silence at first sight—Nair has nightmares about the faces of the other children at the orphanage. “They look at you with such terrible longing; even at such a small age, they are able to recognise that these couples who walk into the agency are their ticket to a better future.”

The new CARA rules make adoption safer, more transparent and eliminate overcharging by unscrupulous agents, but since there are far fewer children in the CARA pool results than the demand, parents have to face delays and hardships, often travelling afar to find a child.

2,000 children available in the legal adoption pool. The demand at any point of time is from over 30,000 parents

Unlike earlier, with agencies unable to directly offer children for adoption, the price parents end up paying for greater transparency is that children are denied a chance to reach a new family, Gupta states. A fallout is that childcare centres have to raise funds for children who are not able to join new families. Numbers confirm the tragedy: a 2018 Government report said over 55,000 children from child shelters can be brought into the legal adoption pool but continue to languish in shelters. A study by Mumbai NGO Catalysts for Social Action recommends that 22 per cent of the 4 lakh kids now in shelters be evaluated for consideration in the legal adoption pool.

The problem stems not from the new CARA rules but from shelters that are designed and incentivised to house children, not find them families. Another roadblock is that parents, although they may rarely visit their wards in orphanages, refuse to ‘surrender’ the child and endorse that their child can be adopted, which is a legal prerequisite.

Chandra Devi Thanikachalam, the Chennai-based official of the Indian Council for Child Welfare, which evaluates children and parents for adoption, admits that demand is disproportionately higher than supply. Unlike Gupta, she doesn’t fault parents for not surrendering their children despite not being caring enough. “Poor people, too, have a right to family. It is also understandable that parents do not want to give away their children. The mindset change will take long to come into effect,” she says.

Thanikachalam suggests that the foster-home programme envisaged under the Juvenile Justice Act can be an alternative to adoption. She points out that the concept is a huge success in the West where people offer their homes and finance children’s education while they remain mere foster parents. This does not cause mental fatigue and heartbreak for the biological parents either because they don’t have to let go of their children completely.

In India, however, such schemes throw up numerous challenges. First, not many parents in line for adoption would want to offer just foster care. Secondly, children who get accustomed to higher-socio-economic households find it extremely difficult to adjust when they return to their biological parents. There is also a risk of psychological trauma for children from poor backgrounds selected to reputed boarding schools and often dispatched for exchange study programmes abroad.

Families may still squirm at adoption, but India is miles ahead in access to creative solutions for the willing.

Gayatri Abraham founded Padme, an organsation that works in the adoption space, in 2016. For years now, this family counsellor has been helping parents and children, besides others, in pre-adoption and post-adoption stages to come to grips with the whole exercise. “Our effort has been to bridge the emotional disconnect among other stakeholders—the medical community, special educators, developmental pediatricians. For adoption to work from point A to Z you have to bring everyone together and address the missing links,” she says. Padme offers help even with specialised services such as resources for adopting children with special needs. Abraham says that the CARA has got its act together as regards documentation and legal processes, and her area of expertise is to promote dialogue among people from India and abroad to streamline the process.  Abraham also notes that “the best interest for the child is to be with his or her family or with an adopted family”. She frequently conducts workshops in which she brings experts from fields connected with adoption and parental guidance to ease the process and to help people understand adoption procedures. While many Indian parents are becoming more mature in their choices, she says, most are still averse to adopting older children and those with special needs. Before the CARA rules came into effect, parents were obsessed with the skin colour of children. Abraham admits that it will be a while before people’s attitudes progress.

An NGO study recommends that 22 per cent of the 4 lakh kids now in shelters be evaluated for consideration in the legal adoption pool

A Union Government official close to the matter tells Open that the CARA is headed in the right direction and will achieve more cohesion and integrate its activities with the help of NGOs and other official agencies. “Of course, there is a lot of improvement that is in order. But we are on the right track and are looking at a comprehensive campaign to overhaul mindsets and revolutionise adoption so that more children will benefit in the future. There is far greater transparency than one could ever imagine,” the official says.

The optimism is common in official circles. However, of those who spoke to Open, one who is in the process of finalising their plans says, “Implementation of central plans in many orphanages are far from satisfactory.”

Radha and Manas (named changed for privacy) in Mumbai were looking to adopt when they finally got a call from an orphanage in Telangana. They rushed to the spot, a forlorn outpost of sorts for these metro dwellers. Anticipating a family-bonding moment, they had also taken their son along. But their tale of woes started the moment they reached the orphanage where they met a girl who could hardly walk. The shelter in-charge was away. The couple and their son returned later to pick up the girl for a medical test before confirming adoption. “They sent a lady with us when we took the girl to a paediatrician who after examining the child said that she is undernourished and needs treatment,” Manas says. The couple agreed to bear the cost of treatment at a private hospital and returned. The orphanage said it would get back with the paperwork. As nobody from the shelter got back within the deadline, the couple lost their opportunity to adopt the girl. “Finally, the blame fell on us. We were accused of discriminating against a child despite us expressing our readiness once the girl is treated and a medical certificate is obtained as is mandatory in adoptions,” Manas adds, emphasising that there is a huge gap to be filled between word and deed. As with many central schemes, this one spearheaded by the CARA also faces numerous odds, he says. The official that Open spoke to, however, said, “We cannot tolerate parents being biased about any child over one reason or the other. That is all.”

The likes of Abraham and Gupta have shown that charity organisations and NGOs are trying to fill the gaps in society and governance. “We need NGOs despite the Government doing its job,” says Gupta. They have also displayed out-of-the-box thinking with the aim of uncluttering the process of adoption in India. For instance, Gupta and her team have created a technology solution to track visits by parents to orphanages to measure ‘caring’. “Our aim is to use technology in a better way to auto-flag children for adoption,” she says. “Verified tracking is not there now in most places. Besides, tracking ensures safety of the children. The app we have developed for this purpose can integrate itself with the existing Government system,” Gupta adds.

She has also started a petition on Change.org called Safe Surrender, asking media organisations to make a change in reporting child abandonment. “In every such news report, the media should include information on how parents or guardians can safely surrender a child at an adoption agency. This small change can create massive public awareness and prevent future child abandonment and death,” says Gupta.

It is a cause for worry that more orphans and abandoned kids are not making it to the legal adoption pool. Each passing day, yet another child’s dream to join a family and rewrite their future goes up in smoke.

First published in Open

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