Why Are Indians Returning Adopted Kids?
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Tech isn't always a fix for problems. It can cause new ones too.
In 2016, Anjali Gupta and her husband drove 17 hours from the city of Bangalore to Pandharpur in the neighboring state of Maharashtra, to bring home their adopted baby boy. After a yearlong wait, Gupta had been matched with the 8-month-old boy through a digital adoption mechanism India has embraced to hasten and simplify the process for parents like her.
Nothing prepared her for the horrors that followed.
Soon after taking the child home, the then 40-year-old — whose name has been changed at her request to protect her privacy — was informed that she couldn’t adopt the boy just yet. He was “evidence” in an alleged rape case fought by his biological mother against the father. Three months later, with no signs of a settlement in the case, she decided to return her child to the adoption agency, worried about keeping him without legal rights and scared about the trauma of having to return him when he is older.
The new system has failed.
Aloma Lobo, former chief of CARA, India’s apex adoption regulator
Gupta’s circumstances reflect an alarming trend. Data obtained by activists in 2019 through India’s Right to Information law reveals that in the past two years, 275 children have been “returned” by parents to the adoption system across the country. That’s 5 percent of the number of children adopted during this period. While government data on adoption failures before 2017 isn’t yet available, experts and veterans say there were no more than a handful of cases each year. And many of them lay the blame for this growing crisis on the digitization and centralization of the adoption system in a complex nation like India.
“The number of disruptions was very, very small as compared to now,” says Aloma Lobo, a voluntary adoption consultant and former chairperson of the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), India’s apex adoption regulation body. “The new system has failed. It lacks human connection.”
The new system was set up in 2015 with the aim of increasing transparency and reducing corruption. An online portal gives prospective adoptive parents access to a centralized list of children available for adoption across states in India and puts them on a national waiting list.
Earlier, prospective parents had to visit individual adoption agencies to look for children, which effectively made them choose nearby, mostly urban kids. Now, parents like Gupta can be matched with a child hundreds of miles away, especially in rural areas where children have fewer chances of adoption, with the click of a mouse. Before, parents had to deal directly with the specialized adoption agency, or SAA — as registered agencies are called — where the child was a resident. Now, an SAA local to the parents’ residence coordinates the paperwork.
But that increases the potential for a mismatch, say experts. Before, representatives from the SAA of the child — who understand her personality and needs — were responsible for visiting prospective parents and preparing a report on whether they were a good fit. The “home report” includes evaluations of the parents’ motives for the adoption, and their financial and mental stability. “They helped parents make an informed decision on whether or not adopting a particular child was right for them,” says Lobo. It’s a process that often took weeks or even months. Now, that task is performed by an SAA local to the parents — who don’t know the child.
Ultimately, the breach in direct interaction with the child’s SAA hurts adoptive parents too, say experts. It’s this agency that can provide everything from the child’s medical details to help when children are unable to adjust at home, and assistance with any legal complications that might arise.
That’s particularly important with older children — who CARA acknowledges are particularly vulnerable to being returned. “Most of the disruptions happening are in the case of older children,” says Deepak Kumar, CEO of CARA.
For Anand Chinapan, the director of Bangalore-based Shishu Mandir, a children’s society with its own adoption arm, the new system is akin to “online shopping.”
“Once matched, parents must accept or reject the child with a click of a button, without ever seeing the child,” says Chinapan. Parents must take their child home within three weeks of being matched — and must also obtain approval from a district child protection officer in this period. “This leaves little to no time for parents to interact with the child, especially if they live in another state,” adds Chinapan.
For older children, adoption is often a particularly traumatic separation from their caregivers and friends at their institution. If they’re then returned, the suffering multiplies. “They have already lost one family, and now they lose another one,” says Lorraine Campos, assistant director at New Delhi-based orphanage Palna. “They stop trusting that a person can care for them.”
Children with special needs are also particularly vulnerable — they constitute 1 in 4 returned children. Many of them are listed on the “immediate placement” category for “hard-to-place children.” The process is further expedited for parents who choose to adopt from this list. “Many parents just click the immediate placement button because they want a child as soon as possible,” says Lobo. “They think they can deal with the child’s circumstances, but they can’t.”
CARA’s Kumar argues that the agency’s new efforts — especially for older children — need to be given time. “Even if we find a family for 100 older children and 20 return, at least we have found families for 80 children,” he says.
But better and more elaborate counseling of parents and children, and the restoration of the connection between parents and the child’s SAA, could help reduce the number of returned kids, experts say. India also lacks mental health professionals who specialize in adoptions.
As for Gupta, the experience of giving up her boy is too painful for her to ever try adoption again. “I cared for my baby boy. I bathed him and I talked to him,” she says. “Now I’ll never have closure on where he is and how he is doing.”