Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CHILD: February 07, 1999
A matter of choice
It is a leap from darkness to light, from despair to joy. With a decisive stroke, the lid is placed firmly on regrets and pain to reach fulfilment through love. This is an alternative that leads one from frustration and heartache to reward.
Adoption is an act of redemption - of restoring faith in oneself. For those who have gone in for it, it is a happy story of right choices and of taking the right turning while at the crossroads.
The endless visits to the doctor, the agony and disappointment of being let down month after month by Nature, the effort of willing yourself to conceive, the undertaking of fasts, vows and of trying out remedies by the dozen - it is all like a bad dream.
As the tiny one wails and smiles, toddles and speaks, it is a miracle you never expected to happen to you. The empty hours that had stretched barrenly on the long road ahead are now full. The delight and anxiety of parenthood are within your grasp; there is a new meaning and purpose to life.
The past decade has brought about a great change in the adoption scenario. This is a story that gives the writer a sense of reward, for unlike in many other social areas where we seem to keep slipping deeper and deeper into the morass, on the adoption front there is a positive shift. It is an affirmation that even in a traditional society attitudes can change fast. The shroud of secrecy has lifted. There is a sense of freedom and of openness. The "What will people say?" attitude, the bane of Indian society, is not relevant anymore.
Today, extended families can still throw a spanner in the works. But the younger generation has a more liberal attitude and a broader outlook owing to greater exposure. It is, therefore, more willing to go in for adoption. Increasing number of women are now economically independent and this empowers them in the decision making process regarding the size, nature and composition of the family unlike in the past where the men made the decisions. Single parents are also coming forward to adopt a child.
Formerly, welfare agencies which were trying to promote the adoption of Indian babies within the country (in-country adoption) found the going tough and it was left to foreigners to adopt many of these children. "If the child is ill-treated in India, it is better off abroad," says Mr. K. N. George of the Madras School of Social Work, a licensed agency for adoption.
But inter-country adoption has its own problems in terms of adjustment and integration for the child. Research has shown that in six per cent of inter-country adoptions worldwide, the child returns to residential care.
Though adoption is the best way by which an abandoned child can be rehabilitated, familiar surroundings, people and culture make the exercise less traumatic. The thrust therefore is on the child remaining within the country.
Happily now in quite a few adoption agencies in the country, there are as many as 50 Indian couples on the waiting list, a heartwarming reversal of the scene some years ago when 50 children would be in the waiting line.
Another positive shift has been that from being parent centred, adoption has become child-centred. Previously, parents would adopt so that they could be looked after by the children when they grew old and also for the performance of their last rites. Now a child's need for the love and warmth of a family in order to realise its potential is increasingly being recognised. Institutional care is required for children with special needs but it does not provide the right environment for a normal child to grow up in.
Adoption is not an alien concept in a country where the epics and puranas hold innumerable instances of this. Seetha and Andal were found and fostered; Krishna and Karna were brought up by parents who were biologically not their own. Ancient India spoke of "Sweekaram" but generally the adoptee was a boy who was related to the family.
Hindu religious rites and customs place great emphasis on having a child. For a woman to be barren was considered a curse and to be childless the outcome of sins committed by a couple in their previous birth. Family and society place a crushing burden on a couple to produce children. Motherhood is glorified to such an extent that a women is made to feel that life has no meaning if she cannot reach that exalted status.
Adoption is indeed filling a void in the lives of many couples and it is a decision that has brought them emotional fulfilment.(A few parents admit to having been beset by second thoughts, fear and even hostility when they first brought the child home, but they were soon able to overcome these feelings).
"I had a medical problem and could not conceive," says Ranjani Jayaram. "The doctors prescribed hormones and drugs. But my husband was against it and suggested we should go in for adoption." They had been married for seven years when they decided to adopt a baby girl. "Now I even forget that my ten-year-old daughter is adopted. My mother-in-law and mother were very supportive of our decision and asked us to go ahead if it would make us happy. If you are confident of handling it, you should have the courage to go in for adoption; you should not blame society," she says.
Usha Mahadevan, a lecturer in a college in Chennai and her husband, a businessman, decided to adopt twins (a boy and a girl) after more than 12 years of married life. "It is absolutely rewarding to go in for adoption," she says.
"I have spoken to 75 families and there is not an iota of doubt that the parents have given all of themselves to the children," says Vinita Bhargava, lecturer in the Department of Child Development, Lady Irwin College, New Delhi who is engaged in research in the area of adoption.
Vinita is also the founder of the Alternating Parenting Network Association (APNA), Delhi and the President of the Central Voluntary Adoption Resource Agency. She and her husband, a paediatrician, adopted an infant girl ten years ago. "We had a four-year-old son but wanted a daughter very much. We didn't want to take chances and decided to adopt a girl. My son loves my daughter very much and is more sensitive to her needs than I am."
Those who adopt do so because they are childless or wish to provide a sibling for their child or else are propelled by the desire to give a child a home. Susheela Natraj and her husband chose to parent a girl when they already had a biological son and daughter.
Parents like Susheela feel strongly that they do not give back to society what they get out of it. "Indians are a very selfish lot. We have imported so many things from the West but we have not learnt to develop a social conscience and compassion like westerners," feels Susheela.
The process of making the child their own is not difficult at all, feel these parents. It is generally love at first sight and the bonds grow stronger with the years.
Disclosure and acceptance of the adopted status is recommended for parents and children.
Parents generally break the news to the child when he or she is three years old in the form of a story or fairytale. But it takes many more years for some of the adoptees to understand and come to terms with the situation, to get over the feeling of hurt and rejection. The compulsion to find their roots and parentage is strong for a few.
Adoptive Parents' Associations have been set up in various cities to form a support group to help both the parents and children.
"Pre-adoption counselling is absolutely necessary to equip parents with the right attitude and realistic expectations," says Vidya Shankar, General Secretary of the Adoptive Parents' Association, Tamil Nadu and founder of the APA, Karnataka. While the TN APA has 90 members, the one in Karnataka has 50. "In Madras when the association was formed in 1994, we found there were legal based problems while in Bangalore, the processes were more streamlined" says Vidya, mother of an eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old adopted son. However in this field, Maharashtra is 20 years ahead of Tamil Nadu." The Indian Adoption Promotion Association in Bombay has blazed a pioneering trail.
As legal procedures have been simplified parents are now willing to take on the responsibility of caring for older children as well. A high water mark in the legal scenario has been the Supreme Court judgment of 1984 which laid down a comprehensive set of guidelines for the process of adoption.
This has helped streamline it and to provide safeguards against malpractices as it was alleged that children who were sent abroad were being exploited. The Supreme Court banned inter-country adoption by individuals and private agencies. A Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA) was set up by the Ministry of Welfare, Government of India in 1990 to act as a national co-ordinating body for inter-country adoption and also ensure the smooth integration of the adoptees into their environment. Scrutinising agencies were identified to assist the court in adjudicating inter-country adoption cases and Voluntary Coordinating Agencies (VCAs) to ensure that enough opportunity is given to every child to find a home within India.
Only licensed agencies are qualified to handle adoption of both categories - in country and inter-country. Agencies dealing with inter-country adoption are licensed by CARA and those dealing in in-country by the respective State Governments. The VCA in every State matches the child from the agencies for in-country adoption keeping the requirements of the parents and children in mind.
Children who are free for adoption are those given up by unwed mothers, relinquished by parents who are unable to support them either owing to poverty or illness or else found abandoned in hospitals and streets.
Despite safeguards being provided, the process is not foolproof. Loopholes are aplenty. Contradictions within the CARA guidelines, the functional limitations of the VCAs and the unscrupulous attitude of a few adoption agencies allow the clearly set down guidelines to be violated with impunity.
Manoj K. Jain
Ignorance and avarice combine to tarnish the process. The lure of easy money tempts agencies to dodge ethical norms. Despite the child maintenance amount and lawyers fees being stipulated, they sell the child (in the guise of receiving donations) for even a lakh of rupees to foreigners who are desperate to parent. There are instances of parents being misled into parting with their child, being asked to sign on blank paper and of children being literally stolen from their unwed mothers. There are also reports of touts visiting rural homes and persuading parents with numerous children to part with them as siblings do not require a clearance certificate for inter-country adoption.
"A lot of trust is reposed in the agency. We have good norms for adoption which are absent in many countries and everyone involved in the process should adhere to it with sincerity," says Chandra Thanikachalam, Joint Secretary of the Indian Council for Child Welfare, Tamil Nadu, one of the scrutinising agencies for inter-country adoption.
The lack of a uniform law for people of all faiths (Hindus, Christians, Muslim and Jews) is keenly felt by social workers, welfare agencies, aspiring parents and almost all those in the field of adoption. Hindus and those from related faiths - Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains - can legally adopt a child under The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956. But Christians, Muslims, Jews and other non-Hindus have to take recourse to the Guardian and Wards Act, 1890.
Many attempts have been made to introduce a uniform law but it evades acceptance and implementation. Also there are attitudinal problems and ignorance on the part of Government staff, field workers and the general public. Many children who deserve a home are not legally free for adoption as there are no firm grounds for removing these children from institutions. Ashrams and institutions housing orphans which thrive on foreign donations and public goodwill have mushroomed. The 1960 Orphanages and Charitable Institutions Act, which would enable monitoring of homes where children are kept, is not being enforced. Collusion is alleged between a few Indian and foreign agencies.
What are the yardsticks used to give licences to agencies? How is it that members of Juvenile Welfare Boards, which give clearance to destitutes to make them free for adoption, sometimes run adoption agencies themselves giving them a vested interest in the procedure? Can control be exercised over the amount charged for adoption? These are some of the queries raised.
"Adoption has became a top priority since the present Minister took over," says Mr. Anand Bordia, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, "We are making inter-country adoption simple as delay gets the country a bad name. This does not mean that in-country adoption is not being given the importance it deserves. The aim is to see that children move out of institutions and into families as this is the best way to rehabilitate them.
"In the last four months, we have made a series of procedural improvements to debureaucratise CARA. We want to make it an autonomous body and ensure that committed people in the field of adoption are involved in an active manner. We are implementing guidelines for bringing uniformity between various States in in-country adoption."
The joint secretary's emphasis that "it is life we are dealing with and not files" is echoed by Mr. Dev Varman, Director of CARA.
"We want to sensitise District Collectors and other officials on the issue. When a child is being transferred from one State to another, we would like the Collectors to give it the priority it deserves. Apart from publicity (we are producing two films on adoption) to make people aware, CARA has introduced guidelines for the VCA's, to reduce subjectivity in their functioning," says Mr. Vernan. "When we receive written complaints, we take action against agencies, in fact we have done so against one agency in a couple of states.
Adoption forms only a small percentage of the activities of State Governments. But Tamil Nadu is among the few States which is focussing attention on the issue.
"We are sensitising the police, revenue officials, doctors and grassroot level workers and also the judiciary" says Mr. M. P. Vijaykumar, Director, Social Welfare Department, Tamil Nadu.
"The Government has earmarked Rs. 5.5 lakhs for its adoption action plan which includes publicity. Apart from seminars and workshops, a web site on adoption is being introduced by the State Government.
Above all, an Adoption Bill has been drawn up in Tamil Nadu. It will be optional and not interfere with personal laws. "For the first time a nodal officer for adoption has been designated in every district," adds Ms. Supriya Sahu, former Additional Director, Social Welfare Department, Tamil Nadu.
"Those from rural areas and lower income sections have less expectations than those belonging to urban areas and higher income groups who have preconceived ideas about how the child should look," says Ms. Vidya Reddy of VCA, Tamil Nadu.
For the security of the child and its adoptive parents, it is essential that illegal adoption be avoided at all costs. Picking up infants from doctors or agents has seeds of potential psychological distress. Biological parents may return years later to claim their offspring or it can land adoptive parents in litigation.
Ms. Andal Damodaran, Secretary of the ICCW, Tamil Nadu points out the shortcomings that need to be addressed in the area "Society has accepted adoption but school authorities need to be sensitised regarding admission. Teachers often do not know how to deal with an adopted child which is viewed like a specimen under a glass. Government organisations as well as private ones should provide maternity leave to adoptive mothers for the child needs the same care and attention as a biological child. Legal delay should also be minimised," she adds.
Adoption is a very personal choice. It is stressed repeatedly by social welfare workers and adoption agencies how preparedness is needed to take on the mantle of an adoptive parent. But those who have learnt to bond with a child, uncaring of where it came from but totally committed to the direction it will take in life, know that through one small life the shattered fragments of their dreams have come together to provide them a vision of the future.
Perpetuity is not an act of Nature alone. Man can give it a gentle push and through nurturing and caring, project a part of himself into the limitless space that is future Time.
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