How a change in adoption laws will benefit children’s health
India has proposed changing the law that governs adoption in order to fast-track court clearances, which often delays the process by more than two years. The proposed amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act of 2015 empowers district courts to declare children legally free for adoption, moving away from the busy courts of civil magistrates, which struggle with backlogs of pending cases and rarely prioritise adoption. The move is expected to bring the time taken per adoption down to about two months.
As things stand, only 2,671 children were adopted between 2016 and March 14, 2017, shows government data. There are no official figures for the number of orphans in India, but non-governmental organisations put the number at about 50,000.
Apart from encouraging more people to adopt, the move will bring huge psychological and physical benefits for the adopted child. Less than 1 in 10 children aged 6 months to 23 months, including those who live with family, get an adequately healthy diet, shows data from the National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS4) released in 2017. The nutritional intake of children in cities is only marginally better than those who live in villages, with only 10.1% of urban kids and 8.2% of rural children getting an adequate diet of four or more food groups, excluding milk. Since toddlers who live with their families are more likely to be adequately fed than those who eat in a large group, very often with older children, early adoption also packs a nutritional punch.
Poor nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life — from conception to age two — causes irreversible damage to the child’s physical and mental development. Malnutrition causes close to half of the world’s 5.9 million under-5 deaths — 16,000 deaths each day, estimates the World Health Organization. One in five of these deaths occurs in India.
Undernourished children are physically smaller than average and have weaker immunities, raising their chances of getting infections, including life-threatening ones such as pneumonia and diarrhoea. Each episode of diarrhoea leads to a child losing vital nutrients from the body, with repeated infections leading to stunting and wasting. Diarrhoea alone kills 1.2 lakh under-5 children in India each year, which makes it the second biggest cause of avoidable childhood deaths in the country.
Frequent illnesses lead to children missing school, lowering learning and grades. They are more likely to develop metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity, as adults if they start eating high-calorie food later in life.
Undernourished children have low muscle mass and energy, which makes them listless and less active, which reduces psychosocial skills and external stimulation.
Apart from nutritious food, the brains of young children need physical and mental stimulation from people talking to and playing with them. Human interaction at this age is essential in the first 1,000 days of life because this is when the fastest neurodevelopment takes place, with the brain forming 1,000 neural connections every second. Neural connections are the foundations of the brains cognitive capacity, raising the child’s IQ and intellectual growth.
How the brain develops depends on the critical interplay between genetics and the experiences you have, beginning in the womb. The mother’s diet feeds the baby’s rapidly developing brain, which grows exponentially and triples in weight from 100 gm to 300 gm in the last 13 weeks of gestation.
A baby is born with 100 billion brain cells but how these cells get wired depends on the toddler’s sensory experiences. Children who do not get enough sensory stimulation – from watching, listening, smelling, touching and tasting – have a lower capacity to learn, think analytically and regulate emotions and behaviour. Quality stimulation is often missing even in the best of orphanages, where carers look after several children across age groups.
The home edge
Children who are adopted at young ages can even gain enough to overcome any nutritional disadvantages they may have suffered in the womb. Several studies show that childhood interventions are “better early than late”. The earnings of disadvantaged children who received high-quality stimulation as toddlers caught up with those of a comparison group of well-fed children 20 years later, reported a study from Jamaica published in Science magazine. The undernourished children who got no help lagged behind, earning an average of 25% less at the start of their adult lives.
The earlier children find a caring home, the higher their chances are of developing into healthy and productive adults who will contribute to India’s growth story. And that’s good news for everyone.