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Nowhere’s child: A year after Sherin Mathews case, are Indian adoptees in foreign countries any safer?

HT finds out that inter-country adoption is still a work in progress

india Updated: Oct 15, 2018 13:10 IST
Danish Raza
Danish Raza
Hindustan Times
Sherin Mathews,adoption,Spain
A photograph of 3-year-old Sherin Mathews at a makeshift memorial, October 2017, in Richardson, Texas. (AP images)

In January 2018, a 13-year-old girl got a new identity, and was looking at a future very different from what life would have been like in India. But six months after she was placed in inter-country adoption, her adoptive parents surrendered her to the Spanish government, alleging that the adoption agency in Madhya Pradesh had misled them about her age. While they had signed up for a seven-year-old, they discovered (in Spain) that she was 13. She is currently in a government home in Spain, and the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD), along with the Indian embassy in Spain, will now decide the future course of action – depending on what she herself wants and what is in her best interest.

In September first week, India began the procedure to cancel the Overseas Citizenship of India card of Wesley and Sini Mathews, the Indian-American adoptive parents of three-year old girl Sherin Mathews. The couple is awaiting trial in the US for the girl’s murder who was adopted from an agency in Patna in 2016. She was found dead near the family’s home in Richardson, Texas, on October 22, 2017, two weeks after her family reported her missing.

These cases have shifted the spotlight to gaps in regulations and the lax attitude of agencies involved in inter-country adoption because of which many adoptees are left vulnerable in foreign lands. The government is still in the process of making the mechanism fool-proof even as adoptees pay with their lives, stare at an uncertain future, and, in some cases, are deported back to India because of incomplete paperwork.

GO SLOW OR FAST?
Should government agencies clear the backlog in child care institutions by putting children in inter-country adoption on a priority basis? Or is there a need for better scrutiny before placing children in adoption even it means that children spend more time in shelter homes?

Child rights experts and organisations dealing with inter-country adoptions are divided on the issue.

Adoption is one of the alternative care options for children living in child care institutes who fall in one of the three categories – orphaned, abandoned, surrendered. The Child Welfare Committee (CWC) decides if a child is legally free for adoption following which the child is put in a Specialised Adoption Agency (SAA). The agency places him or her in adoption through Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), the nodal body for adoption, functioning under the MWCD.

Around 50,000 kids in child care institutes are fit to be placed in alternate care, as per the mapping of these institutes done by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in 2016-2017.

Cases of rampant sexual abuse, lack of a child-friendly environment and inadequate monitoring prove that these facilities are not always the best for children.

In January 2018, the MWCD said that it planned to tweak the Juvenile Justice Act (JJA) to shift adoption from the purview of civil courts to the district magistrates in order to bring down the waiting period, which is currently around two years.

The consequent pressure on implementing agencies to declare children legally for adoption is compromising with children’s future, believes Bharti Sharma, former chairperson, CWC, Delhi. “The policy to put maximum kids in adoption in the shortest possible time is problematic. Agencies should have ample time to find out the child’s background and decide if adoption would be the best option. Compromising on time is better than compromising on the child’s life,” says Bharti.

THE DARK SIDE OF INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTIONS
2018: India suspended the operations of the American adoption agency which was involved in the adoption of Indian-born Sherin Mathews who died in the U.S. in October 2017.
2018: A Spanish couple abandoned 13-year-old Indian adoptee alleging that the Indian adoption agency (based in Bhopal) misled them about the girl’s age. The girl is currently living at a children home in Spain.
2017: Adoption racket busted in West Bengal. State CID acknowledged the existence of a huge network of NGOs, doctors and middlemen trading in children for adoption.
2010: Australia suspended adoption programme with India on charges of trafficking of children for Inter-country adoption. The programme was resumed in August 2018.
2011: CBI filed charge-sheet against the managing trustee of Pune-based orphanage Preet Mandir in connection with child trafficking.
2005: Police arrested a gang of child traffickers which was supplying children to the Malaysian Social Services, a Chennai-based orphanage which would place them in inter-country adoption.

Aparna Bhat, lawyer and member of CARA’s steering committee, says that the agencies should do thorough background checks within a stipulated time-frame which is in the best interest of the child. Bhat’s concern is that a long gestation period may work against the child. “As a prospective adoptive parent, when I identify a child, it is a baby. By the time the documentation is complete, the kid is around a year old. By the time he/she comes to me, the baby has become a toddler. When we apply this cycle to a child who is already 3/4 years old, by the time the adoption is through, the child would be even older. Many families do not adopt older children,” she says.

According to the JJA, the state should provide alternative care – foster care, foster family, sponsorship, adoption – for children in need of care and protection. However, the government has not explored options other than adoption. “Alternative care does not always mean adoption. Child care institutes need to promote family-based care for children. Imagine a sex worker puts her child in a shelter home because she is unable to give her a good atmosphere. She has no intent to give her child for adoption. But there are all the chances that her child will be placed in adoption,” says Bharti Sharma.

‘MANUFACTURED’ ORPHANS
An adoption agency gets $5,000 for each inter-country adoption. On many occasions, the money involved compels the agencies to indulge in unethical practices, such as placement of trafficked kids into adoption – another reason why many members of civil society want the government to practice caution rather than to hasten the process.

Last month, Australia resumed adoption of children from India after it was suspended eight years ago over illegal adoptions. “Adoption agencies in India were directly in touch with foreign agencies. Large sums of money were transferred. Foreign agencies funded Indian agencies and took a commitment that they would send a certain number of children to their countries. Now, with the centralised system, it is not possible,” says Lt Col Deepak Kumar, CARA’s chief executive officer.

According to Roelie Post, founder of the Netherland-based non-profit Against Child Trafficking, the push to have children adopted is not genuine. “It is driven by monetary transactions. Since there are not many children who are true orphans, children are turned into adoptable children when they are in residential care. And falsely made to appear suitable for adoption – lower age, better health than is the reality,” she says.

PLUGGING GAPS
A government programme is as good or bad as the people implementing it. CARA chief acknowledges that there is scope to improve sourcing of children for adoption by making all stakeholders aware of the process. “There is high attrition rate and non-permanency of staff at CWCs and SAAs which deal with adoption cases in various capacities,” he says.

Karuna Narang has handled more than 1000 adoptions as an adoption officer at Holy Cross Social Service Centre (adoption agency) and then as member of CWC and CARA. She recalls many successful stories of inter country adoptions. However, Narang says that the staff of these agencies lacks required awareness and sensitivity. “SAA has to be very cautious while preparing the medical enquiry report of the child. I have come across medical examination reports which carry the signatures of medical officers while the information is filled in by social workers without complete medical details as are required under the Act and Adoption Regulations. The certificate issued by the CWC should mention the child’s date of birth. CWCs often write only the age, which is complete guess work, many a times,” she says.

Inter-country adoption: Country wise breakup
Country2013- 142014- 152015- 162016- 172017- 18
USA160138222213203
ITALY10187163113100
SPAIN4356646166
FRANCE1812432713
UAE1818642921
CANADA162030359
UK14414189
NEW ZEALAND41111111
SWEDEN4581313
USA, Italy & Spain accounted for at least 50% of Inter-Country adoptions each year
USA accounted for around 1/3rd of all the Inter-Country adoptions.
Source: Ministry of women & child development

In October 2017, then CARA joint director Jagannath Pati, issued a circular to adoption agencies mentioning similar anomalies. “Often it happens that a child referred under normal category has medical problems, which is not reflected in the medical report and when the parents come to take the custody of the child, these are found out through supplementary tests,” noted Pati.

To avoid post adoption adjustment issues, specifically in the case of older children (placed in adoption at the age of five or above), the adoption agency should counsel the child as well as the prospective parent as much as possible, says Loraine Campos, assistant director at Palna, one of the oldest adoption agencies in Delhi. “If possible, the agency should arrange video calls between the child and prospective parents. It can also help the child learn the language (basics) of the country where the he or she will be going,” says Campos.

Dr Aloma Lobo, former chairperson, CARA, believes that prospective adoptive parents should be realistic in their expectations, especially when they are accepting an older child. “In the case of older children who have been abandoned, a lot of information is unknown,” she says. “Both sides must do their best and that is all that is possible. We cannot expect perfection from a child who has been through so much. Not so even in a child who has had everything from birth,” she adds.

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF SYSTEM?
Like sourcing, the follow-up mechanism is also evolving. Once the child is placed in a family abroad, CARA and the SAA should receive four follow-up reports in first year and two, the following year. If the Authorised Foreign Adoption Agency notices any issues in adjustment between the family and the adoptee or any unexpected development, this should be reflected in these reports. Following the Sherin Mathews case, CARA amended its rules to add mental well-being as eligibility criteria for prospective parents seeking to adopt a child from India.

The CARA CEO says that there is scope to improve the follow-up mechanism vis-à-vis the US. “It is common for foreign agencies in USA to assign the job of preparing the follow-up reports to exempt providers. These are individuals or organisations registered with the US government. This is a kind of sub contract. In the Sherin Mathews case, the central agency in USA took the help of one such exempt provider,” says Kumar.

Roelie Post of ACT says that the sending country receiving regular follow-up reports from the receiving country does not always mean that all is well with the adoptee. “The follow-up reports are not independent reporting. They are mostly written by the adoptive parents themselves, or the adoption agencies. I have seen myself how adoption agencies take unwelcome messages out of the reports,” she says.

According to Dr Vinita Bhargava, assistant professor at Delhi University and author of Adoption in India: Policies and Experiences, the government must add a humane layer to the adoption system for it to work. “Problems can arise any time once you have taken the child. In that sense, it is quite similar to what happens with a biological child. Adoption needs lot of hand holding. We should be able to help the adoptive parents as and when they feel anxious,” says Dr Bhargava. “At the most, you may accept the child after a thorough background check. Beyond this, there are no guarantees in life. You have to take the leap of faith,” she adds.

First Published: Oct 12, 2018 23:30 IST