Kamla* advises caution as one steps into her home in central Delhi. Fragile glasses are lined on the floor and books stacked up. They will soon be in boxes, packed and moved, and a way of life wound up. The 36-year-old is moving in with her mother in the NCR and the reason is four-month-old Diane*, who came home a month ago. The grandmother will provide much-needed family support and a welcome helping hand.

When we met in November last year, Kamla, a single mother, was busy streamlining her new life around Diane. The baby, bathed, powdered, and her thick mop of hair parted neatly sideways, sits serenely as she is rolled around the house in a pram. “From day two she started responding to my voice,” says the mother.

She had mulled adoption for a long time, and once her mind was made, she spent the next few years preparing for it. The uncertainties of an NGO job were given up for a steady position with an international agency. Priorities changed and that included ‘slowing down’ a hectic career. But between May 2014, when she registered with a specialised adoption agency, and October 2015, when she brought Diane home from Nagaland, much had changed in the way adoption happens in India. Like thousands of prospective adoptive parents, she was stranded in the middle of a transition during which the chief players in the official system swapped roles.

In August last year, under guidelines from the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) took the adoption process online. Earlier, finding a home for a child hinged almost entirely on the 411 specialised adoption agencies (SAAs) across the country. CARA played the monitoring authority, except in inter-country adoptions, where it was the facilitator.

Under the new system, however, CARA has taken over the role of placing the child in a home. Earlier, prospective parents registered with an SAA and got onto its waiting list. The agency subsequently did a home study, and whenever a ‘matching’ child was cleared for adoption legally, it was placed in the home and CARA was intimated. Under the new system, prospective parents register online with CARA, get on its waiting list and, when their turn comes up, are shown up to six children online, of which they will have to ‘reserve’ one. The SAAs are left with the job of caring for a child awaiting adoption and tackling the prolonged legal processes that precede it, but with not much say in placing the child.

Agencies and prospective parents had responded to these guidelines with alarm and apprehension. The SAAs weren’t exactly beaming at being reduced to ‘caretakers’. Two petitions challenging the guidelines have landed in the Bombay High Court. A CARA official insists that the move is aimed at bringing transparency, to enable prospective parents to make “informed choices” and not be at the mercy of the SAAs.

“So much of it was upon me,” rues Kamla. She is among the first batch of parents who adopted under the new system. And that gave her an inordinate amount of anxious moments. The onus was on her to get things moving. With the system still in teething stage, she encountered incomplete child study and medical examination reports. Finally, when she missed her first chance to adopt, she decided to take matters head on.

She had registered with a Pune agency, one she trusted, but soon realised she had little hope of getting a child from there after the guidelines came into place. “I didn’t know where I was on the list. After waiting for a year, will I still be at the bottom? After the guidelines came into place, the agency was not helpful either.” She believes that by then it had become an ego battle between the agency and the central body. However, on August 7 she received an SMS with the choice of two babies from Maharashtra. The first baby was tagged with the medical reports of another and other information was incomplete too. She had consciously opted for a child without special needs, but the second baby shown to her was HIV+. “I was willing to go with the baby as long as the medical reports were correct. Though the baby was 10 months old, the information was about a five-month-old. I got suspicious.”

The guidelines demand that the prospective parent ‘reserve’ a child within 48 hours. Having got the SMS on a Friday, she was unable to seek clarifications immediately as it was a weekend; she reluctantly let her chance go. A parent who misses a chance goes to the bottom of the waiting list. On the next working day, she walked into the CARA office. “I asked them if they were going to harass a prospective parent. I was well-informed and still struggling, so imagine the fate of many others.”

The need of the moment is to effectively empower agencies to handle the new responsibilities — be it preparing a report or uploading them. A parent can now choose a child from any three states in India, and that in turn means dealing with parents from far-off places, for which the agencies must be adequately prepared. Aware of the healthy ratio of babies to prospective parents in Nagaland, Kamla opted for that state. During her turn, she needed barely a few minutes to ‘reserve’ a child, but the glitches in getting her home were many. She found herself chasing the agency in Kohima to get things done. Being a single parent and a non-Naga didn’t make her job any easier. After much perseverance and knocking on doors, she finally flew home with Diane after four hectic days in Kohima. “By the end I was in complete war mode. Nothing is as difficult as this labour pain,” she states wryly.

However, despite the hurdles she faced, she believes the new system will improve with time. “I have great respect for it. It will streamline the adoption process and speed it up. It will also prevent malpractices in agencies.”

After Kamla’s case, CARA has stopped sending intimations to prospective parents on Fridays and instead does so in the first three days of the week. The District Child Protection Units are now said to be working closely with the agencies in uploading information.

Is the child at the centre?

Sangitha Krishnamurti from Bengaluru is the adoptive parent of an 11-year-old and works with stakeholders in the field. She appreciates the government taking responsibility for the children but, at the same time, calls for more sensitivity in its approach. “The old systems were not great. For decades they didn’t work efficiently. But they had the child at the centre. It was all about finding a family for a child and not a child for a family.” To Krishnamurti, the idea of ‘reserving’ a child is much like blocking travel tickets, giving the entire adoption process a commercial hue.

The guidelines intend to bring erring agencies to book, but may end up stifling the good ones. Krishnamurti cautions that many upright agencies may be pushed to down their shutters, as was indeed confirmed by a veteran in charge of a long-running SAA in Delhi. Declining to be named, she talks of teething problems, of following the guidelines and shutting down when it comes to a point of zero agreement. The agency takes care of the physical well-being of the children, many of whom arrive malnourished and as pre-term babies in need of special tending. The legal procedure involved to get a child cleared for adoption is long and cumbersome. She asks why the agency performing these crucial tasks is not given a say in the child’s placement? Though the guidelines allow an agency to reject a prospective parent, the scope of this veto remains unclear. If transparency is the desired objective, the SAAs want access to the waiting list too. A change in the system has meant the prospective parents on the waiting list of each SAA have now got onto the CARA waiting list.

At the Delhi Council of Child Welfare in Civil Lines, the quiescence of forenoon is broken only by the prattle of children. Loraine Campos, assistant director of one of the oldest SAAs in the Capital, generously allows a visit to the nursery. A jaundiced baby is getting phototherapy. Another that is fast asleep has an upset stomach. A pair of twin sisters, warm in their sweaters and socks and perched on a small seat, stare at you disinterestedly. There are several unwell babies, and toddlers who reach out from cribs.

At the outset, Campos clarifies that she is not against the guidelines: “The intention is right and in the interest of the child.” What worries her, however, is that the entire process ends up treating the children as commodities. Each parent has to be shown up to six children online, but this may not be practical. The CARA official says that, approximately, for every 9,000 waiting parents, not more than 800 children (without special needs) are available for adoption.

At ground zero

Campos is all too familiar with the realities of the adoption world and no computer system can fathom these. Take, for instance, the preference for children with light skin colour. “As a society we have many generations to go before we look beyond these things," she says. She mentions one prospective mother who reluctantly let go her chance to adopt, when her turn came up on the wait list, as the child shown to her was ‘too dark’. An agency, on the other hand, would be better clued in to such ground realities, she says. A bond evolved between prospective parents and the agency under the previous system. Through the home study, the agency examined at close quarters the dynamics of a family and its requirements before placing a child with it. “That made the parents less anxious… the trust that we will give them a child they will not reject.” The ‘good’ agencies gave pre-adoption counselling to parents, helping them make a very important decision of their lives. The new system has no room for that bonding as the parent lands up at an agency after ‘reserving’ a child. The earlier system centred adoption on the ‘human element’.

What constitutes a good home? Who makes a good parent? Campos knows there are no right answers. Yet, an agency frequently considered educational and financial markers to decide on the suitability of a home for an adoptive child. “Our criteria of a good parent might be different from yours,” she says.

At the end of November, Campos had got legal clearance to put five children at her agency for adoption; now her greatest fear is that of a mismatch. “It hurts to know that we are working for the ₹40,000 paid to us once a child is adopted. We have learnt, and the system has evolved with us through these years,” she says.

At the agency, Campos’s days are packed. Mornings are spent on home study trips, which she has to complete under the new guidelines. The overriding feeling is of doing all the work, but having no control over where the child will eventually end up. By early January, two of Campos’s children have been adopted. One went to a family that had previously registered with them and another to a new one. “We are happy with the family,” says a staffer. If erring agencies are the target, Campos suggests revoking their licence. “Nobody is above board,” she reiterates.

Jolly Geevarghese, adoption officer at the Hope Foundation’s Asharan, believes there are enough checks and balances. Agencies are inspected by at least five different child protection bodies in a year. Krishnamurti agrees, stating, “The ones who are unscrupulous will be that regardless. They are not binding themselves to ethical guidelines to start with.”

Geevarghese is worried about the incomplete home study reports she is coming across online. “Uploaded documents do not offer clarity and we worry if it is the right family.” But she concedes that changes were long overdue and that the new system will curtail illegal adoptions to some extent.

Compared with 5,964 adoptions in India from January 2011 to March 2012, the number stands at 3,988 for April 2014 to March 2015. She recalls a time, until a few years ago, when the only children arriving at the agency were those with special needs. “And I don’t think abandonment has come down,” she says, making it about children who never get into the system. Most SAAs continue to receive children through the police. Almost all of them have a handful of children with special needs, who rarely get adopted in India. Campos blames this on the absence of social security for prospective parents. Geevarghese laments that there are no rehabilitation programmes for the children who do not get a family. The SAAs cannot host a child with special needs for long; at Hope, they are moved to other homes, a few of which are government-run. “Most of these homes are overcrowded and it is with pained hearts that we transfer them. We need more stable homes for children with special needs, one where they can be taught skills and rehabilitated,” says Geevarghese.

Adoption, she says, should not be seen in isolation. Counselling, both before and after adoption, should be made intrinsic to the system. She has often seen adoptive parents struggling with the task of rearing pre-teen children but who remain wary of opening up about this. “Parents should be made to feel free to talk about their problems and they should be helped,” she says.

Past the prejudice

Krishnamurti is among a growing group of parents who have chosen to adopt a child in addition to having a biological one. And fighting prejudice is part of that choice. “That we didn’t care about complexion meant that our son was placed in our family two-and-a-half months after we completed the paperwork, which is unheard of for a boy,” she says. Her son does get teased for his complexion, and as a parent she has empowered him with the confidence to deal with it effectively.

Kamla believes the new system will force people to shed their prejudices as it gives them zero space to dither. Krishnamurti thinks this can be achieved through constant engagement with prospective parents. “Very few people are speaking to parents before they adopt, letting them know that certain ways of thinking need to change, like the focus on complexion, wanting the date and time of birth for making their horoscopes. Parents who come to adopt because they cannot have children biologically will need to make their peace with this, and get counselling if needed.”

Vinita Bhargava, the author of Adoption in India: Policies and Experiences and an associate professor in Human Development and Child Studies, has studied the adoption scene in India down the decades. Among the founder-members of CARA, she adopted a girl child 27 years ago after having a biological son. “I have been trying to understand what psychological process would help overcome the issues of genes and blood and to have a child belong to parents,” she says.

For her, a system is effective when it releases a child for adoption legally to the available parents as quickly as possible. A process that is quick will break the unholy nexus between hospitals, thugs and rackets. To Bhargava, the need is for not big bosses, but people who will hand-hold parents and children as a new family is birthed.

*Names changed to protect privacy

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