Frontline Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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COVER STORY

Behind the facade

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR

A recent case in Tamil Nadu shows that the existing system has allowed child trafficking to take place for years under the guise of a perfectly legal adoption process.

R. RAGHU

P.V. Ravindranath (extreme right), his son Dinesh Kumar and wife Vatsala Ravindranath, who were running the Malaysian Social Service Society, at the Police Commissionerate in Chennai on May 7. The three were remanded by the Central Crime Branch in connection with the alleged child adoption racket.

ON May 3, 2005, the Central Crime Branch of the Chennai police arrested five people for kidnapping and selling about 350 children to an adoption agency in the city. Several lost children seem to have been given in adoption to families abroad over the last decade. Ironically, the police have found all the paperwork by the adoption agency to be clear. This highlights the need to look into the existing adoption system that allows for child trafficking under the guise of a perfectly legal adoption process.

Frontline investigation and documents available with it reveal that this is not an isolated case. Bending rules, circumventing norms, and following illegal and unethical ways to "source" children and sell them to foreigners under the guise of adoption is not uncommon among some agencies in Tamil Nadu.

The State has 21 licensed adoption agencies, of which nine are also recognised for inter-country adoption. In 1991, an adoption cell was created in Tamil Nadu and a State-level committee set up to review the activities of the voluntary organisations. Criteria were specified for issuing the licence for in-country adoption. But these norms are observed more in the breach. There are, however, some honourable exceptions.

The July 2, 2004 "Report of the Joint Inspection of Peace (Poor Economy and Children's Educational Society) Home, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu," by the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA) after the agency's inter-country adoption (ICA) licence expired is revealing. It charges that:

"The agency has tampered relinquishment deeds (surrendered directly to the Home), created false siblings, followed various unethical practices, i.e. giving wrong information about Maheshwari, Arvindh and Aruna [some children in the agency at the time of the inspection].

"The entire recording seems to have discrepancy.

"While siblings Arvindh and Aruna were admitted at different times, the relinquishment deeds indicate that they were surrendered together."

P. GOUTHAM

A 2002 picture of Dr. J. Radhakrishnan, Salem District Collector at the time, receiving a female baby for the cradle centre in Salem.

According to the relinquishment deed, Maheshwari and her sibling were surrendered by their widowed mother. But the inspection team found that Maheshwari's father was alive; she was left there for better education; and the sibling she was paired with was actually not her brother.

"Several registers/records are not properly maintained.

"The registration of the Society is not proper...

"While more than 40 Indian parents have registered for children, the agency has not shown interest to complete home studies of the families."

Despite the severe indictment in the inspection report and a show-cause notice sent to the agency that got no reply, the CARA renewed Peace Society's ICA licence in April 2005.

According to a recent study, "Adoption Agencies and Institutional Practices in Tamil Nadu: A Sociological Study," by Sujata Mody for Malarchi Women's Resource Centre, adoption in Tamil Nadu is a complex maze of sleaze, with unethical and illegal "dealings." Says Sujata: "Even a very superficial investigation into inter-country adoptions from Tamil Nadu opens up a can of worms." According to the study, only NGOs (as elsewhere, except Andhra Pradesh) offer adoption services in Tamil Nadu. "If these `homes' of varying size and background have one thing in common it is the free flouting of norms and adopting various dubious methods to bend rules and `source' babies. Of course, as always, there are exceptions."

Most agencies, according to the study, are run as a "family business" and keen only on lucrative inter-country adoptions (ICA). In this there seems to be cooperation. For instance, agencies without an ICA licence transfer babies to those with one.

Babies missing from government hospitals have been traced to adoption agencies. For instance, in 1999, four babies missing from the Salem General Hospital were found at an agency in Chennai. The police filed a case in the Chengalpattu District Court against the agency's director. CARA immediately revoked the agency's ICA licence and the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Department suspended its in-country licence. But the agency's in-country and inter-country adoption licences were revived after the police arrested five persons for stealing the babies from the hospital. The question of how the stolen babies landed with the agency remains unanswered.

The recent arrest by Chennai's Central Crime Branch of P.V. Ravindranath, Director of the Chennai-based Malaysian Social Service Society (MSSS, which had been placing children in adoption between 1991 and 2001), and his family members for their alleged involvement in kidnapping and selling children, has blown the lid off a major racket in child trafficking. A five-member gang was also arrested for kidnapping and selling about 350 children to the MSSS between 1991 and 2001. Even as scores of parents who had lost their children in the last decade are queuing outside various police stations in the State to see if their child figures in the list given by those arrested, the police are investigating the probable links the five-member gang could have with other adoption agencies.

Licensing of agencies is the single most important tool of disciplining and monitoring adoption agencies. The threat of withdrawal of licence is often the only way to ensure compliance. However, there is evidence that the procedures of licensing are flouted and officers are "pressured to issue licence." Says Sujata: "The licences of several agencies have been revoked. But soon enough, they have also been restored. This is an indicator of the weak regulatory and licensing system."

To promote in-country adoption, the number of agencies allowed to do ICAs is generally limited. But there are instances where the Department of Social Welfare in Tamil Nadu has been keen - indeed, in a hurry - to give inter-country licences to agencies. For instance, according to former CARA Chairperson Andal Damodaran, a Coimbatore-based agency, which was operating with an in-country licence for barely one year (the usual time is three years), was issued a CARA licence to do ICAs.

The agency, which was severely indicted by a Government of India inspection team last year (a copy of the report is with Frontline) for malpractices and improper records, was recently issued the ICA licence. According to the inspection team, the agency has indulged in "unethical practice" by tying up with a U.S. adoption institution, International Families Incorporated (IFI), to which it has proposed most of the children and from which it has received substantial donations.

Sourcing babies

Investigation reveals that babies are "sourced" from remote towns and villages. According to Sujata Mody, they are surrendered, abandoned, trafficked, stolen, bought, and even kidnapped.

Often, abandoned children are declared "surrendered" by fabricating documents so that they are free to be given for adoption without obtaining a certificate, which may take a little longer, from the Child Welfare Committee. According to a former member of Tamil Nadu VCA, some agencies "never get abandoned babies; they are always surrendered." A former employee of an adoption agency said that even the surrender documents are not always signed in the presence of a notary public as mandated by law; several documents are also signed by the same person. According to Chandra Thanikachalam of the Indian Council of Child Welfare, even if the scrutinising agency doubts the veracity of the surrender documents, it has no powers to initiate a probe.

Many agencies run short-stay homes for destitute and pregnant women, who are encouraged to give away their babies for adoption. According to Sujata Mody's study, a Chennai-based agency has a rehabilitation scheme for unwed pregnant mothers who, till giving birth, are even employed to take care of other babies in the agency. The agency says it conducts re-marriage for widowed/separated and deserted women, and has special facilities for the new-born. In fact, the agency explains that the high cost of adoption is because often it has to support women through pregnancy.

Many unwed pregnant mothers are directed to short-stay homes by government hospitals after an abortion has failed or is too late. Even agencies that do not have short-stay homes allow unwed mothers to live on their premises, until the babies are born. For instance, according to Sujata Mody, a Chennai-based agency admitted to keeping "pregnant women in difficult circumstances" at its home till they give birth. She says: "Usually, the babies are taken away for adoption and the women encouraged to leave the home."

According to former Tamil Nadu VCA member Vidya Reddy, while babies are generally poorly fed to look weak and sick so that they are rejected by Indian parents, once they get the VCA nod for ICA, they are fed well and cared for very well to be showcased to prospective foreign adopters. She says: "There is always a difference in weight before and after VCA clearance."

According to Sujata Mody, prima facie, there may be no reason to suspect the dealings and transactions in babies from unwed mothers in the short-stay homes. But there seems to be a conflict of interest here that offers scope for unethical practices. An agency staff member confirmed that poor women signed the relinquishment paper without realising the import of their act. Instances of mothers coming back to ask for their baby - even within the stipulated two-month period - are common.

The role of the Department of Social Welfare

According to Sujata, the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) "routinely conducts inspections and files inspection reports, sends out show-cause notices, gets a routine follow-up done, and then routinely renews the licence of the agency or, in some instances, even recommends it for inter-country licence." For instance, the inter-country adoption licences of two agencies were revoked by the Tamil Nadu DSW in 1999-2001, although they continue to hold the permit for in-country adoption. Serious charges of malpractices, including those of child trafficking, had been levelled against them. One of the licensed agencies, which houses orphans in Hosur, has been issued a show-cause notice for irregularities and anomalies by the DSW.

Despite large-scale fraud, the number of adoptions has increased in Tamil Nadu. Of the 1,742 adoptions done between 1991 and 2001, nearly a fourth happened in the last two years. According to Andal Damodaran, the number of children given in in-country adoptions has also increased. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of agencies with in-country licence has doubled, from 10 to 21, and two new agencies were issued inter-country licences.

At a workshop in Chennai, (reported in The Hindu, December 27, 2003), adoption agencies complained that there was not enough staff meaningfully to evaluate the foster homes, or follow-up on the child's progress. They agreed that the screening process was inefficient and the documentation improper and that procedures were violated. But they attributed this largely to inadequate funding and staff. They also agreed that some agencies were violating State procedures by changing the antecedents of the child, to please prospective parents. For most agencies, responsibility ends when they hand over the baby to the adoptive parents or, in some cases, "when they receive the money for the baby."

The adoption agencies seem to have no clear policy for charging for the babies they place in adoption although CARA has set certain rates. The adoption agencies in Tamil Nadu charge between Rs.3,000 and Rs.5,000 a month for a child. Aside from this, there is a service charge and a set of fees for home study, scrutiny, lawyers, and registration fee, which may add up to about Rs.8,000. Most agencies are unwilling to reveal the amounts they collect from foreign adoptive parents; they only admit to "charging more". Most institutions have tie-ups with government hospitals for treatment of the infants, but they conjure up large medical bills that are charged to the adoptive parent.

The DSW, according to reliable sources, has received several complaints by adopting parents. Adoption, insists, Vidya Reddy, should not be the main focus; it should be part of a larger welfare programme. But many agencies seem to run it as the main, even the only, programme.

In fact, agencies justify ICA for healthy babies on the ground that they run up huge medical and maintenance costs for the children. Some rationalise the high amounts recovered from foreign adoptive parents by saying that this "subsidises" Indian adoptions. Further, the agencies receive donations - in money and in kind - towards capital costs such as building and land. For instance, according to the Report given by CARA after it inspected the Coimbatore-based Peace Society on July 2, 2004, the agency has been getting huge donations from the Washington-based International Families Incorporated and in 2003-04, over Rs.27 lakhs from E.A. Rao, an NRI.

According to Sujata Mody's study, from 1998 to 2002, various adoption agencies in Tamil Nadu received from their foreign counterparts grants ranging from Rs.20 lakhs to Rs.2 crore.

Foreign adoptive parents pay their local agencies, which send the sums as "grant-in-aid" to their Indian counterparts. It is difficult to find out how much each parent in the foreign country has paid - but, according to some estimates, it ranges from $10,000 to $50,000. There is, however, a clear link between inter-country adoptions and foreign contributions. In fact, many agencies admit they cannot survive without doing inter-country adoptions.

In this context of funding, it is useful to note that none of the adoption agencies in Tamil Nadu now accesses the State government's Shishu Griha Scheme (SGS), which helps in-country adoptions. Under the scheme, agencies are given Rs.6 lakhs every year to take care of 10 children until they are given in adoption. According to Vidya Reddy, an important reason deterring agencies from accessing the grant could be the need for "greater accountability and governmental interference, which these agencies may not want."

Most agencies, under the guise of protecting privacy and pleading a lack of acceptance of adoption in India, continue to cover up their lack of financial accountability and lack of transparency. Inadequate funds are used as a pretext for remaining understaffed to be understaffed and poorly equipped. The lack of resources is cited as an excuse for deficient service, such as poor and incomplete home studies and shoddy follow-up of adoptive parents.

When contacted, a DSW official who did not wish to be named pointed out that ICA comes under CARA and "we have nothing to do with it."

The Tamil Nadu study raises some important questions: Are babies really surrendered by parents who face economic and social crises? Have enough efforts been made to counsel and support parents to keep the girl babies rather than abandon them? Have all avenues to unite the children with their biological parents been explored? Has serious effort been made to place babies with Indian adoptive families? Are CARA guidelines being followed? What is the real motive of these agencies? And, what if any is the role of the "cradle baby" scheme in this web of unethical and illegal adoption procedures?

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