The adoption experience

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

In the context of the recent controversies relating to adoptions, a look at how the adoption process is handled in the United States and a re-assertion of the need to handle the subject with sensitivity and understanding.

ADOPTION is like arranged marriage. The adopted child and the adoptive parents are brought together quite abruptly and then they begin to bond intimately. What makes the relationship rather sensitive for them as also for others is the arrangement part of it. The long and arduous adoption process is often taxing for everyone involved. Uninformed outsiders, however, tend to think, particularly when a scandal like the recent one in Andhra Pradesh breaks, that adoption is simple buying and selling of babies.

In fact, adoption is one instance of the very rare win-win-win situation in human affairs. The child who is given away in adoption from her or his biological setting to a better setting is naturally the biggest winner. The adoptive parents, who cannot or do not want to have a biological child, are able to enjoy the privileges of parenting. The third crucial party, who gives away the child in adoption, is also a winner quite often unless it is poverty or any such helpless situation that parts the child from its biological parents. When a rape victim or an unwed mother gives away her child in the larger interests of her future and her family's peace, or when the guardians of an orphaned child place the child for adoption, they stand to win in the process of adoption.

Of late, the practice of adoption has been tarnished by unscrupulous middlemen and unauthorised agencies. They procure babies from unsuspecting, ill-informed and poverty-stricken tribal parents for paltry sums of money and place them for adoption, especially inter-country adoption, which pays rather well. Behind the Andhra Pradesh fiasco one can see a few problems such as flaws in licensing, lack of close monitoring at the State level, and circumvention of the guidelines of the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA) by agencies. The institutional inadequacy is quite telling, especially because Andhra Pradesh had faced a similar storm only two years ago. The fundamental issue of poverty and underdevelopment of the tribal people and the failure of the Central and State governments to do anything meaningful about it also should not be lost sight of.

Although the Andhra Pradesh cases were born largely out of the deformed development paradigm of the Indian state and the failure of its bureaucracy, the responsibility is quickly and silently shifted to the non-governmental sector and the adoptive parents from abroad. Uninformed about and uncritical of this complex situation, people go about spreading stories that are spiced with nationalistic fervour, religious undertones and even moralistic messages. There is no dearth of such unsubstantiated reports in the media also. The Andhra Pradesh fiasco is a classic example for the adage, sin in one place, censure in another. Viewing the adoption process from the adoptive parents' perspective would reveal some of the missing human dimensions of the current debate.

THE road to adoption is a long one, especially in a country like the United States. The journey of adoptive parents often begins when they become aware of their infertility. After prolonged, unsuccessful infertility treatment, these couples turn to adoption. The recovery period that precedes this adoption decision, when they come to grips with the reality that they cannot become biological parents, is a deeply emotional one. Having decided to go in for adoption, these families choose between in-country and inter-country adoption.

In the U.S., the adoption agency the prospective parents choose interviews and screens them for eligibility. Innumerable meetings and workshops ensue, where they meet social workers, infertility experts, Immigration and Naturalisation Services (INS) officials, and other adoptive parents. Social workers take six to eight weeks to prepare a Home Study Report of a family. They gather information on the couple's history, such as their childhood, medical records, income details and criminal history, if any. Even violations of driving rules could cost them the opportunity to become parents. Social workers meet the couple in their home and check for child safety standards. If an account of domestic problems surfaces on any of these occasions, the couple are asked to go for counselling. The couple will get the approval only if the counsellor guarantees that they had worked sincerely on the issues and will be able to parent. Recommendation letters are gathered from acquaintances who have seen them in the company of children.

Once the approval comes, social workers talk to the couple about different countries that they work with, explain the rules and requirements of each country, and give an assessment of where they can adopt from. Most of the prospective parents would have made up their minds about this even before they step into the process. There are a number of reasons why they choose India - one of the adoptive parents being Indian, travel in the past in India, familiarity with Indian culture, close Indian friends, friends with adopted Indian children, availability of babies, and so on.

Once the couple have chosen the country, the coordinators of that particular country take over from the social workers and screen them for eligibility to participate in their programmes. The parents begin their wait for a referral. The referral is often the name, date of birth and sex of the baby. Sometimes it is accompanied by a photograph or a short video clipping and a brief medical history with basic information such as the blood group and immunisation records.

After referral, the couple are given a week to decide. If they do not accept the baby for some legitimate reason, the referral is withdrawn and they wait for another child. Unlike some Indians who are greatly concerned about the complexion and physical features of the child, foreign adoptive parents who are accepted for the India programme do not care about all this. Under the CARA stipulations, an Indian child can be put up for international adoption only if he or she has been rejected twice by prospective adoptive parents in India.

When the parents accept the baby, they enter into an intense emotional experience. They know their child now and begin feeling bonded almost instantly. They keep photographs of the child everywhere in the house, watch the video every day before they go to bed, and even start designing their child's room.

The adoptive parents begin collecting materials for their dossier, such as medical and infertility certificates, employer's letter, recommendation letters, and letters of eventuality. Having been authenticated by the Indian embassy, the dossier, along with sponsorship papers from the adoption agency, is sent to the orphanage concerned in India to pursue the court procedures. A copy of the dossier is sent to CARA for a no-objection certificate.

The Indian court then hears the case and pronounces the family as legal guardians of the child, if it is convinced. This could take anywhere between four months and a little more than a year. With the court order, the family seeks INS clearance for the child to immigrate to the U.S. When that clearance is communicated to the regional U.S. Consulate in India, the orphanage processes the visas. The family either travels to India or has the baby escorted to the U.S.

The baby's arrival is often an ecstatic moment for the parents, their relatives and friends. After the long wait and arduous travel through the bureaucratic maze, it is hard to believe the reality, and the new parents do not want to let go of the moment. I have met parents who take turns sitting by the crib to watch their baby sleep. The fairytale does not end here; it has just begun.

The parents and their families are love-stricken not just with their new baby but also with India. They seek out families with children of Indian origin, read books on India, follow Indian politics, cook Indian meals, join Indian groups, learn Indian languages and take an interest in Indian culture.

By an agreement with the Indian court, the parents are required to send quarterly reports on the child with its photographs for the following two years and half-yearly accounts for the following three years. Social workers from the adoption agency make home visits to assess the placement. In case of a disruption, which is extremely rare, the child is taken into protective custody and placed with a foster family before another adoptive family is found. The children and the families can also avail themselves of the post-adoption counselling services of the adoption agencies.

A MAJOR problem adopted children encounter when they grow up is one of identity and the issue around their rejection by their families of birth. They want to know something about the relinquishment, which would assuage these complex emotions. Countries like South Korea allow adopted children to visit orphanages and see the records for themselves. It is often a powerful experience for the adopted ones to see the handwriting of their birth parents and to know the background of their adoption. No need to emphasise that India should make efforts to maintain proper records and make them available for the benefit of adopted children.

Adoptive parents who have children of Indian origin should be allowed to hold the PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card and the children themselves should be given dual citizenship. This would enable the parents and the children to travel to India freely as most of them want to come to India for various reasons. Most important, they would and should feel welcome in India and should be part of Indian society as well.

Even as efforts are intensified in India to eradicate rape, alleviate poverty, promote family planning and protect girl children, the process of relinquishment should be made legal and graceful. The recent ban on relinquishing babies for reasons of poverty and the large number of children in the household would only lead to more irregularities in the system and help unscrupulous middlemen spring up like mushrooms.

In my brief experience as an adoption specialist, I have met two sets of people: who grieve for their inability to bear children and who lament their inability to parent the child born to them. Both feelings are intense. Removing the social taboos that haunt infertile couples and open up people's minds to the possibility of adoption as a way of parenting would foster more in-country and easy inter-country adoptions.

Although adoption is widely accepted and even celebrated in mythology and religious literature, Indian society has not been very enthusiastic about adoption because of factors such as caste, class and concerns about family property. However, of late Indians have become a little more receptive to adoption and this trend should not be hampered by the wrongdoings of a few individuals and institutions.

Meera Udayakumar, a U.S.-trained social worker, worked as the India Programme Coordinator at the Children's Home Society of Minnesota, one of the major adoption agencies in the U.S. She has placed more than one hundred Indian children with American and non-resident Indian parents and is planning to set up post-adoption programmes for these parents and children in India.

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