Adoption in India: 2015 Reforms’ Affect on Parents, Kids
In August 2015, the government rolled out new guidelines for adoption in India aimed at centralizing and streamlining a system widely considered disorganized and inefficient. A year and a half later, opinions are mixed as to their success.
The numbers tell a story of a system in flux. In the 12 months surrounding the date the reforms took effect (April 2015 to March 2016), only 3011 children were adopted nationwide – a mere 5% of the estimated 50,000 of children in need of homes and almost 50% less than the 5693 children adopted in 2010. In fact, according to data on the CARA website, adoption numbers have been trending down steadily since 2012, despite the 2015 reforms, and earlier measures with a similar aim passed in 2011.
Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi has called these low adoption numbers “shameful.” But most stakeholders seem to attribute them to the growing pains of a new system. Parents, agencies and counselors say while many of the perceived problems of the earlier system have been solved, new ones have been created.
What changed under the 2015 adoption reform?
“The center of our work now is the child and protecting rights of children,” said Dr. Nilima Mehta, a member of the CARA advisory board and an adoption counsellor who has worked in the field of adoption and child protection for 40 years. “At one point of time, the center of our work was the childless couple, and their needs, and whether they want a girl or a boy.”
In other words, the new system is designed to find parents for children, rather than find children for parents. Briefly, the biggest changes to adopting in India are:
- All adoptions are regulated by a national body, the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA). Previously, adopting was regulated by individual states, limiting the pools of both parents and children. This is widely seen by the parents, officials and case workers we spoke to for this article as having the positive effect of shortening wait times to roughly six months.
- A flat processing fee of Rs 46,000 is levied, intended to eliminate ‘donations’ or other corrupt payments to facilitate a speedy adoption
- All applications and records have been digitized to facilitate sharing.
- Deadlines have been imposed on each step in the process; for instance, children must be taken into pre-adoptive foster care within 10 days of acceptance, and adoptions must be legally finalized in court within 2 months of filing the adoption petition, bringing down wait times and giving families more certainty.
What have the adoption changes meant for parents?
No one interviewed for this article questioned the reorientation toward children. But many parents said the pendulum has, perhaps, swung too far in the opposite direction, leaving them unsupported and alone during the adoption process — a process that, at its core, is about human connection.
Vahida Nainar adopted her son in 2012, prior to last year’s reforms. While her decision to adopt was not spur of the moment, her visit to an adoption centre – where meeting the children convinced her to apply – was.
That kind of interaction isn’t possible under the new guidelines. In the new system, prospective parents apply and choose a child without ever setting foot in an agency or meeting children.
“Sometimes, the children we have get parents … who we have never met before,” said Nirmala Fernandes, director at Family Service Centre, an adoption agency in Mumbai.
In fact, the new system has all but eliminated interaction between prospective parent and child. Instead of meeting children in person, prospective parents are sent up to six profiles (which include photos and medical records) to choose from, a change some find off-putting.
“We’re not talking about buying vegetables,” said Rohan Vyavaharkar, who with his wife, Debkanya, adopted a daughter in October 2016. “You’re creating families. Families aren’t created over emails and screenshots. And that’s the problem that someone’s got to understand.”
Other parents are more bothered by the growing sense they are just cogs in a machine, with no recourse. The personal touch of having a single case manager familiar with both child and parent has been lost, Fernandes said.
Jainee Gandhi adopted pre-reforms and remembered that personal relationship with her local agency as a cornerstone of her experience.
“I think the new system is positive in the sense that they’re trying to streamline everything nationally,” Gandhi said. “At the same time, I feel the old process was very personal. I had a [case worker’s] number to call. My friends [who are adopting now] feel lost sometimes. The new process is very impersonal.”
Too much money
Prior to last year’s reforms, it was not uncommon for prospective parents to be asked for ‘donations’ to ensure they could adopt a child speedily. A flat processing fee of Rs. 46,000 for parents across India was designed to eliminate that and other corrupt practices, but some parents feel it has the effect of making adoption a choice only for the wealthy.
“Do they think only people with a certain income can adopt?” asked Raghu Prathapa, who adopted his third child in 2016.
Even for parents who can afford the Rs. 46,000 fee, all of the process’s associated costs can compound to put the adoption out of reach. The option to adopt a child from any state may cut down the waiting time, said Swagata Raha, who adopted her son in 2015 right after the reforms took effect, but it increases logistical costs for parents: She and her husband had to make three trips from Bangalore to Amravati, Maharashtra, in order to finalize their adoption – trips that might not be affordable for people who would still make good parents, she said.
The digital application – only available online and in English – further limits the possibility of adopting a child to the elite, she said.
What have the adoption changes meant for kids?
In a new system intended to focus on the needs of children, case workers representing the children are left feeling sidelined as an algorithm takes over what they say is extremely nuanced work of matching parent and child.
Without the personal interaction, they say, there is less advocating for children: Previously, counsellors could encourage parents who they deemed capable to adopt children with medical conditions or physical disabilities. They could suggest parents consider adopting older children (who statistically stand less of a chance at adoption with every year), or siblings.
“It’s always preferred to keep them [siblings] together, rather than separate them,” Fernandes said. “And that’s why it is harder to find homes for them. It also depends on the age; usually [siblings] would be older, and many people want children as young as possible.”
Invasion of privacy
Others say the reforms are an advancement, but further measures are needed to manage the new dangers of a digital system that houses children’s photos and medical details online. They would also place limits on information-sharing with parents; currently, parents receive the personal details of two to six children, from whom they are expected to select one for adoption. This leaves the remaining children exposed, they say.
The Federation of Adoption Agencies, Maharashtra (FAA) has filed a public interest litigation with the Bombay High Court over exactly this; a spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.
New social norms
Perhaps where the system has seen the biggest change – and biggest success – is in its efforts to normalize adopting a child. Previously, parents received no standardized guidance on whether to tell a child about their history; Nainar remembered being encouraged to talk to her son about his adoption, but Prathapa received no such guidance.
Under the new guidelines, however, parents are counseled during the pre-adoptive process to tell the child he or she is adopted.
“They want us to tell the child,” Vyavaharkar said. “Counsellors spend a lot of time on that [now] which is every helpful. We got a sense of what we should and should not say.”
And this is, perhaps, why at the end of the day, most stakeholders interviewed said they view the reforms positively, despite their criticism. For so long a hush-hush decision of desperation, adoption is slowly becoming more public and considered – just another way of forming a family. This, for many, has been the greatest success.
“The shift has also been towards the emotional readiness for adoption and the choice to adopt,” Mehta said, “and not just a last resort for parents who cannot have children.”