Sunday, July 01, 2007

India: Lost Children and Adoptable "Orphans"

We take certain things for granted in the developed world. One of these is the speedy return to their parents (by the government) of accidentally lost or missing children.

This is not the case everywhere in the world.

According to an article on India's Tehelka online, one of these places is Delhi, India.

There, purportedly, the discovery and reunion to their parents of lost and missing children is sometimes purposefully being made more difficult or even impossible in order to supply adoptable "orphaned" children to profiteering private adoption agencies.

Given India's child welfare system this should NOT be happening.

India's Child Welfare System In Regard to Lost Children and Adoption

Theoretically and practically, India's child welfare system has made excellent provision, not only for aiding the return to their parents of lost children, but also for the regulation of adoption to prevent child trafficking:

  • India has a national missing child hotline, Childline

  • India's national Juvenile Justice Act contains, among other things, exemplary nationally mandated procedures and regulations to facilitate the discovery and reunion to their parents of lost and stolen children

  • India has a functioning national system of local Child Welfare Councils who are invested with the authority and judicial power to protect "the welfare of children who need care and protection"

  • India has a federal governmental committee, the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA) with the mandated authority to regulate and oversee both the domestic and foreign adoption of Indian children.

  • The Central Adoption Resource Agency or CARA has exemplary, nationally-binding, clear, concise, and well-thought-out regulations for adoption (specifically written with an eye for keeping adoption from morphing into child trafficking)

  • India has adequate governmental organization, local police forces, and local NGO's which should be knowledgeable about laws, be able to report abuses, be able to follow/enforce regulations, and be able to coordinate child welfare efforts according to mandated procedures and applicable laws.
All of these pieces together should ensure that lost/missing children are found and returned to their parents in a prompt manner. It should ensure that vulnerable children aren't co-opted for a lucrative adoption market.

But somehow, it doesn't seem to do so.

To help readers understand just how such a system could be and is failing families and children, the Tehelka article tells the anecdotal story of an Indian family whose child is lost from them and then examines the a "confidential" 2005 report on the functioning of private adoption agencies within the child welfare system.

Difficulties in Retrieving A "Found" Lost Child

The anecdotal story of one Delhi couple illustrates just how hard it can be to retrieve a child from the system even after he is "found."

A Delhi couple's young son was kidnapped by someone hoping to "settle a score" with them and then purposefully "lost" from his parents by being set loose alone in a major railway station.

As soon as the horrified parents discovered their son was missing, they began frantically searching for him.

A day later they found him at a local home run by a private adoption agency. Instead of returning their lost son promptly as required by law, orphanage officials were reportedly "extremely uncooperative"--to the extent that they even refused to let the parents see their son.
"After hour of waiting and pleading, [our son] was finally shown only to my wife and that too from a distance of some 10-15 yards."

--An Indian father speaking of what happened when he located his missing son at a private adoption agency
The orphanage refused to return the son and the parents were told to come back three days later, on Monday.

"They again refused to entertain us on Monday. We then had to go to the juvenile court, which directed us to the Child Welfare Committee [in another area of town.]"

--An Indian father speaking of what happened when he located his missing son at a private adoption agency
A day later, four full days after finding their lost son at the orphanage, the parents were finally allowed, with the intervention of the Child Welfare Committee and "some good Samaritans," to take their son home again.

Not all parents are so fortunate or resourceful. Not every couple is able, on their own, to successfully trace their missing child and find him. Not all parents have the tenacious hopefulness that it takes to keep trying to in the face of serious or seemingly insurmountable hurdles. In a extremely economically stratified and socially hierarchical society, those "at the bottom" may have already learned that they "can't win" and that their efforts will only bring them more misery--poor people in someplaces have been conditioned to expect beatings whenever they complain or ask for help and justice from those in authority. Not all parents are as resourceful in finding appropriately helpful aid.

In short, the Delhi couple was lucky in that their story ended happily. Many similar stories don't.

In Delhi India alone, during the three years of 2004, 2005, and 2006, a total of 6,687 children, reported missing by their parents, were declared "untraceable" by the Crime Branch's Missing Person's Squad.

This means that 6,687 families, who had enough tenacity and hope to make the effort to file police reports in an effort to get help in tracing their missing child(ren), have been told that there is little to no hope of finding their children. For all practical purposes these children might as well have vanished into thin air.
"A senior Department of Social Welfare (DSW) official lays the blame for this on voluntary adoption agencies. 'They [the missing children] are fated to live either an orphan's or an adopted child's life, all thanks to various voluntary organisations.'"

The Problem of Missing Children and the "Confidential" 2005 Department of Social Welfare Report on the Functioning of Voluntary Private Adoption Agencies

According to Tehelka online which claims access to this "confidential" report, the Department of Social Welfare found that voluntary adoption agencies including the specific one in the previous anecdotal story, "routinely flaunt norms and rules" concerning lost children and adoption. But the problem goes beyond the voluntary adoption agencies alone:
"[The] 2005 DSW report states, 'Childline and the police are unduly helping [the adoption agencies] in procuring children for [themselves] in violation of statutory provisions.'"
Violations of child welfare provisions, according to the report, purportedly include the following:
  • "Found" lost children taken directly to private adoption agencies without first registering them with the police or the local Child Welfare Committees.

  • Adoption agencies failing to notify (as mandated) the police, the local Child Welfare Committee, and Childline (the national hotline for missing children) of the receipt of "lost" children into their institution.

  • Note: If governmental authorities are not notified that "lost" children have been taken into care, there is no official record of their having been "found." Children "found" in this way, despite being "in care" effectively disappear without a trace for all practical purposes. Taking children off of the streets and into an institution without reporting their whereabouts to the proper authorities actually makes it harder, not easier, for their parents to find them. Without official records that can be shared between official governmental offices, parents are must visit every possible institution within a city in order to look for their lost children. In a large city like Delhi this could make it practically impossible for children to be found once they are lost from parents.

  • Adoption agencies who receive lost children failing to prepare individual child histories and failing to review individual children's cases in a timely manner or at all.

  • "Such history sheets could help in tracing the natural parents of a lot of children. These agencies have thus separated innumerous children from their natural their urge to mint money through adoptions."
  • Complying with the Juvenile Justice Act's requirement that found "lost" children be advertised in newspapers, in such a way that it is unlikely that searching parents would either 1) see the ad and 2) recognize their child in the vague and inaccurate information contained therein.

  • "The JJA states that before putting up a child for adoption, the adoption agency must publish his particulars in at least four leading newspapers, of which two must be in regional languages. But 'private adoption agencies ... have resorted to just a farcical eyewash by publishing their self proclaimed names [presumably names given the child by the adoption agency itself--not necessarily the name by which the child is known to his parents] and self-estimated dates of birth without any photograph--that too only of a few children, in some less popular newspapers, off and on only. The [DSW] report says that the agencies do this, 'to avoid finding 'their natural parents'.'Commenting on this, a CWC member asks, 'How can parents recognise their offspring by such an absurd publication which does not even have the child's correct name?'"
  • Neglecting by numerous failings to follow mandated procedures, the expressly stated principle of the nationally binding Juvenile Justice Act in regard to lost children which states: "Every effort should be made to restore the child to his or her biological parents."

  • Violating the clearly stated, nationally binding regulations of the Central Adoption Resource Agency including the following:

    • Charging in excess of the allowable adoption fees as set forth in CARA guidelines.

    • Note: According to the Tehelka article, the maximum allowable domestic adoption fee is 10,000 rupees, and yet, according to the same article, the average amount a domestic Indian couple pays to adopt a child is 20,000 rupees.
      From the CARA guidelines themselves, I glean that the maximum amount allowable fee for a foreign adoption is $3500 (about 10 times the maximum charge for a domestic adoption). Yet, American adoption agencies often charge $5,000 -$7,000 for the "foreign fee"--the part of the adoption fee that goes to the Indian orphanage. Recently one American adoption agency stated through private correspondence to a potential client that their Indian fee was $11,000.

      Which brings us to another point in our long laundry list...

    • Preferring foreign adoptive parents to domestic Indian adoptive parents because they have the ability to pay more money for the child--despite the fact that Indian Supreme Court and CARA guidelines for adoption clearly state that Indians must be given preference over foreigners for the adoption of Indian children. And also, its domestic corollary...

    • Preferring middle class and wealthy Indian parents over poor ones because of their ability to pay fees beyond the legal limits.
That agencies must go to great lengths to secure adoptable children and once secured, that agencies are able to pass over some adoptive parents for others, points up the fact that, despite claims to the contrary, India is not overflowing with children who are legally free for adoption.

In fact, according to Tehelka article statistics, there are on average approximately 200 Indian parents on the adoption waiting list at each of the approximately 10 of the adoption agencies in Delhi.

As the middle class in India grows, the demand for adoptable children also grows. Where there is demand, there will be those who seek to make money by filling it.
"Had [the family in the anecdotal story]not have [traced him to the orphanage where he was themselves], says a senior DSW official, 'he would have been in [the orphanage] for months without the required effort to trace his family. The agency then would have secured a release order--mandatory to give a child in adoption--from the CWC, finally to give him to a total stranger in return for a huge sum of money.'"
Officially, he'd have been listed as one of the missing "untraceable" children. Children who disappear from their parents never to be heard of again.

In my mind I see an internationally adopted child struggling to come to terms with the fact that he was abandoned by his first parents--didn't they love me?--while on the other side of the world first parents are forever haunted by the memory of the child they loved and lost.

And somewhere else someone else is enjoying wealth and accolades for helping "orphans."

What a world we live in....and how little we understand it all...from our own side of the elephant...


Article: "Missing Children: The Business of Adoption,", July 1, 2007

Resources: CARA Guidelines Governing Adoption

The Juvenile Justice Act (India)


  1. I appreciate your compassion and advocacy yet I think there are some things you are missing. Firstly, India has very few foriegn adoptions. The US, which is probably the largest adopter of Indian children only took in less than 500 Indian orphans last year (in spite of 1 billion + population). Of those most were babies and many were adopted by NRIs (non-resident Indians) India is teeming with street children. While I suggest more needs to be done to insure orphans are actually orphaned, the numbers of children languishing in questionable care or on streets because Indians fear foriegn adoptions is far greater.

  2. I do not understand your comments. Or maybe I do understand them and I realize that there are many, many assumptions behind them...

    What exactly is it that you are refuting by saying that India has very few foreign adoptions?

    Are you implying that the adoption profit motive for failing to return lost children to their parents couldn't possibly be at work here because the numbers just don't add up?

    If this is the case, you have forgotten or perhaps don't know that there is also a thriving domestic adoption market in India and that much of this market is conducted below the surface, sub-legally. India has a growing middle class and as elsewhere in the world, a growing number of infertile couples. Even singles that want to adopt.

    Adoption is becoming more acceptable in India. And where it isn't, adoption is done the way it used to be done in the US--secretly, so that no one knows the child was adopted.

    While those who would profit on the backs of children prefer foreign adopters because of the higher profits, they also cater to domestic demand.

    India may have few foreign adoptions to the US at present, but that does not mean that the market for adoptable children does not exist.

    Also, many Indian children go to Scandanavian countries, Spain, Italy, Australia, etc. The US isn't the only market for children.

    In other words, the adoption profit motive for failing to return lost children to their parents could indeed be at work here.

    Or are you saying that why would anyone fail to return a lost child to his parents when there are orphans galore on the streets of India and those who want to profit from the sale of children for adoption could easily just nab these children instead???

    To Western eyes, the children on the street are like orphans for the picking...

    But, this does not necessarily mean our perceptions are correct.

    In fact, the numbers of children LEGALLY available for adoption in India, are, I suspect, quite small in proportion to both domestic and foreign demand. In other words, the demand is less than the supply.

    There are many signs that this is so. In cities where foreign adoption becomes the norm, the waiting lists for domestic adoptions grow. Yes....there are waiting lists to legally adopt Indian children domestically.

    Also, the Indian adoption corruption that I so tirelessly and sadly document here, implies that there are, in fact, not enough legally and actually practically adoptable children to go around.

    If you prefer to think in terms of statistics and numbers, think about it this way...

    Eventually, as a country enters the developed world and its economy improves--as India's has and is, the demand for adoptable children increases as infertile couples (rates of infertility may vary somewhat in different countries, but every country has a minimum percentage of infertile couples)who have the income to finance an adoption seek out adoptable children. Eventually, there is not an overabundance of children, but the country absorbs its own legally adoptable children.

    While some numbering of Indian orphans result in staggering numbers of fact, I suspect that MANY of these children counted as orphans are, in fact, not orphans at all.

    Orphanages in India often function as social safety nets for the poor. Many of these institutions will not even enroll children unless they have parents or guardians. These orphanages, in fact, function more like boarding schools--providing an education to children who would not otherwise have one, providing nutritious food, and providing a safe environment. Thus, many children in these institutions are NOT orphans. They have families. They have families that cared enough to ensure that their children are getting an education.

    This is where one has to look beyond one's own cultural assumptions to understand how things work in another culture.

    Many children in India (whether they are rich or poor) get an education, not at their local public school, but at a residential institution like a boarding school. Therefore, when a child is listed as being in an institution, we can't assume that that means what it means here in the US.

    As for the "numbers of children languishing in questionable care or on streets"....

    Realistically speaking, it is very, very, very difficult to turn a "street child" into an adoptable child who can live in a family setting.

    Those who think it this isn't so should watch a few documentaries about street children and those who try to rehabilitate them.

    Truth is, children who have been loved and nurtured in a family, are much, much more adoptable than street children.

    There is so much to say on the topics you have raised, because there are so many assumptions behind your comments.....

    Where have you gotten the idea that "Indians fear foreign adoption?" Aside from a few activists for the poor that adoptive parents love to hate because they insist that Indian children must go first to Indians (like the law says they should), I have not seen that "fear" of "foreign adoptions."

    Your comments further imply that India's child welfare problems in how lost children are returned are almost unimportant because the India's other child welfare problems are so overwhelming. In other words, what's a few lost children not returned here or there when there are bigger child welfare fish to fry? Namely, those orphans that could be gracing Western homes...

    Firstly, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there are real people (with hearts that love their children just as much as you love yours) involved in these cases.

    If your child or your friend or relative's child went missing tomorrow afternoon, the problem would be less about abstract numbers and more about totally understandable human emotions.

    The hearts of parents beat and ache the same whether they belong to attractive white urban middle-class people in the developed world or care-worn brown impoverished rural/urban people who are a part of what we perceive as an overwhelming hoard in the developing world.

    The fact that we don't have the humanity or imagination to look past the context (where we get overwhelmed with numbers) and identify with these foreign parents is sad. And perhaps, in the end, one of the reasons that we don't do anything about adoption corruption.

    I can guarantee that if the same thing were happening in America to white middle class parents, the world would almost come to an end in an effort to fix the problem.

    It is a part of a valuation in which white people count more than brown people.

    Where rich people count more than impoverished people.

    Where those who are culturally similar count more than those who are culturally foreign and therefore incomprehensible.

    This may seem a harsh judgment, but it requires some soul-searching of all of us. It is always easy to recognize the prejudices of another time and place, but hard to look in one's own heart and time and see what will be clear to others in the future. I have done my own soul searching in this regard. And found sadly that I was guilty. This blog is an effort to help others begin to examine their own prejudices. Once there are enough of us who have corrected our perspective, the push for reform will begin to take hold. And eventually, there will be justice.

    Thus this flea bites to make the dog uncomfortable.

    Dismissing a problem because of its math is possible only if you have not looked into the human faces involved in injustice.

    Knowing an adoptee who was indeed kept from reuniting with her family when she was lost from them, because she represented $$$ to the adoption trade, I have looked into that human face.

    It and other human faces to this problem haunt me.

    One problem doesn't have to be ignored or made OK simply because there are other problems that might or might not be bigger problems that affect more people.

    Human suffering is human suffering, and demands attention.

    If we can almost shut down the tuna industry because the nets sometimes catch dolphins, so that the problem nets are replaced with others that are not a problem....can we not care enough about human children and human families to keep children who do not belong in the adoption stream out of it?

    I appreciate this opportunity to dialogue.

    Sorry for the long reply, but there was a lot packed into your comment.


  3. Hi Desiree, I read the whole post and your answer to one of the comments. First of all I appreciate your efforts and your thinking. A lot of hard work and research and experience has gone in the post. Secondly, reading the post gave me a totally different perspective. I am a Indian resident and have a 15 month old daughter. We are currently in US but will return to India by April 2008. We were planning to adopt a girl child after returning, in a bid to give a child a caring home. We have also formed a group called PGCAI ( with a goal to promote child adoption in India. Its a very new group and we are just learning. I am aware of the corruption in adoption and the adoption laws etc. After reading the post, I felt we should give a second thought to our plans of adoption. I felt as if we are supporting the people who are stealing children from their parents, in a bid to make money. Is my understanding correct? Should we drop the idea?

  4. Hi Desiree, I have yet another question and this is related to my first question. You mentioned that in each of the 10 adoptive agencies in Delhi there are 200 PAP's in waiting. Would you happen to know what % are waiting for a boy child?