Child care

India’s 29 million unwanted children

There are more orphaned and abandoned children in India than the entire population of Australia and yet only a few thousand are adopted each year. Why?

A foster child being held by their foster mother. Photo: Eliza Lyon.

According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report 29.6 million Indian children were orphaned in 2014 (20 per cent of the world’s orphaned children population).

In that same year less than 4000 children were adopted in India and only 430 children were adopted through inter-country adoptions (to parents outside of India).

So why is there such a difference between the number of orphaned children and the number of children adopted?

One of the reasons is that there are only 20,000 prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) registered with the  Central Adoption Resources Agency (CARA). A number so small in comparison to the millions of orphaned and abandoned Indian children that it means most of these children will never be adopted into a family and will remain unwanted.

This low number of adoptions is not due to a lack of adoption agencies. In the state of Maharashtra alone (where Mumbai is located) there are 56 specialised adoption agencies registered with CARA. One of these agencies is the Family Service Centre which is a secular non-governmental organisation.

Family Service Centre program officer Indira Ullas says another reason why the number of in-country adoptions is not higher is because children with medical conditions or disabilities are only adopted by international parents. Indira says Indian families generally prefer to adopt a child without a disability or a medical condition: “I think it has to do with the Indian mentality which is fair. We do not have the support for such children [in India] … [meaning Indian parents] wouldn’t accept a child with disabilities.”

From 2017-2018 only 42 special needs children were adopted in India while 349 special needs children were adopted by parents living abroad.

Single adoptive mum Brinda Gupta says another reason the adoption rate is so low is because the government does not have the resources to process (PAPs) paperwork efficiently. She also says the sheer number of people in India often overwhelms government departments. “When you come to India it is the scale [of everything], just the sheer number of people [which really] changes all the rules.”

Online adoption

In 2015 CARA moved the whole adoption process online in an effort to streamline it. Indira says prior to this PAPs would be able to walk into an agency and the agency would help them find a child to adopt. Indira says taking the process and putting it online made the whole adoption process more transparent, creating a fairer system.

This means children from small villages now have an equal chance of being adopted as a child from a metropolitan area.

However, Indira also says moving the adoptions online did slow the process: “this is an online system and in a place like India not everyone is tech savvy.”

This was evident in the decline of adoptions during this period. In 2014-2015 there were 3988 in-country adoptions whereas in 2015-2016 (the year after the new online process was implemented) there were only 3011 in-country adoptions, a drop of almost 25 per cent.

Children waiting in a childcare centre in Mumbai. Photo: Eliza Lyon.

Tata Institute of Social Sciences academic Dr Ruchi Sinha says although this new online system will stop people from abusing the system: “people who are not corrupt or are genuinely trying to access the system [will] find [the process] difficult.”

Foster care prior to adoption

While there is a lot of discussion in India’s parliament about the adoption process and how it can be improved, there is not nearly as much discussion about alternative ways of housing orphaned and abandoned children.

An example of an alternative way of housing unwanted children is through foster care. Although it is rare, some children are placed into foster homes prior to adoption. This unique and family-focused approach is one the Family Service Centre follows. According to foster mother Sangita Rajesh Gala there are only two centres in Mumbai which place children in foster care before adoption. The centre says they do this to take children out of institutions and give them a nurturing and safe home environment to develop in.

The foster parents

Sangita Rajesh Gala. Photo: Eliza Lyon.

Sangita has been fostering children through the Family Service Centre for the past three years. Since joining the centre in 2016 she has cared for 10 children however four of these children only stayed at her home for a short period as they were brought to her in an emergency: “my home is open 24/7 for any baby who is in distress.”

Sangita has three adult children of her own and after raising her children in the United States with her husband she decided to move back to India and adopt. However, she and her husband were deemed by CARA to be too old to adopt. While Sangita says this was disappointing she still wanted to help unwanted children, so she decided to foster children instead.

She says she knew about foster caring from her time in the USA however fostering wasn’t as common in India which meant it was very difficult for her to find an agency to foster children through. After a lot of research Sangita finally found the Family Service Centre. Sangita says this lack of knowledge in India about foster caring was really apparent to her when she brought her first foster child home and her neighbours assumed she had adopted the child.

Sangita says parting with her foster children has not become easier over time. However, parting with her first foster child was the hardest.

“I was totally broken. I mean [for] 15 days I was crying buckets … you notice now as I am talking, I am getting goosebumps.”

Although Sangita does become very attached to the children, she says she does not see the children after they have been adopted but the centre does give her updates on their welfare.

Sangita not only fosters children, she also counsels soon to be PAPs to help them understand how to adopt. Sangita has helped 148 people register with CARA to become PAPs but she she also wants people to foster.

“I personally feel that if every parent would just foster one child in their whole lifetime, forget once a year, just [once in their] whole lifetime … then there would never be orphans in orphanages.”

Single adoptive mothers

In recent times it has become more popular for single women to adopt. Program officer Indira says this recent trend is due to an increase in female empowerment and, in a single parent situation, adoption agencies make sure the parent has a supportive community to assist them in bringing up the child.  CARA has even given preference to single women over the age of 40-years-old who are “financially capable” and looking to adopt a child by giving them an ante date of six months (this means the women are placed higher on the waitlist).  Under this approach  43 single women registered with CARA in 2017-2018.

Single adoptive mum Brinda Gupta says it didn’t used to be culturally appropriate in India for women to raise a child on their own however times have changed: “I think [single women] want to make their own destiny and not be dependent on somebody else.”  

Brinda Gupta with her adopted daughter Mridula. Photo: Eliza Lyon.

Brinda was born and educated in India and then moved to Melbourne where she lived for 17 years. During this time, she was married and went through an intense IVF treatment which was unsuccessful. After her marriage ended, she decided to return to India and after turning 40-years-old she began considering adoption.

The entire process from registering with CARA to adopting her daughter Mridula took five years and it could have taken even longer if it wasn’t for her persistence and determination.

Indira says it usually takes two years for PAPs to be paired with a child, which is still a long wait.

After Brinda had registered with CARA she says she called CARA every afternoon at around two o’clock to ask about her adoption: “I drove them mad.”

Finally, Brinda was assigned by CARA to an orphanage in Mulund (a suburb in Mumbai). The orphanage informed her they had a child for her to adopt however the child was not yet legally free. This meant the child’s paperwork was still going through the courts and, while she was an orphan, they still had to make sure no one would claim her as their child before she was adopted.

“For seven months I rang them saying, ‘What’s happening?’ … They would tell me things like, ‘Oh this little girl came from some village close to Mumbai and so we have to go to the village elders to certify that she is actually an orphan.”

Brinda says there was always some kind of excuse as to why the orphan was not yet declared legally free. At first the orphanage said they needed to send the police to the girl’s village to speak to the elders to ensure she was an orphan.

Brinda says she would call and ask if the police had gone to the village yet however the orphanage would just respond with odd excuses. On one occasion they said the police had not yet gone because there had been a festival in the town. After seven months of Brinda calling the orphanage every day asking questions, she was finally told the police were on their way to the village. Relieved, Brinda called a few days later to ask about the outcome.

This is when the orphanage said there was a problem with the adoption.

Brinda says they told her the child’s aunt had showed up and was insisting on taking the child. Brinda asked what this meant for her and they told her she could no longer adopt the child.

Later, when Brinda discussed what had happened with friends and the Family Service Centre, she realised the orphanage was setting her up to offer them a bribe. She says: “I was never going to do that … I was horrified.”

Instead of letting this ordeal deter her from adopting she travelled to Delhi to meet with the CARA director: “I plonked myself in front of the CARA director … and said you have to help me.” The director picked up the phone and called an orphanage in Jharkhand to enquire about a child for her. Brinda says they had 70 orphans at this particular orphanage, and this is where she was matched with her future daughter Mridula.

Looking back, Brinda says it took a lot of perseverance to go through the adoption process as the system lacked support. She says she was fortunate enough to have the ability to see a psychologist throughout the whole process but not all PAPs can afford to see a professional to discuss what’s going on. She also had a strong support network among her friends and family, with her best friend going with her to meet Mridula for the first time.

Brinda tells how Mridula loves telling people about her orphanage, Sahyog Village.

So with an adoption process which is difficult to access, has a long waiting period, and a lack of support and clarity, and where orphanages try to secure bribes from people desperately wanting to be parents, is it really a surprise that only 3374 children were adopted in India from 2017-2018?  

One thing is certain, in a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, there is no easy way to ensure that millions of orphaned and abandoned children will all be safely homed with adopted parents when the number of orphaned and abandoned children to prospective parents is 150 to one.