Adoption | Society

The story of two women, adopted by Dutch families, in search of their birth parents in India

The search for roots is very complicated, long-drawn, and expensive   | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

The news came as a surprise to Jyoti Weststrate even though she had been waiting for it for as long as she could remember. “I wasn’t expecting the Dutch government to go that far,” says Jyoti, 37, speaking from her home in Deventer in the Netherlands.

On February 8, the Netherlands announced a total freeze on all international adoptions after an official inquiry exposed systemic abuses in the past, including baby theft, child trafficking, fraud and corruption. The Minister for Legal Protection, Sander Dekker, even apologised for the wrongdoings which, the investigation found, the government was aware of but had done nothing to stop.

Soon, Sweden also decided to investigate international adoptions in the country, and more countries in the E.U. are likely to follow suit.

Jyoti, who was adopted from India in 1985 as a two-year-old, is elated that intercountry adoption has been banned. “No child should have to end up rootless in an alien land, like me. Child trafficking must stop,” she says. She testified before the commission and offered evidence.

Her cheer, however, is marred by a familiar despondency. “There is still no clarity on how I will find the answer to this one basic question — who am I?” Jyoti was hoping for some concrete action — damages for personal loss or financial help to help her search for her roots in India. But none came.

Disappointed, she is now planning to take the legal route. “I am in talks with my lawyer to sue Dutch authorities and seek damages for the sufferings caused by my adoption, which actually amounted to child trafficking,” she says. She also plans to knock on the doors of Indian courts, to seek help to locate her biological parents. “I am stopping at nothing.”

A ‘gift’

A church, high windows, a door, a priest coming in and going out — hazy mental snapshots from India have haunted Jyoti all her life. “Some images from the past are still clearly etched in my memory, and they keep coming back,” she says. “I always grew up with this feeling that my biological parents would come any moment and pick me up. Life has been an eternal wait.”

However, it was only in 2015, after she broke up with her boyfriend, that she decided to search for her biological family. “It’s not that I was unhappy with my adoptive parents, who were motivated by a desire to uplift a needy child. I just need to know who I am and who my biological parents are and under what circumstances I was given up for adoption,” says Jyoti. She visited India twice after 2015, searching for her roots, but with no success.

Jyoti, a carer and anti-adoption activist, was born in Bettiah in Bihar in December 1983, according to her Indian passport. She was under the care of nuns at the Holy Cross Orphanage in Fakirana before she was adopted by a Dutch couple. Her adoption papers say that she was found in a church before she was brought to the orphanage. In 2016, she met a Jesuit father in India who she believes was with the church where she was found. What he told her has remained with her as the most defining aspect of her life — “You were given to me as a gift.”

At the same Fakirana orphanage, Utrecht-based psychiatrist Regina Schipper, 42, was an inmate some five years before Jyoti. When she was seven months old, she was brought to Palna orphanage in Delhi, where she was given up for adoption when she was 20 months old. Adopted into a well-to-do family, Regina got the best of everything, and went on to become a psychiatrist. “I was given every chance to do whatever I wanted,” she says, in a phone conversation.

Regina Schipper, 42, who is a psychiatrist today

Regina Schipper, 42, who is a psychiatrist today   | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

However, despite a privileged life, she grew up with the feeling that she did not belong. “Ever since I learnt to talk — I speak Dutch — I would keep saying that I have to go back,” she says. “I always knew I had to return to India. Nobody had asked me if I had wanted to be adopted.” Growing up as a person of colour in an all-white village, she always felt “different” in spite of being “well-integrated” with the local community and having lots of friends who made her feel loved. “I always felt this urge to explain what I was doing with this white family in the Netherlands.”

At 18, she suffered a major bout of depression caused by an identity crisis and a feeling of rejection that arose from knowing her birth parents had given her away. Recurring mental health issues even forced her to give up her studies after she finished grammar school, which she resumed after her adoptive father’s death in 2003.

Regina first came to India when she was 15 and has since visited the country several times. She interned at Patna’s Tripolia Hospital for two months in 2008. “I always live between these two countries,” she says. Her search for her roots during the many visits revealed facts that she hadn’t known before. She was born in Narkatiaganj in Bihar in June 1978, and not in Delhi as her Indian passport says. From the church in Narkatiaganj, where she was baptised, she managed to get the names of her parents — James Peter and Monica D’Costa. “I was not an orphan!” she says. “I had parents. They were married, and my father was a teacher.”

She even met her godmother in Bihar, whose name was mentioned in the baptism certificate she obtained from the church in 2008. The godmother remembered her as “a healthy child” but claimed not to know her parents. Regina had arrived at the orphanage a well-fed baby, and people remembered it. Her adoption documents even mention her fuss-free eating habits: “Regi eats everything.”

Jyoti and Regina got to know each other in the Netherlands, as children, during the annual gettogethers of families with adopted children from India. They stayed in touch all their lives and are now together in the search for their roots. For Regina, more than her identity, her search is for the truth. “I want to meet my biological parents and find out why they let me go. I want to know what forced them.”

Regina at the time of her adoption

Regina at the time of her adoption   | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


Files in the attic

On a Sunday afternoon in June 2017, Jyoti and Regina knocked on the door of the wife of the deceased head of the Dutch adoption agency, Stichting Bemiddeling Adoptie, which had processed their adoptions. The agency had closed down in the 1990s. They were shocked to find, in the attic of the house, documents related to 125 adoptions. “They were just lying there, in someone’s attic,” says Jyoti. “The files should have been handed over to the government.”

The files contained correspondences of the adopting agency with their Indian counterparts. “In the files, I found that a girl, Sarita, had been adopted by my adoptive parents before me, but she died the day after she arrived from India. I was arranged as a replacement for Sarita. My parents paid 2,000 Dutch guilders to get me,” says Jyoti. “My whole file, I realise now, was a lie. How is it possible that all information belonging to Sarita and me are identical?”

The women handed over the files to the government and they were placed before the committee investigating intercountry adoptions as evidence of the wrongdoings happening around adoptions from India. They even testified before the commission.

The committee studied adoptions from various countries that took place between 1967 and 1998 and found examples of “illegal activities,” such as “corruption,” making it “impossible or more difficult to establish the origins and identity of adoptees by falsifying documents; causing children to be given up in return for payment or through coercion; child trafficking; baby farming and obscuring a child’s identity.”

Though the report concerns mostly Brazil, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Colombia and Sri Lanka, India features prominently as one of the top ten source countries with 3,007 adoptions between 1970 and 2019. In the case of India, the report notes a high prevalence of “structural problems” such as shoddy, incomplete documentation, corruption, maladministration, fraud, state collision, child theft and child trafficking.

Jyoti at the time of her adoption

Jyoti at the time of her adoption   | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In 1998, the Netherlands joined The Hague Adoption Convention, an international treaty that made adoption rules stricter with an aim to prevent crimes and corruption in adoptions.

In spite of that, abuses have continued, the Dutch report reveals. Peter Daalmans, General Secretary of the committee, refused to comment, saying it is “not in the hands of the committee any more to answer any questions” since their report is already published and the committee will be dissolved because its task is over. The Dutch Ministry of Justice did not respond to email enquiries.

Face on milk carton

Last year, Jyoti and Regina launched the Milk Box Project, an initiative aimed at creating a network of adoptees in the Netherlands, Indian families who fear their missing children have been adopted, and NGOs and people connected with the adoption process. The drive is named after the American practice in the 1980s in which advertisements were put on milk boxes about missing children.

The two have also been working on raising awareness, given that adoptees are often discouraged from searching for their roots. At the BredaPhoto International Photo Festival, Jyoti and Regina put together 125 milk cartons with photos of 10 Dutch adoptees taken at the time of their adoption. “There was a carton for every single file we recovered from the attic,” says Jyoti.

The exhibition invited 11 people from different walks of life to make a statement through their photographs. Dagmar van Weeghel shot Jyoti in a black-and-gold saree and antique Indian gold jewellery with her adoption file by her side. “The idea was to create awareness around intercountry adoptions, what it entails, and why we want to know our roots,” she said. “It is not that we are unhappy where we are; it is just that we need to know who we are, where we come from.”

A long way home

Jyoti, Regina and other adoptees feel left to fend for themselves, in spite of the Dutch government’s admission of wrongdoing. An “expertise centrum,” some kind of agency to help adoptees with ‘knowledge sharing’, has been proposed, but not much else.

“During our interaction with the minister (Sander Dekker) after the report was published and a ban announced, I asked him if the government will facilitate our search in India,” says Regina. “I got no convincing response. I have no hope at all from the government… We have to organise everything on our own.”

Jyoti is working on taking the battle forward legally. Her lawyer, Lisa-Marie Komp says, “I have just taken on Jyoti’s case, so I cannot yet say anything about legal actions started or envisaged.

The report published in the Netherlands confirms various forms of abuse have structurally occurred in intercountry adoptions and that the Dutch state was aware of this but failed to intervene.”

Jyoti Weststrate poses with her adoption papers for an awareness campaign last year

Jyoti Weststrate poses with her adoption papers for an awareness campaign last year   | Photo Credit: DAGMAR VAN WEEGHEL


Regina is not one for court battles. “For some adoptees, it is a way to express their anger about what was done to them — being ripped apart from your family, with no ways to trace them because every paper is a lie,” she says. “But for others, like me, that will not work. I’d like to use my fighting spirit not to fight the system but to find my family.”

However, the search for roots is very complicated, long-drawn, and expensive. Arun Dohle, an Indian adoptee from Germany, fought a legal case in India for 17 years for judicial permission to access his mother’s files before he finally met his Indian mother; she had given him up because she was unwed when he was born. Dohle’s Pune-based organisation Against Child Trafficking has been working on conducting root searches for global adoptees from India.

“We have helped locate the biological families of 52 adoptees since 2004,” says Dohle, currently based in India. “In many cases the mother was unwed when the child was born. Such mothers cannot be easily traced. One must understand the social context and the precarious position of such women wherever they are, whether married or single. Only trained and skilled social workers can do this work with the sensitivity it deserves.”

Dohle and his organisation have long been campaigning against the “demand-driven market” of intercountry adoptions. They also provided evidence to the Dutch committee against the malpractices rampant in India. “Intercountry adoptions are human and child rights violations, even without malpractices like baby theft, corruption and forgery,” says Dohle, welcoming the Dutch ban.

Others question this stance. Studies estimate that India has approximately 30 million abandoned/ orphaned children, but in-country adoptions for 2017-18, according to Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) statistics, were as low as 3,276. With adoption still not popular in India, it is foreign families who often step in, more so for some categories like disabled children. What is not disputed is the long history of malpractice and the crying need for far better record-keeping. (CARA did not respond to emails.)

In spite of the challenges, Jyoti is hopeful of finding her biological parents someday. “I am sure, somewhere, in some file or the other, there must be my chit of paper. I couldn’t have been just ‘given as a gift’.”

The Siliguri-based independent journalist writes on politics and culture.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 7:57:35 AM |

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