In the summer of 2019, Vinay Raj* and his wife Kanika gathered their family and friends to announce the most important decision they had made in their eight years of marriage: they were going to adopt a baby girl. They had registered on the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) website in April that year, and the home survey report was approved in a month. The couple, based in New Delhi, was told they could take the baby home in a year. The prospect of adopting a baby allayed the trauma of the miscarriage Kanika had just suffered. The couple pulled out all the stops: “We bought little blankets and baby clothes, soft toys and books,” says Vinay.
And then began the wait. It’s been three years now, and CARA has not yet referred a child to the couple. “We have almost given up hope,” says Vinay. “It has been emotionally exhausting.” To make matters worse, there has been no word from the adoption authority either. “No one picks up the phone, and when we meet them they blame the pandemic for the delay. But now they have no excuse,” he says. So interminable has been the process and so great the emotional toll that Vinay and Kanika have changed their mind about adopting a second child.
For Bhuwaneshwari Chandrashekharan, a lecturer in Kuwait, the endless wait for adoption meant putting the brakes on a promising career shift. She had registered with CARA in February 2019, and expected to wait months, not years. Two years ago, Bhuwaneshwari, who specialises in organic chemistry,applied for a Ph.D in Canada, and made plans to eventually move to that country. “But I’ve had no choice but to stay on in Kuwait; this is the address with which I have registered with CARA,” she says. The wait has been tough. “I don’t know who to turn to. I feel blindfolded,” says Bhuwaneshwari, who continues to attend pre-adoption workshops in anticipation of bringing a baby home.
Behind the numbers
The backstory to Vinay and Bhuwaneshwari’s predicament lies in the statistics with CARA: while some 28,000 prospective parents have currently registered to adopt, less than a tenth the number of children — 2,200 — are legally free for adoption. In theory, there should be many more. There is, after all, a staggering number of orphaned or abandoned children living in Child Care Institutions (CCIs) in this country, from where they can be deemed legally free for adoption and thus linked to adoption agencies. In 2020, as many as 2,27,518 children were living in CCIs, according to UNICEF figures. Of these, 1,45,788 were reunited with their birth families following a directive from the Supreme Court as a precaution against the pandemic. But this still leaves tens of thousands of children languishing in institutions, of whom only a fraction make it to the legal adoption pool and eventually to adoptive parents. In 2020-21, for instance, just 3,559 children were placed for adoption with families living in India and abroad, according to data with CARA.
The journey of orphaned or abandoned children, from the day they are found to the day they are placed in an adoptive home, is a long and rigorous one. First, they must be brought before the district child welfare committee and placed in a CCI under the Juvenile Justice Act of 2015. An effort is then made to track their immediate or extended families and reunite them; if this fails, the child welfare committee, a quasi judicial body, has to deem the child legally free for adoption. The district child protection unit links them to an adoption agency and the child is registered with CARA. A medical report is prepared and the child is then matched with a prospective parent after a home study is undertaken by CARA authorities.
In October last year, a group of over 300 prospective adoptive parents and adoptive parents wrote to the Minister of Women and Child Development about reforms needed to bring in more children from CCIs into the adoption pool. They pointed to the inordinate waiting time: some of these prospective parents had registered with CARA as early as 2018. They demanded “processes to ensure that [child welfare committees] bring every possible child into the legal adoption pool and ensure that the kids are not stuck in CCIs.” The letter spoke of the emotional and financial impact on adoptive families, adding that “ultimately the concern is towards the welfare of orphaned, surrendered or abandoned children who do not find a place in the system.”
These men and women had come together under the aegis of Adoption Action Group, formed by Bengaluru-based journalist and adoptive mother Parul Aggarwal. It took two-and-a-half years before she could bring her son home. “I thought it was right to be scrutinised as an adoptive parent and go through the rigorous process. But after a year I realised that the delays are systemic,” she says. The pandemic has only made the wait time longer because the process is held up at every step. “Medical reports could not be prepared because of the dearth of doctors, parents could not travel to meet the child, home surveys could not happen.” For Parul, adoption was the first choice: “I did not think about it. That was the only way I wanted to create a family.” But dealing with the unpredictability of the process and waiting for nearly three years was exhausting for Parul. “Instead of the system helping me to exercise my choice, it was plain indifferent.” Given the complete lack of communication from CARA, Parul leant on adoptive community groups for support and information.
A CARA representative, who does not want to be named, puts the delay down to numbers. “I can understand the frustration of parents, but right now there are many more parents waiting than there are children in adoption agencies. If children do not come into the system, what are we supposed to do?” Besides, he says, of the children available for adoption, the most desired category — children between 0 and 2 years of age, with no form of disability — are minuscule.
There are several other systemic issues that undermine the adoption process, says Avinash Kumar, founder of Families of Joy, an NGO that brings together all stakeholders in adoption. “Many CCIs are not regulated by the State and are not linked to adoption agencies, and so the children in these institutes are invisible to the adoption pool.” Even if they are linked to agencies, the paperwork is not completed, sometimes for years, and so the child is not declared legally free for adoption, he says.
Moreover, even within the small pool of children available for adoption, there are three categories who often do not find a home in India: older children, siblings, and those with disabilities. “Foreign adoptive parents are more favourable to children in these categories,” says Aloma Lobo, former chairperson of CARA and an adoptive and birth parent. “It isn’t easy for parents to adopt an older child or a child with special needs, and there is a lot of preparation needed. You have to counter a lot of prejudice. But it brings you a world of satisfaction,” she says.
India has traditionally been resistant to the idea of adoption. Social issues of caste, class and genetics have held major sway, with families and communities looking askance at the idea of adopting a child whose parentage is unknown. Given this history, the fact that there is a waiting list of prospective adoptive parents is a sea change.
So, contrary to the frustration of the parents, Lobo finds a positive spin in the adoption statistics today. “The surge in the number of prospective adoptive parents essentially means that people understand and appreciate adoption. That nurturing a child is about creating a family through a relationship that does not necessarily come through blood. Forty years ago, you could just walk into an adoption home and pick up a child because there was such little demand for them. Now, there are thousands of parents who are choosing the path of adoption.”
*Some names changed.