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Orphans, child trafficking & the manufactured adoption epidemic going on in India.
How would you react as an adoptive parent living in a foreign land if you found out that the Indian baby you had adopted many years ago, with “proper” paper work, was actually a trafficked child?
More importantly, imagine how traumatic such a discovery would be for a young adoptee growing up in an alien land with an uneasy sense not belonging.
This scenario is not as surreal as it sounds. Even today, there are parents in Chennai desperately seeking to meet their children who were snatched from them 12 years ago. The couple who ran the adoption racket which kidnapped children for adoption is now out on bail. Two of those kidnapped children who were rejected by their adoptive parents are in foster care in Netherlands and they wrote a pathetic letter to their biological parents asking them for help. The adoptive parents of the other children refuse to acknowledge that the children they are bringing up might have been trafficked.
Many overseas adoptees come back to India in search of their roots, hoping against hope that they find some family back here. They hope to find closure to the one, big nagging question: How did they end up in an orphanage? Were they trafficked? Were they orphaned? Were they abandoned?
Asha Dijkstra was adopted from Delhi. She came from an orphanage and was assumed to be an abandoned baby. She went to live in Netherlands. Like most overseas adoptees, she was about 15 when she started her search. She persuaded her mother to bring her to Delhi and they went to the orphanage from where she was adopted. To her utter surprise she soon discovered she had living biological parents and three siblings. Her father had given her away because he didn’t want a second daughter. She was not trafficked, but given away by her father without her mother’s consent.
More than 20 years have passed since then. Today, Asha teaches in a university in her adoptive country and has set up an NGO named Aara Foundation for rescued girls in Delhi. She lives near Amsterdam, but visits the country of her birth several times. Her biological parents are no more and her siblings don’t connect with her. But she still returns because this is where her heart is.
In a recent, well publicised case, Jyoti Svahn — a 23-year-old fliving in Sweden, adopted from a well-known agency in Bengaluru — found she had a living father and brother, and an extended family (step-mother and sisters) in Tumkur, close to Bengaluru. With the help of Arun Dohle, an Indo-German adoptee who is an expert in root searches, her persistent inquiries with the Dutch and Indian agencies which supervised her adoption led to some pertinent information being revealed.
By slowly unravelling the events which led to her adoption, Jyoti discovered that her mother — who had left her and her sister temporarily in the care of the adoption centre — had passed away. But her father (from whom Jyoti’s mother was separated) was still alive! Her search and its emotional conclusion have been documented in a film called Manufactured Orphans, which is available for viewing on YouTube.
Jyoti was five when she and her sister were adopted. She had a memory, which she clung to, and which helped in her search: a playground, where their mother left Jyoti and her sister, saying she would return (but never did). The records at the orphanage had indicated that she was an abandoned child whose background was unknown. But Jyoti persisted until she found out the truth.
But what happens if the child who was adopted has no memory of the past? Arun Dohle — the man who helped Jyoti with her search — was himself adopted from a Pune orphanage by a German couple when he was an infant. He embarked on a search for his roots when he was 20. It took a court order and 17 years of persistent searching before he could access his files from the orphanage. After that, it took him just three months to locate his mother. She was unwed when he was born, and Arun’s adoption had been arranged by a powerful politician without his mother’s consent.
Arun now helps other adoptees to find their biological families. Since searching is an expensive business, especially when such little information is available, the adoptees have to be committed — both emotionally and financially — to this project, a search that can last for several months or even years.
In the case of trafficked children this becomes doubly hard because the records are fudged, making it practically impossible to trace their origins.
The 1960s and ‘70s were really the boom time for overseas adoption. The thinking then was that orphaned or abandoned children would find much better lives if they were sent abroad to prosperous western countries. Overseas adoption was projected as an act which would enable the child from a marginalised family to get a life which was wonderful beyond anything its own parents would have been able to provide. So strong was this opinion that even when such institutions knew the child had a living family they chose to send it out for overseas adoption ostensibly with the parents’ consent and with the child’s welfare at heart.
Inter Country Adoption (ICA) was projected as a kind of win-win situation. The children got good homes, the orphanages could reduce the number of inmates, and earn money for their maintenance. The adoption agencies in Western countries with dwindling populations and long lists of parents waiting to adopt would eagerly snatch up these kids at a cost and readily pay the agency for the children. It became a business opportunity just waiting to be exploited, and over the years, trading in “orphans” became a booming baby business. By 2017, baby trading rackets had been exposed and cracked all over the country and yet the business continued to boom.
In 2016, a big kidnap-for-adoption racket was unearthed in Kolkata when an adoption agency was found guilty of stealing babies from impoverished unwed mothers, rape survivors and marginalised families. In many cases healthy babies were substituted with still-borns and the mothers were told their babies had died. Sometimes, poor parents were made to sign documents which they did not comprehend. They thought they were admitting their children to a free residential school but actually ended up giving up all rights over them.
In 2011, in another case, the CBI filed a charge sheet against the managing trustee of the well-known Pune-based orphanage Preet Mandir and five others in connection with child trafficking. According to the charge sheet, “between 2002 and 2010, the managing trustee entered into criminal conspiracy with unknown persons and kidnapped the children of poor people in Maharashtra with a motive to send them for inter-country adoption to extort huge money from the adopting parents.” It also accused Joginder Singh Bhasin, the managing trustee, of using children as a “commodity” by selling them to foreign adoption agencies in order to make money.
In Chennai in 2005, an adoption agency called Malaysia Social Service Centre (MSSC) was found guilty of snatching children from the streets, slums, hospitals and busy markets. They even lifted children who were sleeping in the open, on pavements next to their parents. The professional kidnappers who lifted the children received a fee from the agency which sold them overseas for thousands of dollars. All the while, the grieving parents searched high and low for their children.
Many of the affected parents had filed police complaints. When the racket was busted, these children had already been living for several years in places as far away as Melbourne, Amsterdam and Idaho. Since most of the children were minors, their adoptive parents refused to let them get DNA tests. Some of the biological parents, with the help of NGOs, went all the way to the country where their child now lived and returned empty handed. These parents still weep for their children who are probably oblivious to their existence.
Asked one angry father, “If an Australian child had been kidnapped and sold to Indian parents, would their government have kept quiet? Or if it had been the child of a politician or a government official, would they have let so many years pass without doing anything?”
Searches don’t always yield answers. Anand Kaper was born in Habib Hospital in Mumbai in 1976 and relinquished to a children’s home after six days. Since 2002 he has made several visits to the hospital, the home and to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation office. He has managed to trace the locality from which his birth mother might have come, but that hasn’t led him any further. In 2015, he had an interview with Maneka Gandhi who assured him that she would make sure that adult adoptees are helped to find their roots. But today, he is a disappointed man because he finds that the government is doing exactly the opposite and the Prospective Adoptive Parents (PAPs) remain the most important stakeholders — probably because that is where the money comes from.
Sometimes, independent searches yield results. The 2016 award-winning film Lion was based on the true life story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian adoptee who returned from Australia, looking for his biological family. Saroo, the son of a single mother who was a construction worker in West Bengal, was five when he fell asleep in the empty compartment of a train and got lost. He was picked up off the street and admitted to a children’s home. The movie narrates the fantastic story of his adoption from the home by Australian parents and his agonised search for his roots as a young adult. Finally, with the help of Google Maps and a lot of memory-dredging, he actually found his mother in 2013 — an event which attracted a lot of media attention.
Saroo’s is a feel-good story, like that of Laxmi Iyengar who was adopted from a well-known nursing home in Bengaluru in the late 1960s. Those were the days when unwed mothers were not asked for many details, so Laxmi’s roots remained shrouded in mystery. She grew up treated like a princess by her adoptive parents who never told the truth till she was 21. She was devastated when she learnt she was adopted.
She started her search many years later when she was living in the US with her husband and three children. When she learnt from the doctor who had facilitated her adoption that her birth mother was Anglo-Indian, it also helped her to piece together things which had always puzzled her…why she looked different, why she was fairer than the rest of her South Indian family. With just a name and her date of birth to go on with, she tracked her biological mother, who was now living in Australia. And wonder of wonders, her biological parents were now married to each other and had three more children!
Forty one-year-old Miriam Gaenicke, who was adopted from a CSI hospital in Gadag by German missionaries, has been searching for her biological mother for several years. She corresponded with the hospital and got access to her records, which revealed a vital clue: her unwed mother’s name and the surname of her biological father, who had paid her hospital bills. She was told they were not married and their engagement had fallen through because of dowry demands. She also learnt that her mother would now be 59 years of age, and hailed from the village of Hammagi, close to Gadag.
Over the years, she has had her DNA tested and located several distant relatives but has not yet been able to trace her parents. She knows her father came from Goa and belonged to the Gowd Saraswath community, and hasn’t given up hope of finding out his identity. “It is just a matter of time now,” she says excitedly. “I have found someone who comes from the same small village as my mother. She is travelling just now, but when she returns to India, I am sure she can give me information about my mother. I am sure I will find her soon.”
Rebecca Nirmala Peacock, born in Kanpur in 1976, was adopted by an American couple from Utah, when she was an infant. She came from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity orphanage and has very little hope of being able to trace her roots because she was probably an abandoned child. Rebecca is now married to her childhood sweetheart Dave, and they have adopted a child, also from India. She longs to return to Kanpur one day. But will she be able to trace her birth family? She is quite pragmatic about it. Rebecca’s daughter too might face the same dilemma when she grows up as the Bengaluru orphanage from which she was adopted said she too was an abandoned child.
Rebecca and two other adoptees from the same Missionaries of Charity orphanage founded Lost Sarees in 2012. Their idea is to connect with Indian adoptees from around the world and provide them with a platform where they can share their stories and form a network.
Ian-Anand Forber Pratt is one more adoptee who is trying to make a difference. He was adopted from West Bengal by an American couple and returned when he was an adult, to set up foster care homes for children. He firmly believes that children should grow up in families and that institutionalised care should be the last resort. He founded the nonprofit Foster Care India in May 2012, using his own savings. It now has a team of 12 people and is supported by UNICEF.
Will such initiatives will help stem trafficking in babies? Will it help those adopted as children find some closure in adulthood? Such, at least, is the hope.