By Sushri Sangita Puhan
In India the face of adoption is changing. While some progressive trends can be identified, there is also an increasing mismatch between the preferences of parents seeking to adopt children, and the number and age of children available for adoption. Prospective adoptive parents also face a lack of support when engaging with the adoption process. This leads to numerous social issues including incentives for child trafficking and unsuccessful adoption experiences, leading to the return of children to their care institutions. This blog discusses these issues, examining the reality behind the statistics and proposing solutions to some of the current problems in the system.
Between 2009 and 2020, 49,365 Indian children were adopted into new families, of which 43,637 children were adopted in India and 5,728 children abroad. Behind these statistics, every number represents a child, a history, and ultimately a family formed by adoption. Although adoption is still considered a ‘last resort’ by many, this is not the case for all. While small fractions have chosen adoption for altruistic reasons, a few have made it the first preference in forming a family. Blended families – a combination of biological and adopted children – are also steadily increasing. The diversity in family composition shows that attitudes to adoption in India are changing, albeit slowly and against considerable odds. However, an apparent gap between attitude and behaviour still exists.
The dichotomy between attitude and behaviour towards adoption
In spite of the increased trend of in-country adoption with a greater preference for girls -which has traditionally been focused on boys – for many in India adoption remains a practice of secrecy and denial. Attitudinal change has therefore been slower than behavioural change. There is a huge demand for very young children, whereas children available for adoption are largely older and often have special needs. Such behaviour has remained unchanged for decades.
As per the latest statistics from Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), out of 28,334 prospective adoptive parents (PAPs), 20,142 wanted to adopt a child aged 0-2 years. But the reality is only a few hundred adoptable children of that age are available. Often PAPs appeal with a desperate voice to adopt ‘jitna chhota bacha ho sakta’ – what some in the adoption world call ‘as young as possible’. On contrary, less than 3000 adoptable children were available in the care institutions.
At a glance, the shortage of adoptable babies seems a problem, and certainly for people who desperately want to adopt a baby. But does the trend reflect changing social and geopolitical attitudes that might have combined to shrink the number of adoptable babies? Does it mean single women are less likely to relinquish their babies at birth, that girls are viewed more as an asset than liability or that parents in poverty are not manipulated into signing away their parental rights? No official data is available to establish these claims. However, media reports of baby-selling and trafficking for illegal adoption surface regularly.
A glimpse into reality
Often adopters, who could be called buyers, and mediators are powerful people – rich and educated – who know how to bypass the law and exploit the birth parents. One case for example was reported in Tamilnadu where the adopter was an engineer and the trafficker a doctor. Together they executed the plan to sell a four-month-old baby girl at 4.8 lakh, (c. £5040). Another case involved a taxi driver in Delhi, who reported to police how child traffickers were selling two babies for 3 lakh (c. £3,150).
The desperate and hidden demand of PAPs for buying children at a heavy price shapes, and influences, child trafficking and forcefully separates children from their birth parents while severing all connections. The practice is rampant, but strong action against such acts is absent.
In the centralized and mechanical process, PAPs often face the dilemma between preferences and being assigned a child for adoption. Many cases involve serious compromises on adopters’ preferences, where they adopt in an indecisive and half-hearted effort. This often leads to unsuccessful adoption or what is called ‘adoption disruption’. Every year, 7 per cent children face unsuccessful adoptive family trauma in India and return to their institutions.
Statistics from CARA suggests that while 3,374 children were adopted in the year 2018-19 in India, 133 children could not make it to any families in spite of their eligibility. Whilst 55 children faced ‘adoption disruption’ as a result of non-adjustment with the adoptive family during the pre-adoption period, 1 child returned to the institute after being legally adopted, and 77 children fell in the category of ‘withdrawal’ – where people chose not to adopt the child after online matching. In simple terms, adopters turned down the match as the children did not fit their preferences.
Adoption is usually an emotionally charged and difficult decision, but many potential adoptive parents have little institutional support. Their questions often go unanswered, as India does not have a structured pre-adoption program to prepare PAPs or provide mandatory post-adoption support. Both are critical in ensuring stability and positive outcomes that adoption is designed to deliver.
What must be done
Considering the changing face of adoption over recent decades, children adopted from Child Care Institutions (CCI) have a range of needs due to their early life experiences, often of abuse and neglect. These cannot be addressed simply by ‘being adopted’. Similarly, a thorough preparation of PAPs prior to receiving the child into their family is equally crucial. It is currently restricted to a single meeting with the social worker within 24-36 months –the average span to adopt a child after registration – at the time of home study.
Though adoption policy in India has evolved over the decades with a focus to advance in-country adoption, the policy does not ensure guaranteed support, which should be a legal right of adoptive parents and adoptees. Translating the adoption policy into practice requires the Indian government to work through a multi-layered approach that addresses making provisions for quality and tailored support to meet the needs of individual families.
In the current scenario, the policy must rely on and collaborate with existing expertise – though these are limited. Informal collectives of adoptive parents are evident in some parts of the country as they draw on their experiences to support and address different needs of adoptable children, prospective and adoptive parents. These opportunities could be explored to capitalise to design a more responsive service to meet the unique and immediate needs of adoptive families. Whilst ensuring quality and effective adoption support is resource-intensive, its criticality in improving parent-child relationships, family stability and reduce adoption breakdown should not be undermined.
Dr Sushri Sangita Puhan is an honorary research fellow at the School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex, UK. This blog is derived from her PhD study ‘Illuminating Adoptive Family Practices in India: A narrative analysis of policy and live experience.’
Header image credit: AkshayaPatra Foundation, sourced via Pixabay.