The Crime Branch office of the Chennai Police has several poor parents as frequent visitors these days. They all go through a faded photo album belonging to an adoption agency, the Malaysian Social Service Agency (MSSA). The parents are looking for their children's photographs in the album. Although these pictures were taken a long time ago, parents hope they will recognize their little ones, reported missing or kidnapped in police records and, maybe, get them back from their adopted parents.
Until May 2005, MSSA was known to do great social service: putting up poor Indian kids for adoption, mostly to foreigners. But in May, the Chennai police arrested some MSSA members for kidnapping poor children, changing their physical appearance (changing their hairstyle etc) and then selling them for profit to foreigners.
At the center of the racket, which is not the first of its kind in the country, are P Ravindranath, his wife Vatsala and son Dinesh Kumar, who have been running MSSA since 1991. They have been arrested along with six others, including professional child-lifters. The police suspect that the arrested could be behind the kidnapping and trafficking of over 350 children from 1991 to 2002.
MSSA, located near Thiruverkadu on the outskirts of Chennai, Tamil Nadu (TN), would buy the children from child-lifters for Rs 8,000-10,000 (1US$=Rs 44), or less. MSSA started as an orphanage and then got into offering children for adoption.
The agency had previously come out unscathed after a controversy in 1998, when some children who had been reported missing were identified as among those put up by the agency for adoption. One parent claimed their child went missing when they were sleeping one night on the pavement, as it was too hot inside their home. In another case, a boy who was missing for six years was traced in The Netherlands, where he was living with his new parents.
In 1998, an employee of MSSA was the main accused in the kidnapping of five infants from a hospital in Salem. Although MSSA's license was then revoked, it was reinstated a few months later.
The recent arrests have triggered a blame game between the police, the TN Social Welfare Department and the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW). Undoubtedly, the existing system is deficient in monitoring the handing over of children to licensed adoption agencies, thereby encouraging the legal adoption of kidnapped children.
In the past, rackets involving sale of children for adoption in India and abroad had been uncovered in Andhra Pradesh and in Salem district in TN. With a large number of couples from Western countries deciding to adopt children from India - either because of low adoption fees or on humanitarian grounds - children are becoming a very saleable commodity.
Although Indian children are `priced' less than those from other countries, there is still a lot of money to be made in their sale. An agency that places a child with foster parents from abroad can earn anything ranging from $1000 to $4,000. The child would have been put up for adoption either because s/he was abandoned by poverty-stricken parents, sold by poor parents for a pittance, or kidnapped. This huge gap between the small expenditure incurred and the huge income earned has given rise to unscrupulous elements prepared to go to any lengths to get children for adoption.
According to the statistics maintained by the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA), between January 2000 and March 2001, 1,377 Indian babies were adopted by foreigners, and out of these, a third went to the US. These are the official figures. There are several unofficial adoptions being carried out.
Further, according to the law, Indians must get first preference in adoption cases. But according to Sujata Reddy, former member of TN's Voluntary Coordinating Agency (VCA), the adoption agencies always present malnourished children to the Indian couples, who reject them outright. The VCA is then forced to send the children for inter-country adoption. Here, the agency presents the same children, but they look well-groomed and healthier, and are picked up by foreigners immediately.
Of course, there are rules and procedures laid down for adoption. In 1984, the Supreme Court made it mandatory for all adoptions coming up before the courts to be verified by designated scrutinizing agencies in each state. In case of TN, the scrutinizing agency is the state branch of ICCW.
Despite the rules, there are major inherent deficiencies in the adoption process. Nowhere in the system is it mandatory to explain from where the child has come. MSSA used this loophole to its advantage. A few years ago in Andhra Pradesh, a similar flaw in the system was used to sell tribal children for adoption. What agencies like MSSA do is fabricate surrender documents, in cases where the child's parents are not known. The child could be kidnapped or abandoned, but the records will show the child was handed over to the agency for adoption.
The ICCW does not want to take any blame for the recent mess. Chandra Thanikachalam, honorary Joint Secretary, ICCW, TN, claimed ICCW had no role in monitoring the initial stages of adoption. Couples or individuals wanting to adopt a child first contact licensed child adoption agencies. In case of Indian parents, they directly interface with the agency, while foreign parents are represented by social workers or agencies from their native country.
Next, a petition for adoption is filed in court, supported by the required documents - namely the surrender document or child welfare committee clearance (for abandoned children), VCA certification and a no-objection certificate from CARA. The court then refers the case to the ICCW, which has to scrutinize the documents and see whether the placement will be in the best interest of the child.
In case ICCW is not satisfied with the documentation or notices any discrepancy, it reports the matter to the licensing authority; state governments in intra-country adoption cases and CARA in inter-country adoptions.
ICCW's role is only at the penultimate stage of adoption and it cannot gather information about the background of the child or its biological parents. This is because, according to the rules laid down by the Supreme Court, ICCW is only allowed to probe the details of adoptive parents and is strictly prohibited from making any enquiries about the biological parents or where the child came from.
This is for two reasons: To protect the identity of unwed mothers and to prevent the biological parents, who have given their child for adoption, from being traced by foster parents, and to prevent extortion of money or reclaiming of the child from foster parents.
Hence, there is no external agency to regulate the entry of children into adoption agencies. Thanikachalam, who has several years of experience in child law, stresses that in general, only reputed agencies are entrusted with the power to facilitate adoptions. They are considered trustworthy. This particular incident is a breach of trust, she says.
Thanikachalam says that in order to prevent such incidents, a child welfare committee that can witness the handing over of children to the adoption agency should be set up under the Juvenile Justice Act. This committee should function as a statutory body with magisterial powers for its members.
Only this and not an expansion of the powers of ICCW would be an effective solution, she feels. She also emphasizes that repeat offenders like MSSA and other agencies should have their licenses revoked permanently.