One of questions I am most often asked about the topic of the “invisible children” of India – the orphaned, the abandoned, the runaways and throwaways – is something along the lines of, “Why aren’t more children adopted?” or “Are any of these kids ever adopted?“
In India (as in many other places), the issue of adoption is a complex one. Corruption, particularly in international adoptions, is rampant – and not just within India, but outside its borders in foreign “adoption agencies” as well. Government regulations and oversight, issues about parental relinquishment and what children are really available for adoption, and the legal process are all involved and complicated. There are far fewer domestic adoptions within the country than one would think – fewer than five thousand a year – while millions of children languish in orphanages and more than four thousand potential adoptive parents wait on lists in both Delhi and Calcutta alone.
I recently published an article on Blog Critics, about the myriad issues surrounding adoption in India. If you are interested in this subject and some of the background issues surrounding it, you might like to take a look. An excerpt is below:
In March 2007 I was in Northeastern India, on my third trip to the country and in the midst of writing my book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India. I had first come to India two years prior to volunteer in an orphanage; the beautiful, parentless children had touched my life so profoundly that I had been inspired to write a book about their lives. Some of them had been orphaned by death, but far more had been orphaned simply by poverty: their parents were too poor to feed them. In a way this seemed a greater tragedy, and I set about trying to discover why more of these children weren’t adopted.
It turned out to be an extremely complicated subject in India. Many of the children are never eligible for adoption, because they have not been truly orphaned or the requisite relinquishment forms have not been signed. Although there is a four-year waiting list for domestic adoption in both Delhi and Calcutta, the laws and regulations are exceedingly burdensome and not easily navigable, even for government and social workers. And the biggest hurdle of all seems to be corruption; it is rampant in this country, particularly when it comes to international adoption. In my research and interviewing process for the book, I heard story after story about children who weren’t really available for adoption, being taken from their parents and sold to wealthy, unsuspecting foreigners; children whose adoption papers were forged; orphanages where the children available for adoption were fed and healthy, while those unavailable were malnourished and abused.”
In recent days there has been a lot of controversy and concern over children in Haiti, in the aftermath of the country’s devastating earthquake. Questions about orphans, what children are really orphans, parents relinquishing their children, international volunteer or aid groups and child trafficking abound.
This recalls very similar, and similarly disturbing, activities and concerns after the horrific tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean in 2004. In India, many children were lost from remaining parents or other family members, and subsequently ripped from the villages and homes they had known all their lives by “well-meaning” aid groups who rushed too quickly to place them into orphanages or foster/adoptive care. Far worse were the groups who knowingly took children, capitalizing on both the disaster as well as the poverty and illiteracy of many parents in places struck the hardest. In subsequent months, many reports of child trafficking and children being “sold” into illegal adoptions with false paperwork abounded.
Today with Haiti, this begs the question of people can learn from mistakes of the past. Can we use the lessons of the 2004 tsunami to protect Haiti’s children better? The Baptist missionaries charged with trying to take 33 children out of the country without permission or proper paperwork were not only acting illegally, but clearly rushing into trying to “save” these children without any real thought, investigation or planning as to what the familial status of the children really was, and how ripping them from their home would traumatize them. Some are calling the church group traffickers, others believe they acted with good intentions but improperly.
“We are watching this with a great deal of discomfort,” said Christopher de Bono of UNICEF. “There are at least tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of children in Port-au-Prince, in Haiti, who currently need urgent help. And they need that help in Haiti. They don’t need to be plucked out of the country and taken away,” he said.
A spokesman for Save the Children agrees. “The possibility of a child being mistakenly labelled as an orphan during this time is incredibly high,” he warned. “Only once the family tracing effort has been exhausted and it is determined that children cannot be reunited, and after proper screening, should international adoption be considered.”
It’s clear from the lessons of India that removing children, particularly with plans to adopt them internationally, should be the last recourse and done only after extensive due diligence. In the confusion of such a disaster, especially, conditions are ripe for child trafficking and corruption. Even without a disaster in place, reports worldwide exist about children being kidnapped, stolen, lured, parents being tricked into relinquishing, illegal adoption schemes…far, far too many such reports.
While researching and writing this book, I came across story after story of illegal adoptions; children who were never relinquished or placed for adoption by their poor parents, who were instead taken advantage of by people who forged papers and sold them to adoptive parents, who were mostly blissfully ignorant of what was happening.
Stories like that of David and Desiree Smolin. In 1998, the Smolins were ecstatic to be adopting two sisters from India. But the couple was struck immediately by how traumatized and upset the girls were when they arrived at their new home in Atlanta. “We expected that there would be some shyness at the beginning, but we expected that they would be happy to see us at least after they got over the initial shock of being here,” Desiree Smolin says.
The adoption agency described Manjula and Bhagya as sisters who had been waiting a long time for a home. But the girls insisted they had been stolen — kidnapped from their mother. The Indian mother was poor. She placed the children temporarily in an orphanage, and the orphanage essentially sold them. You can read more about their story as it was featured on NPR.
This set off a journey that continued for years, where the Smolins attempted to find the girls’ mother – as well as learn what had gone wrong and how such a thing could happen. In 2005, David Smolin returned to India with Manjula and Bhagya, where they were reunited with their birth mother. The couple also became somewhat of experts on international adoption, speaking freely and trying to advocate for safer international adoption practices. David is a professor at Cumberland Law School and has written extensively about adoption law. Desiree started a blog called Fleas Biting, to tell their story and try to prevent such traumas from happening to other children. The couple also started a website for ethical adoption.
David also weighs in on the debate over Haiti’s children. The New York Times put the issue front and center in its February 1 “Room for Debate.” In the debate, David says:
Views of intercountry adoption vacillate between the positive, in which it is portrayed as a humanitarian act of goodwill benefiting both child and adoptive family, and the negative, in which it is portrayed either as child trafficking or as a neo-colonialist child grab.
The American mind has been shaped by the positive vision of families saving bereft orphans from a grim life in a Dickens-esque institution or from death on the streets. Increasingly, however, adoption trafficking reports from Cambodia, China, Vietnam, India, Guatemala, Nepal and Samoa are substantiating the negative view.
Adoption trafficking has continued because the adoption community has chosen to minimize the problems, rather than fix the system. Since you can’t fix what you will not admit is broken, there is a perverse tendency to repeat, over and over again, the same mistakes in intercountry adoption.
Trying to move children quickly out of a country in the aftermath of a disaster, particularly for adoption, is one of the old mistakes. International organizations have warned against it in past disasters such as the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004, just as they are doing so currently for Haiti.”
Read the entire debate here, where others weigh in on both sides of the issue.
For today’s Good News Wednesday, I wanted to report on the beautiful “Miracle Under the Stars” party last night, for the Miracle Foundation. Held at the incredible home of Steve Hicks and Donna Stockton-Hicks, the party enjoyed a huge turn-out and was a celebration of the organization’s accomplishments, as well as an unveiling of a 3-year plan and fundraising to make that happen.
Since I became involved with the Miracle Foundation five years ago, I have watched it grow from a struggling little one-woman enterprise, with no staff and just a handful of dedicated volunteers, to an organization that is still small, yet has staff, an incredible Board of Directors, and enough backing to be supporting 500 children in four homes in Northeast India.
Last night at the party, I looked around at some of the high-profile guests in attendance, and the sheer number of people in attendance, and marveled at how far Caroline Boudreaux’s passion and dedication has brought her for these kids.
Since the night she accidentally stumbled upon her first orphanage in Orissa, India, and filthy toddler Sibani fell asleep in her lap, Caroline has gone from a woman who turned her successful corporate life upside down to single-handedly try to affect change for these kids; to the woman who spoke last night to a group of dedicated and influential supporters with the utmost conviction that another miracle will happen - that she will raise 5.6 million dollars for the “1000 Day” plan that involves building more children’s villages so that more children live in a good home, receive medical care and nutritious meals, and be fully educated.
As Caroline pointed out last night, no gift is too big or too small to make an enormous difference. From $25 so a child can have books for school, to $10,000 to sponsor an entire cottage to be built that will house 10 children and their housemother – Caroline’s drive and dedication to devoting her entire life to a better future for these children are undeniable.
I’m proud to support such a woman and such an organization – I have seen the work first-hand myself, many times. It was what inspired me to write the book, The Weight of Silence. I applaud how far the Miracle Foundation has come, and I look forward to seeing these new homes built and hundreds more children receive the family and support system that they currently lack.
Today is Children’s Day in India; yet for 25 million Indian children, there is no cause for celebration. Amidst their country’s growing prosperity, these 25 million children live without parents, in orphanages or on the streets where they are vulnerable to abuse, child labor, trafficking, malnutrition and disease. For these young people, Children’s Day is simply another day to survive.
Close to four million more children are joining their ranks each year, and India is home to the world’s largest population of AIDS orphans, at approximately two million. According to UNICEF, one of every three of the world’s malnourished children lives in India, and about 50% of childhood deaths in the country are attributed to malnutrition or starvation. Save The Children found that more than 400,000 children each year die within the first 24 hours of life in India.
While the rest of the world celebrates United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) from November 14-21, these children have lost their rights and indeed, even their voices. UNICEF defines a child as “invisible” when he lacks an environment that protects him from violence, abuse and exploitation; goes without basic necessities such as adequate food, health care and schooling; and is neglected by the state.
The UNCRC is a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations, and the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not.
However, twenty years later, India has fallen far short of meeting the rights of these children. So, what can you do to help ensure their rights, and prevent more children from falling through the cracks?
- You can sign a petition for the United States to ratify the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. The U.S. and Somalia are the only two countries in the world who have failed to do so.
UNICEF has some other great resources for ways to make a difference:
- If you are a parent, teacher, social worker or other professional working with children, raise awareness of the Convention on the Rights of the Child among children.
- If you are a member or employee of an organization working for children’s rights, raise awareness of the Convention and its Optional Protocols, research and document governmental actions and policies and involve communities in promoting and protecting children’s rights.
- If you are a member of the media, promote knowledge and understanding of children’s rights and provide a forum for children’s participation in society.
- If you are a parliamentarian, ensure that all existing and new legislation and judicial practice is compatible with your country’s international obligations, monitor governments’ actions, policies and budgets and involve the community—including children—in relevant decisionmaking.
You may also be interested in reading this beautiful essay from an Indian writer (and Save The Children photographer), who recounts how when growing up, Children’s Day meant sweets and fun – and how only much later, did she realize the struggles that many other children faced simply to survive.
Together, we can all get involved to make sure that all children have their needs met – and to give them that most basic of all things that each one deserves: a childhood.