Indian Americans Embark on an Adoption Journey (Part I)

Bollywood star Sushmita Sen was the first high-profile single mother to adopt in India, and is credited for raising awareness about adoption in India. She is seen with her daughters, Renee (l) and Alisah (r), with TV show host Raveena Tandon (far l) in April 2012. (Manav Manglani photo)

By Lisa Tsering, Staff Reporter

Editor’s note: India-West staff reporter Lisa Tsering received a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association to travel to India to explore the process of Indian Americans adopting children from India. This two-part series (Click here read part II, titled 'Adoption from India: Challenging Journey for Indian Americans') will describe the process and challenges that many Indian Americans experience while adopting a child.  Following is Part I.

Rakesh and Mariam Chacko, of Irving, Tex., seemed calm amid a flurry of activity on a hot afternoon in 2009 at Bharatiya Samaj Seva Kendra, an adoption center in Pune, India. 

 For the first time, the Chackos came face to face with the most prized gift they’d ever held in their arms: their first child, Swanand, a dark-eyed boy of 15 months.

Nurses and administrators clucked over them as one BSSK official waved a tray with small lanterns and flowers in a circle in front of the small family.

“It’s great — it’s our first baby,” Rakesh told India-West. 

Asked to give a piece of advice to anyone wishing to adopt a child from India, he added softly, “Patience is the most important thing. There are a lot of surprises along the way.”

The Chackos are among dozens of Indian American families each year who take on the years-long challenge of adopting a child from India.

On Nov. 8, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation designating November as National Adoption Month.

At a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Alejandro Mayorkas participated in a special citizenship ceremony for 20 children adopted internationally from India, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Nepal, South Korea and Thailand.

“We want to make sure that governments around the world play by the same set of rules when it comes to intercountry adoption, putting the health and welfare of children first,” Clinton said.

Many Indian American families, and some Indian American single women, dream of adopting, but they assume it’s too much trouble, too expensive or too time-consuming. But after meeting numerous families and children, and touring two leading adoption centers, this India-West reporter affirmed that for Indian Americans, adopting a child from India is not easy — but like the most important and profound experiences in life, is worth every effort.

Intercountry adoption has always been a huge task to take on, and the past few years have seen the task become even more challenging.

The number of children adopted from India to the United States is shrinking.

From a high of 542 in 2001, numbers have declined. In 2011, only 226 children were adopted from India in the United States (contrast this with China, with 2,587). Nearly 70 percent of the Indian children adopted here last year were female and nearly half were under age 2.  

The numbers of all international adoptions into the U.S. are in decline as well. Since 2002, there has been a dramatic decline overall, from approximately 20,000 in 2002 to 9,319 in 2011, according to U.S. Department of State figures.

Within India, priority is given to prospective parents who live full time in India, while NRIs and Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) are given second choice. Last on the list are foreigners, or U.S. citizens not of Indian descent.

Although these declining figures may look discouraging to adoptive parents waiting to receive a child, it is important to note that the figures represent an improvement in the conditions of children in India.

Over the last two or three years, adoption agencies in India have not only seen more willingness among local families to adopt but also a decline in the number of babies put up for adoption. 

“The situation is changing. A decade ago, there were more children and comparatively few families,” explained Madhuri Abhyankar, director of social services for the Pune, India-based Society for Friends of Sassoon Hospitals, or SOFOSH.

More widespread condom use, the availability of emergency contraception, ease in obtaining abortions and a gradual awakening of women’s rights has led to a decline in the number of unwanted babies, she told India-West.

In addition, the Hague Treaty on Intercountry Adoption — put in place in 2008 and now observed by 124 countries, including India — has placed regulatory restrictions on adoptive parents. 

Each Hague-compliant country must establish a central authority which oversees all foreign adoptions: in India, the agency is known as the Central Adoption Resource Authority, or CARA. This process has helped to curb corruption and the trafficking of kidnapped children. Couples choose a CARA-sanctioned adoption agency here in the U.S., and that agency sends the family’s dossier to New Delhi, where CARA will do a first review and then refer each family’s dossier to a local, registered Indian placement agency.

“CARA is keen to have more children in the adoption loop,” Jagannath Pati, CARA’s joint director, told India-West by phone from New Delhi. “But unless and until they come into the adoption loop, they can’t be available. With the Hague Convention, the rights of the child are the top priority.”

Added Dean Hale, director of services for India for Holt International Children’s Services, in an e-mail to India-West: “The Hague also imposes constraints on direct contacts between adopting parents and nongovernmental entities in other countries.”

The protocols now in place in India are no doubt more demanding, but were designed to ensure that the children placed for adoption are indeed free to be adopted and that their mothers (often unskilled or illiterate) had not been tricked into relinquishing them.

 

Shifts in Perception

 

Within India itself, adoption used to be a subject little talked about. In many cases, relatives might adopt a child if his own parents couldn’t raise him. In the past, many couples from this class, caste and community-centric country were wary of adopting a child without knowing anything about where he came from.

But in 2000, a major shift in the public consciousness took place when Miss Universe-turned-actress Sushmita Sen, then just 25, became the first high profile single mother to adopt a child, an infant girl Renee. In 2010, Sen adopted another baby girl, Alisah.

“I think in India, per se, we are actually from a background where — culturally — uncles and aunts adopt their nieces and nephews,” Sen told India-West last month at a Silicon Valley event. “It’s a part of our tradition.” 

“And yet,” she continued, “When you think about adoption as a process, people say ‘My God, we don’t know the background. What if the child doesn’t look like me? What if it is a criminal, because you know, its parents were?”

Recently, CARA announced that there was such a high demand for Indian children within India and internationally that it was temporarily suspending all new applications, from December 2012 to February 2013. This closure is due to a sufficient number of new applicants that are already in the system, explains the Web site of Bay Area Adoption Services in Mountain View, Calif.

BAAS, a CARA-approved adoption agency, has facilitated the adoption of 62 children from India to the U.S. since it started working in India five years ago, and often works with nonresident Indians in search of a child.

When parents meet with an agency such as BAAS, they can expect to be questioned in depth about what kind of marital relationship they have; their financial stability; the state of their mental and physical health, and their ages. They will be expected to provide a minimum of four recommendations by friends, and consent to a home study. 

The families of the prospective parents, too, will be questioned. “Occasionally, the parents will tell us their families are reluctant, but most families are very excited,” explained Sharmeela Shah, director of Indian adoptions for BAAS, during a visit to the agency’s Silicon Valley offices. 

“The biggest hurdle in our Indian adoption program is matching available children with families,” Shah notes in a video posted to BAAS’s Web site.

“What happens is that families want an infant that is in good health, but increasingly we find that there are infants available but they have some type of minor need.” 

That aspect of the decision presents a challenge to parents, said Shah. “Their number one concern is their ability to handle a child with special needs. 

“Number two is finding out what supportive services will be available here in the U.S. once they return with their child, and whether those services will be covered through their insurance.” 

Families must be willing to accept that they may have to agree to adopt an older child. According to Dean Hale of Holt International, “There is often an ongoing need of families for children who are waiting. Children may be waiting due to age, health, developmental status or significant history. Generally the greatest need is for families open to boys 4 years-plus and older sibling groups.”

When Texas dad Rakesh Chacko said “there are a lot of surprises,” he was recalling the many emotional highs and lows that go along with the long bureaucratic processes involved in an Indian adoption. 

One source told India-West that parents need to be prepared to deal with dozens of forms and myriad small expenses ranging from FedEx fees to notary fees — and perhaps refilling the same forms a year later, if slowdowns on the Indian end of things take some applications past their original deadlines. Hiring an attorney is not necessary, though, since a reputable agency will handle all legal inquiries, said the source; and since the timeline is out of the American agency’s hands, a lawyer can’t necessarily speed the process along. 

 

Why Adopt?

 

There are myriad reasons why NRIs and Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) want to adopt from India. The inability to conceive is the number one reason.

NRI couples unable to conceive may also want to consider commercial surrogacy, which is now a growing industry in India — $2.3 billion this year alone, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry. The process costs around $25,000 and takes a shorter time than adoption, but it brings up another set of considerations. First, it is not guaranteed; and second, a young woman in India who agrees to act as a surrogate signs on for what she thinks will be a lucrative business deal without fully thinking through questions about her own future, such as whether she will still be “marriageable” afterward.

But the choice for NRI couples to adopt from India may also sprout from other reasons, said Andrea Stawitcke, executive director of Bay Area Adoption Services. “Some families have altruistic reasons — they want to give something back,” she explained. 

Hale adds, “We have noted a significant increase in the proportion of NRI/OCI families who are adopting for non-‘legacy’ motivations. They are usually experienced parents who want to offer their heart and home to a child in need of parents, and have eyes wide open about the challenges and joys of adopting older children.”

“Parents used to give us preferences about religion, complexion, health and gender,” Abhyankar of SOFOSH told India-West. The widespread preference for boys used to mean that more girls were put up for adoption, but this, too, has changed, said Abhyankar.

Still, patience is key, Roxana Kalyanvala, executive director of BSSK, explained in an interview at BSSK’s Pune headquarters. The agency places around 30-35 children with NRIs each year. “People ask me, ‘There are so many children. Why do I have to wait? Yes, there are many children, but they are not necessarily free for adoption. The process is straightforward, but it takes a lot of time,” said Kalyanvala.

The Web site of Bal Jagat – Children’s World Inc., a leading international adoption agency located in Long Beach, Calif., offers a useful checklist of questions NRI parents can ask themselves to realistically assess whether they are ready (http://baljagat.org/ready-to-adopt): “Have we acknowledged and resolved the losses associated with infertility? Is adoption a ‘second best’ choice for us? Are we able to make peace with ourselves if even though we ‘feel young’ [but] cannot adopt an infant?”

In 2013, the agency will mark 30 years of Indian adoptions. 

“When people are interested in adoption, we ask them to make sure they qualify with us first (http://baljagat.org/agency/eligibility), and then make an appointment for an individual, confidental orientation,” Mausami Momaya, director of social services for Bal Jagat – Children’s World Inc., told India-West by phone Nov. 26. “We explain the fees, the time frame and the entire process in detail.”

 

Challenges

 

In addition to reduced numbers of available children from India, prospective parents may find the immigration formalities onerous in both countries. “Per U.S. immigration law, one of the prospective adoptive parents must be a U.S. citizen; green card status does not satisfy this requirement,” said Holt International’s Dean Hale. But in order to improve their priority, one or both parents should acquire the Indian government’s OCI card, which costs nearly $300.

The delay in waiting for a child became so frustrating for one NRI couple, Amod and Archana Deshpande, that they decided simply to move back to India to start a family.

The Deshpandes, U.S. legal permanent residents living and working in Chicago, tried to adopt from India but were so disheartened by the bureaucracy and delays that Amod, a software engineer, launched a fruitless online petition to urge the U.S. Department of State to relax restrictions on green card holders so that they could adopt Indian children. Considering the waiting periods involved in the application process, he wrote, “It could potentially take 8 years before a legal permanent resident can adopt internationally.” Finally, the Deshpandes decided to just move back to India, where as Indian residents they were able to adopt their 3-month-old daughter, Arushi, from Bharatiya Samaj Seva Kendra in 2006 after a mere six-month delay. 

“I’m happy that we made the decision to come here,” Archana told India-West during an interview in their Pune home. 

Amod added, “What we did was to listen to our hearts. People in the U.S. go with their heads! This is the career I want, the lifestyle I want,” he said, gesturing around the living room of their spacious two-story home as their daughter played nearby.

NRIs adopting from India may also encounter cultural challenges once they bring their children here from India, and while there are many networks (online and in person) for adoptive families, relatively few networks exist that cater specifically to South Asians. 

Another challenge that some adoptive Indian American parents may face in the coming year is a repercussion from the much-talked-about “fiscal cliff” facing U.S. taxpayers at the end of 2012: the expiration of the adoption tax credit, which currently allows parents to claim a credit of $12,650 from their federal income taxes to defray the costs of any adoption. 

The credit will expire at the end of the year, for adoptions other than those of foster children with special needs, unless Congress acts to extend it.

On Sept. 21, Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu (herself the mother of two adopted children) introduced S. 3616: Making Adoption Affordable Act of 2012, which would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to make permanent the expansion of tax benefits for adoption enacted in 2001 and to permanently reinstate the expansion of tax benefits for adoption enacted in 2010 — providing up to $13,170 for covered adoption expenses, adjusted for inflation.

Adoptive mom Tawnya Kumarakulasingam, a psychologist living in Arizona whose husband is of Tamil descent, made the point that even though a child adopted from India may look somewhat like his or her adoptive NRI parents here, an older child may still need to overcome language or cultural differences.

“It’s not easy to adopt a child from the same region or from an area where the family’s language is spoken,” she explained in an e-mail to India-West. “While white families adopting from India discuss the impact of adopting transracially and transculturally, Indian NRI and other South Asian families need to talk about this, too. While they might look more alike than white families adopting Indian children, within the NRI family and extended family, the adoption might indeed be transcultural.”

For prospective adoptive parents (or PAPs, as they are commonly referred to), it takes a major mental shift to start changing their expectations of what a suitable child might look like. But once they break through, the change is a profound one.

In Part Two of this series, running in next week’s issue of India-West, we will outline the adoption process; list eligibility guidelines; and describe a visit to a child care center in Pune, India.

 

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