THOUGH SECRET ADOPTION may seem alient to the western adoptive community, in the Indian context it it not an uncommon request from couples hoping to adopt a child.
We need to look at this request from a broad perspective. In a traditional and conservative society, childlessness significiantly threatens a woman’s social status and, to some extent, a man’s feeling of inadequacy.
Biological parenthood is valued because a male heir is important for inheritance, continuation of the family lineage and the performance of death rites. In traditional Hindu society there are two available options for a childless couple - one is remarriage and the other is adoption of a male child, preferably from within the family or from a distant relative. Following either option meant acknowledgement of the fact that the woman was unable to conceive and the subsequent stigma attached to barrenness was emotionally very stressful.
Sometimes a couple comes to the agency with a request for secret adoption. The two individuals express a desire to pose a pregnancy and pretend that the adopted child is their natural-born child. The rationale is that their family members will be totally unaccepting of an unrelated child in the family. They fear that if the adoption were an open fact, the child would never receive the same status as other biological children in the family and might even have to face the trauma of rejection.
Though couples go through great anxiety and stress in their attempt to keep their adoption secret, and one sympathises with their predicament, secret adoption needs to be discouraged for several reasons. The foremost being that the fear of being found out is so overwhelming that the couple live under constant stress. To cover up one lie, several untruths must be told and that itself is a strain. Besides, the practical difficulties involved are also many, such as the nine months of a pretended pregnancy at the end of which the couple must find a newborn child to adopt, who is healthy and physically compatible with them. Then the woman has to be admitted to a maternity home with the child, whose birth must be registered and birth certificate procured. All this is very trying and there is bound to be some lapse somewhere and the consequences of being found out could be very embarrassing and could, in fact, lead to more problems for the couple.
Taking the welfare of the child into consideration, this deception cannot be encouraged. There have been many cases in the past when agencies have worked in co-operation with adoptive parents to help them through a secret adoption. Still, the unanimous belief amongst professionals today is that they should be discouraged. Much counselling is necessary to bring about an attitudinal change amongst the couple’s community and relatives so that they are spread the agonies of secrecy.
Single parent adoption
Requests by single parents for adoption in India are usually from unmarried, separated, divorced women or widows, and more rarely from single males. An unwed Indian mother who is a legal single parent will find it hard to bring up her child because of the stigma attached to unwed motherhood - it is likely that she will relinquish the child for adoption.
Single parent adoption has emotional, social and legal implications. For normal and healthy development, a child needs to identify with both parents. In the absence of a suitable role model of a parent of one sex, the child does not get the experience of a complete family life and those who are not in favour of single parent adoption argue that as responsible child welfare workers, one should try and provide the best family care to the destitute child.
Of course, on the other side of the coin is the possibility that a single mother or a single father is very committed to parenting and adoption and will provide care as good as any adoptive family. In fact,a single mother can supplement a father using a surrogate father figure, who may be a friend or relative and hence the child need not be deprived.
Social acceptance of single parent adoption is the next consideration. With more and more western influence on Indian society and women choosing to be career-oriented and leading independent lives, there are more requests made by single women to adopt. The role of a wife in a marriage relationship may not appeal to some women but they would still like the experience of motherhood, and their only option is adoption. Social acceptance for choosing this road is growing gradually in Indian society.
In fact, the law is supportive of single parent adoption. Both under the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act and the Guardians and Wards Act, a single parent may adopt. One major criterion is that there be a maximum of 21 years difference between the adopted child and the parent, if the two are of opposite sexes. This is to ensure that the bond that developes between the two is one of parent and child. Sometimes it is also required that a relative or a friend agrees to become guardian to the child, in the event of an unforeseen crisis, such as the death of the single parent.
An unanswered question within the area of single parent adoption is: if there is a long waiting list of childless adoptive couples, how must a prospective single parent be considered? Should they be offered the same importance, or should they be given second preference?
Adopting an older child or a ‘special needs’ child
Most adoptive parents request that they adopt an infant so that the process of bonding and attachment is made easier. The couple wishes to create a family as close in nature to a biological one and so would like to adopt a child as young as possible. However, certain circumstances demand that a couple considers the possibility of adopting an older child.
For instance, if the adoptive parents themselves are advanced in age, then adopting an older child ensures that the age difference between the parent and the child does not exceed 45 years. Sometimes, even young parents express a lack of confidence regarding their ability to raise a very young infant; they prefer to adopt an older child. Often, single parents also find it easier to adopt and care for older children.
Most of the older children free for adoption are likely to be from orphanages and institutions. Some of these could have been lost and found, put on remand pending enquiry, and subsequently grown up in the remand home as a result of the enquiry procedure being so long. Others have been relinquished by their parents when they are older because of circumstances such as the death, desertion, separation or acute ill health of one parent. Often these children face some trauma or emotional deprivation during the long periods spent in institutions or foster homes.
Infants adapt more easily to new parents and a new home. But the adjustment process of older children is a more challenging task for adoptive parents. They already have well-formed personalities and may also have had negative life experiences which make it difficult for them to adapt to new situations. Adoptive parents might need a lot of counselling and support when they consider an older child for adoption.
The ‘special needs’ child is one that is awaiting adoption but who is hard to place because she has some health or medical problem, physical or mental handicap, or major behavioural disorder.
The adoption of such children by Indian adoptive parents remains a remote possibility because adoption itself is not wholly socially accepted yet, so there is little motivation to adopt a ‘special needs’ child. Most couples in India (aside from the few that adopt for humane and altruistic reasons) adopt because of involuntary childlessness and it is unlikely that these couples would cope emotionally with a handicapped child. They have yet to cope with the initial trauma of parenting a child who is not biologically their own ; this itself is a major compromise for them.
There is a long way to go yet to the time when attitudes in India change, as they have in other countries, with regard to adopting a ‘special needs’ child. This time in the future is something to work towards.
A combination family is one that has one or more biologically born children as well as one or more adopted children.
Since these children become part of the family through different processes, they have different life situations and experiences. A couple may have a biological child either before or after they adopt a child; both these situations have specific implications. Many couples first have a biological child and then make a conscious decision to adopt, firmly believing that there are a lot of destitute, homeless children who need a home, and they would prefer to provide this to one of them rather than have another biological child. This decision is discussed at great length during the Home Study so that the couples can reflect on all its aspects, as well as on its implications for their birth child. If their own child is old enough to understand , then she or he is also involved in decision-making so that when the adopted child arrives, she will be truly accepted into the family.
Even though adoptive parents may have truly accepted the idea of building a combination family, it is equally significant in the Indian context that the immediate and extended family also understand the situation. You, as parents, would not want a situation where there is even a subtle form of discrimination between your biological and adopted children.
There is another, unplanned and unexpected manner through which adoptive parents might end up building a combination family. Most often, they would have been childless for many years after marriage with no apparent cause for infertility. This is often diagnosed as unexplained infertility. Then, in some circumstances it might happen that after adopting a child, the mother’s emotional stress and pressure to conceive is reduced and she gets pregnant. This might seem like a miracle specially if attempts by medical professionals prior to adoption had failed.
The above possibility is discussed during pre-adoption counselling. The couple have to be emotionally prepared so that if they encounter this situation, they are clear of their feelings for both their children. At a rational level, some parents do feel that they would not discriminate between the two children and that the bonding would be the same. However, other family members may get more drawn to the biological child because they see in that child family resemblances and similarities and the child is seen as a true extension of themselves. Post-adoption counselling would look at these issues if they arise.
The legal aspects of combination families also address the equal rights of inheritance and future security. In the absence of a uniform law, some communities in India cannot adopt a child legally and hence the child holds only the status of a ward; so the parents must ensure, in their will, or through other legal formalities, that the two children have equal rights and that their future security is ensured.
All over the world, in-country adoption is promoted and preferred, and it is in this context that inter-country adoption must be understood. A destitute, orphan child is best rehabilitated if she lives with a family that can provide permanent care and security, rather than in an institutional set-up; and further, the child integrates best within the country of her own origin, because she is able to identify best in a cultural milieu that is closest to her own roots. IN the event, however, that there is no suitable family within the country of the child’s origin, then the child may be rehabilitated through inter-country adoption.
Ideally, all adoption agencies must follow the convention of putting in- country adoption before inter-country adoption because only then will they make sincere efforts to motivate Indian parents to adopt. It is the agencies who need to contribute to promotional work for domestic adoptions so that a climate is created in our country where we can rehabilitate our destitute children through Indian parents.
On the other hand, in recognition both of the child’s right to family and of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child (see Adoption and the law, page 58), all child welfare activities must be geared to ensure that the physical, social, emotional and educational needs of the child are met in a secure family environment. If this cannot be provided in the child’s own country of origin, then the next best option is rehabilitation through inter-country adoption.
Facts on inter-country adoption
The focus of any inter-country adoption programme should be on streamlining procedures, evolving uniform adoption laws and ensuring rights and safeguards for the adopted child in the receiving countries. Some people believe that the developed countries look to the developing ones for their resources; in this context, caution must be taken to prevent any kind of exploitation or malpractice that might occur through the adoption process. This is not to imply that inter-country adoptions are not to take place. On the contrary, they can be considered as the next best alternative to in-country adoption.
The issues that emerge in inter-country adoptions are related to the child’s acceptance in another country, her sense of identity and loyalties, and her sense of belonging is another culture. Research studies have shown that these children do suffer an identity crisis of sorts during their adolescent years, but these are most often resolved because of the nurturing environment provided by adoptive parents, as well as the support system available through post-adoption counselling.