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Motions and Emotions Surrounding Adoptions

By Lavina Melwani Email By Lavina Melwani
July 2011
Motions and Emotions Surrounding Adoptions

The family photo shows four beautiful, beaming daughters standing with their proud parents, Rajiv Garg and Sangeeta Jain. All dressed in festive Indian clothes, two of the sisters clasping hands while the littlest one grins impishly from her father’s arms. It is a picture not unlike the ones many of us have in our family albums.

So what’s different about this family photo?

When Rajiv and Sangeeta were in their twenties and ready to start a family, they idealistically decided they would first adopt a child in need before they conceived one of their own. Today, looking at this close-knit family, you’d be hard-pressed to tell who the biological children are and who the adopted ones are. From a crowded orphanage in Mumbai to a loving home in Minneapolis, it’s been a long journey but one with very happy results.

One of the ironies of life is that there are millions of children without homes or families and there are millions of adults who wish to be parents but cannot. Adoption is the process that can unite them, and yet for many Indian families it is still a loaded word—not to mention an often challenging process.

For years there was a stigma attached to adoption, especially in Indian society. Adopting a child was a reluctant option for couples who could not conceive a child of their own. It was often a discreet undertaking accompanied by dubious stories of why an adoption was necessary. In a country like India, where so much value is placed on fertility and blood lineage, it can be particularly difficult for a couple to be ‘barren’—the word itself conveying emptiness and joylessness.

That was unfortunate considering orphanages in India are full of abandoned children waiting to be adopted; the streets are full of young runaways and waifs without supportive parents or adults to turn to. And on the other side you have thousands of couples, both in India and the diaspora, who yearn to have a child to nurture and love. Add to that thousands more who, in spite of having their own biological children, want to adopt children and have the time and resources to do so. So shouldn’t this be the simplest thing in the world—placing abandoned children and prospective parents together to create new loving homes and giving children a future?

Sadly, it is not that simple. Regulations from both ends—requirements in the U.S. for bringing in an overseas child, as well as those in India for taking a child out of the country—are rigorous.

Statistics from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs show that from 1999 to 2010, 224,615 children were adopted from several countries. The total number of adoptees from India in this time frame was 4753, of whom 3383 were girls, and 1370 were boys.

Adoptions from India seem to have dipped over the years:  In 1999 the number was 472, while in 2010 it was just 241. That runs counter to what one would expect, given the growth of the Indian-American population and the number of young couples needing to adopt.

Most people who have been through the adoption process talk as if they’ve been through the wringer—emotionally and financially—for adopting a child from India is like running a marathon through hoops and mazes.
How can one make sense of the procedures and bring about a quick happy ending? We spoke with several parents who have been through this tough process and asked them to share with us their stories  and their tips for doing it better and easier, avoiding the hurdles and potholes in the journey to becoming a new family. Some of these stories are as old as twenty years, and some happened just this year. Each gives us insights into the process of adoption.

Rajiv Garg and Sangeeta Jain, both children of Indian immigrants, grew up in Minneapolis and married at an early age, later settling in San Diego. While Rajiv was working in the computer industry, Sangeeta pursued law and went on to become a district attorney. “Once we started our career paths, we wanted to have a family,” recalls Rajiv. “We had always a vision that we would adopt our first child. So we knew that was the path we would take. Our argument was that if we had our biological child first, the adopted one may not be as loved.”

Sangeeta, who is a judge in family law and child support, runs a nonprofit organization and has always been an advocate for women’s rights and the girl child. Rajiv was fully supportive, having four sisters of his own. They got a lot of resistance from some family members, who couldn’t understand why they wanted to adopt a child instead of having one of their own, and why they wanted to adopt a girl instead of a boy.

 “We were determined and just did it, Sangeeta says. “Any time there are obstacles you have to ignore them to some degree. Adoption is a process in which both parents have to be on the same page – we were both excited to go on this journey together.”

So in their twenties they stood before a judge in India and adopted their first child. Two years later they had their biological daughter. Six years later they adopted another daughter and then yet another daughter. People just could not understand why they kept adopting but the couple felt that there were too many children, especially girls, who needed a home. To adopt the third child, the entire family along with Sangeeta’s parents went down to India to celebrate the process.

There certainly have been ups and downs. Sonia, the second child they adopted, had cerebral palsy, but with therapy she’s fine. The youngest one, Nira, was born with congenital heart disease and two holes in the heart. With medical care in the U.S., she is well and the holes have healed. The Gargs adopted all the children without seeing so much as a photo. As the couple says, “You never get to see your biological children before they are born, so why should you go shopping around for a child in that regard? Whatever is in our fate, we go for that.”

Now, twenty years later Rajiv and Sangeeta Jain sum it up: “Today all our four daughters are healthy and well. Our oldest, Priya, is 20 years old and a beautiful dancer. Nira, the youngest, is five years old and going to kindergarten. The one that is biological—our second one—wishes she was adopted too because she’s the odd one out of the whole bunch!  We have a very fun family.” 

The Indian community has often had a hard time accepting adoption as the equivalent of parenthood since it does away with the prerequisite of ‘blood ties’ in order to be a family. “In adoption you really have to believe this child is yours rather than someone else’s,” says Rajiv. “That is key. You both really have to believe in the process, because if you have doubts and lack of confidence, you can go through a lot of emotional turbulence.”

The adoption process has been just as challenging and just as joyful for Apoorva and Shreya Patel, who recently adopted a baby girl from India. Apoorva graduated from Georgia State University and works in software development, while Shreya graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey, and is a cyto-technologist working in diagnostics in Atlanta.    

They were married ten years before they decided to adopt, when they weren’t able to have a child of their own. Nor did they exhaust all the medical options available to them because, as Apoorva says, “We were very open to adopting. I had earlier taken a huge pay cut to work in public health in Asia and Africa in the field of global immunizations, and seen so many children who were generally poor or orphaned that it seemed the right thing to do.”

The process took them a good two years. “It could have been done sooner,” Shreya says. “We had many issues: our agency in U.S. lost some documents, some of our time-sensitive documents expired, the orphanage that we eventually adopted from was in the process of renewing their international license, and finally the civil courts in India had a month-long recess.”

Indeed, mentally and financially, adoption is a grueling process and the paperwork is not easy. Shreya remembers crying once in a while and feeling very frustrated. She understood the reasons for the procedures and that the background checks were necessary to safeguard the children but feels the process could have been speeded up. For instance, instead of all the judges taking a recess at the same time, their absences could be staggered so that business could proceed as usual.

On Mother’s Day last year, she finally got the news that they had been given the NOC (No Objection Certificate), which meant they were approved for the adoption. She got the call when she was at work and broke into tears on hearing the news. Her colleagues rejoiced with her. Says Shreya: “It was a perfect Mother’s Day gift.”  

The Patels went out with friends to celebrate but having waited so long, Apoorva was still wary: “Until we had the baby in the U.S., I was celebrating very cautiously because I knew anything could go wrong between now and then.”  It took another three months to get the adoption deed – the court paperwork – before they could actually bring the baby home.

Now happily raising their beautiful 19-month-old Sanaya, the Patels are helping several other parents who want to adopt. “It can be an emotionally draining experience but absolutely worth it,” says Apoorva. “So, people should be prepared to wait and spend a lot of emotional energy. There are times where you have done everything you can and then you just wait – it can be extremely frustrating.”

To make things go smoother, he suggests keeping copies of all documents in case the agency, courier or orphanages lose them. It is also a good idea to study the adoption rules thoroughly. For instance, they learned that a child in an Indian orphanage had to be rejected by three native Indian couples before he could be put up for an international adoption. There are also rules that you cannot communicate directly with an Indian orphanage but have to go through an agency in the country where you live.

The Patels saw interesting reactions to adoption in India and the U.S. Friends in India would be almost commiserating instead of congratulatory when they learned the couple was adopting. The Patels often heard the consolation: “It’s OK, it’s OK.” Some friends were puzzled as to why they were adopting a girl instead of a boy when they had the ability to choose.

In the U.S., the attitude was very different. Says Shreya: “It’s all been so positive. All our family has been great—very warm and welcoming. My parents absolutely love Sanaya. They were just so happy we were able to get a child. A friend of mine who was visiting India during the adoption process actually visited the orphanage to meet the baby, and here my friends constantly drop in to see Sanaya.”

Adopting an older child

While the Gargs and the Patels adopted children under the age of 1, Dr. Ravi and Dr. Seshu Sarma went for a bigger challenge—adopting an older child. The majority of the Indian children adopted by U.S. couples happen to be under the age of two but the Sarmas decided to adopt a four-year-old after their own biological children became teenagers.

“It was something I’d always wanted to do since I was young,” says Seshu, who got married at the age of twenty as a fourth-year medical student and is now an associate professor. She and her husband Ravi, an oncologist, have been in Atlanta for 31 years and are very active in the Indian community.

“We had our children in our twenties, so by the time we were forty they were grown and we were still young, had energy and resources. So we started thinking of giving someone a home who didn’t have one,” she recalls. “Westerners tend to adopt girls and while Indians tend to adopt boys they do so when the boys are babies. So older boys get left out because they don’t get adopted easily.”

In spite of their good intentions they almost didn’t get a child to adopt because the judge in his wisdom ruled they already had a boy and girl of their own, and adoptions were to be made only to childless couples. However, an American couple at that time had applied for a girl child and already had two biological daughters of their own. When the judge vetoed the adoption, this American couple sued in the Indian Supreme Court—and won.

So now that a precedent had been set, the orphanage agreed to the adoption by the Sarmas—and they brought home four-year-old Sriram, who spoke Telugu like them and is from Andhra Pradesh. This year he will turn 16, a typical American teenager, handy with gadgets, but indifferent to success. This makes it harder on the Sarmas whose older children are high achievers. “The older ones love him to death, and they go out of their way to help him,” Seshu says. “Our youngest is extremely bright but his intelligence cannot be measured by tests. He’s a very good kid but strong-willed – a typical teenager.”

What advice would she give to those thinking of adoption? “If their heart is in it, they should do it because I have seen several couples who have struggled with adoption. It’s not easy, especially with older children.” She points out that these children grow up in an orphanage with fifty other kids, and so they miss out on the normal parental attention in the form of hugs, songs, and stories—things that are crucial in the first three years of a child’s life. This, says Seshu, can make these children detached.

For the adopted child there are always so many questions. Seshu recalls Sriram asking her and Ravi, “I need to ask you something. I know I’m adopted but do I get your genes?” She told him, “A mother is a mother because she raises a child, not because she gives birth. You sound so much like us, you have our mannerisms—you are what you are because you’ve been raised by us and reflect our upbringing.” Sriram, she says, is an extremely smart boy but his answer was, “Oh shucks—I was hoping I’d get your genes!”

How do you tell the children?

And that brings us to the 800-1b gorilla in the room—how do parents tell their children they are adopted? For Shreya and Apoorva, the issue was simplified by the online parenting classes they were required to take when they registered with the local agency in Atlanta. These taught them to tell the child as soon as she could understand, before others tell her, and to celebrate not only her birthday but also the date they got her. Says Shreya, “I’ve made her a scrapbook and she loves looking at it, particularly the religious ceremony her grandmother did to welcome her into the house.”

Rajiv Garg actually wrote his newly adopted daughters a letter right on the plane as the family flew back from India—and these letters are there for them to savor as they grow up. The older sisters also flew with the family to India when the youngest girl was adopted and so the whole process was a natural one for them. The girls get two celebrations instead of just one—birthdays and the adoption anniversary.

“You have to know and tell them of their past and all of them react differently,” says Sangeeta. “The older one couldn’t care less, the second one has a strong feeling about it and questions, and it’s a good healthy dialogue. It’s part of their life and heritage and something we are very proud of. We have an album—it creates a much trusted environment.”

Adoption, like life in general, has highs and lows but these couples swear by the unmatched happiness it brings. ‘Family’ is probably one of the most beautiful words in the world. Yet what makes a family a real family? It is bonds of love nurtured over the years, something much more intangible, more intricate than mere blood ties.

“All families have their challenges and we are no different,” says Rajiv. “It’s been a wonderful journey and I would encourage everyone to experience this because it’s very rewarding to see what one can do.” Often, the experience opens up new avenues and ways of thinking. Rajiv and Sangeeta now run the Creative Kids Academy, a day care and camp facility to prepare children for schooling.

Over the years the attitude of many in the Indian community has changed toward adoption. For younger people it is not even an issue. In chat rooms and forums, couples talk about adopting in spite of having their own children, and single women are open to adopting on their own. Then there is the whole spectrum of gay couples longing to adopt children and start a family. As the definition of ‘family’ changes, we will see many new scenarios.

Many years ago, Rajiv recalls, his parents initially had a traditional perspective on the issue of adoption, emphasizing the importance of having biological children to continue the family line. They were hesitant about the planned adoption, fearing what people would say, but it helped to sit them down and have a dialogue. “Lots of families don’t talk, they get pressured by society’s comments rather than following their hearts and beliefs,” Rajiv says. “We’ve always felt—do what’s right and don’t let society be your controller.”

The bonds grow over the years, especially with the grandparents. In some cases, there is so much blending that family members start looking like one another. The Gargs are often told that their oldest looks like the grandmother, while the youngest looks like the grandfather!

For Apoorva and Shreya, adoption has been absolutely worth the wait and the heartache.  “It can be emotionally draining but the outcome is awesome. Once you have a child you forget about all the frustration you went though just to get that child,” says Shreya.

What’s the best part of the whole experience? “For me it’s the random hug that she gives us just out of nowhere,” she says. “She’ll just come up and kiss you on the leg or the cheek, or come and give you a hug for no reason whatsoever.” 

For Apoorva, the joy is in every moment of having their baby daughter with them, even when Sunaya cries or needs her diaper changed or when she throws up. “It’s the whole experience,” he says. “It’s been nine months and I still have to pinch myself that she’s in our lives.”

As for the narrow-minded relatives not being comfortable, he laughs: “My mind tells me I don’t really have to worry about what other people think. They can tell me how to live my life only when they start paying my mortgage!”

[Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications and blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com]



From the Child’s Perspective: Different Strokes

Not all adoption stories turn out happily. Others reach a happy ending only after a lot of turmoil and angst on the part of the adopted children. Tina (name changed) agonized about her birth mother, going to great lengths to search for her, experimenting with drugs and rebelling – and testing her adoptive parents at every junction. They responded with unconditional love every step of the way, and that turned out to be the magic mantra. As she grew older, Tina became secure in herself and her family, and stopped searching, content in the love all around her. 

Shalu (name changed) was adopted at the age of 7 and really put her adopted family through hell, as she tried to find her identity. As a teen-ager she became an alcoholic and had to drop out of school. Her parents stood by her, sending her to Alcoholics Anonymous, and now as a young adult, she is finally fine and adjusted to her family.

Indeed, stories vary from child to child and family to family. Here Priyanka, daughter of Rajiv Garg and Sangeeta Jain, shares her view of adoption.

Priyanka’s Story

“My name is Priyanka Garg Jain and I am now 20 years old. My dad, Rajiv Garg, and my mom, Sangeeta Jain, adopted me from Bombay when I was 7 months old. Of course I don’t remember Jan. 27, 1992, the day when my parents adopted me.  However, I along with my three younger sisters celebrate this precious day each year with great pride. My mom always gets teary-eyed reminiscing about it. Together we page through my adoption album, which contains pictures, letters, adoption papers and many memories.

I have never felt the need to find my birth parents nor the desire to search for my roots in Mumbai. My parents took me to the neighborhood where my foster home was when I was 9 years old.  Not once have I reflected back on my past life. My heart and soul are warmly content, knowing I am loved by the only family I have ever known.

On the other hand, my younger sister Sonya, who is 13, struggles each year on her adoption anniversary with the thought of not knowing anything about her birth identity.  She gets quite emotional wondering where her birth parents are.  I hold her and comfort her, telling her how happy I am and that we all love her. I guess I consider myself very lucky that I am not consumed nor haunted by the thoughts that bother Sonya.

I adore my grandparents, because they have truly given me unconditional love that only grandparents can give. All of us have been brought up alike, with me leading the way.  Since the age of 5, our parents have taken all of us for lessons in skating, karate, art, swimming, tennis, golf, sailing, and Kathak dance. My sisters look up to me, which makes me realize and appreciate the loving family I have.

I believe it doesn’t matter if you are adopted or biological; what is more important is that you know acceptance, love and belonging. I could not ask for anything more, since I have everything that I could possibly want.”


Adoption Tips

The Process

Because India is party to the Hague Adoption Convention, adoptions from India must follow a specific process designed to meet the Convention’s requirements. This process will follow six primary steps. You must complete these steps in the following order so that your adoption meets all necessary legal requirements.

  1. Choose an adoption service provider
  2. Apply to be Found Eligible to Adopt
  3. Be matched with a child
  4. Apply for the child to be found eligiblefor adoption
  5. Adopt the child (or gain legal custody) in India
  6. Bring your child home

India’s Adoption Authority
Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA) http://www.adoptionindia.nic.in/
Everything You Wanted to Know About Adoption But were Afraid to Ask

Adoption A to Z from the State Department: http://adoption.state.gov/content/pdf/Intercountry_Adoption_From_A_Z.pdf


Useful Sites for Adoptive Parents

  • U.S. Department of State Office of Children’s Issues: Intercountry Adoption:
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: http://www.uscis.gov
  • Child Welfare Information Gateway http://www.childwelfare.gov
  • Hague Conference on Private International Law
    Other links which may provide information of interest to prospective
    adoptive parents include:
  • Adoptive Families Magazine www.adoptivefamilies.com
  • Adoptive Parents Committee http://adoptiveparents.org
  • Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE) www.adoptionsupport.org
  • Center for Parent Education and Family Support www.cpe.unt.edu
  • Families Adopting in Response (FAIR) www.fairfamilies.org
  • International Adoption Center www.adoptionclinic.org
  • The Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) www.jcics.org
  • National Council For Adoption (NCFA) www.adoptioncouncil.org
  • North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) www.nacac.org

    Other Helpful Links:

  • The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (AAAA)
  • The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute www.adoptioninstitute.org

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