In February 2015, Protima Sharma and her husband decided to realise their long-held dream: they looked for a good adoption agency in their city, registered as prospective parents and began the journey towards adopting a baby girl.

Unlike many other adoptive parents, their journey turned out to be smooth and just five months long. Their adoption agency – Arun Aashray in Pune – took time to assess the Sharmas’ background, guided them through the documentation and counselled them on the legal and emotional process of adoption. By July 2015, they brought home their three-month-old daughter.

“During the foster care period, adoption hearing and court order, our agency ensured we were fully updated and supported,” said Protima Sharma, 38, who runs a consulting firm with her husband in Pune. “In fact, we enjoyed the whole process so much that we started planning a second adoption almost immediately.”

The Sharmas are now on the waiting list to adopt their second daughter. Only this time, the experience is proving to be markedly different and not as enjoyable.

In August 2015, in a bid to make adoptions faster and more transparent, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development revamped the adoption system with a set of new guidelines. For the first time, the entire adoption procedure was transferred online, to be monitored by the Central Adoption Resource Authority, the nodal body regulating adoptions in India.

The hallmark of the new system has been the creation of a centralised, national waiting list, so that prospective parents no longer have to be waitlisted with multiple individual adoption agencies to get a child. This was meant to speed up the adoption process by connecting available children and waiting parents across state lines.

This year, the ministry has introduced additional regulations to improve the adoption process, including provisions for in-family adoptions, post-adoption support and immediate placement of children in need. The latest rule, which came into force on May 1, states that couples will no longer be allowed to “pick and choose” one child out of three options (a process often described as “shopping” for a child). Instead, parents will be offered just one child to either accept or reject within 48 hours. If they reject the child, they will get another referral three months later.

The adoption system is yet to adapt to this year’s rules, perhaps understandably so. But how well has it adjusted to the regulations introduced in 2015? How effectively are those rules working for prospective parents like Protima Sharma and for adoption agencies on the ground?

Easy and transparent

So far, adoption figures provided by the Central Adoption Resource Authority do not reflect any significant advantages or disadvantages of the new system. In 2015-16, after moving to the centralised system, domestic adoption figures actually dropped from 3,988 to 3,011. At the same time, inter-country adoptions (foreigners adopting Indian children) rose from 374 to 666. In 2016-17, domestic adoptions rose to 3,210 while inter-country adoptions dropped to 578.

Irrespective of the figures, for many adoptive parents and counsellors who help them, the biggest advantage of having an online, centralised adoption process is its ease and also the transparency it brings by restricting the discretionary powers of adoption agencies.

Under the old rules, parents began the adoption process by hunting for the right agency – ideally one that was located in their city or state, housed enough children suited to their preference and did not have an unreasonably long waiting list. Ideal combinations did not often work out, so prospective parents either had to wait for extended periods of time, or travel to distant agencies to adopt a child. Along the way, they often had to register with multiple agencies. Since each agency maintained its own waiting list, they were often accused of corruption and allowing backdoor entries. With the online centralised system, jumping the queue is almost impossible.

“Earlier, agencies had a lot of discretion in favouring some parents over others,” said Avinash Kumar, an adoptive parent and a member of the steering committee, Central Adoption Resource Authority. “Now that discretion has been taken away. Under the centralised system, parents also do not have to go agency-hunting – you can sit in your house and do the process. If you are looking at a child in another state, you do not have to travel there.”

Missing personal touch

For adoption agencies, however, this attempt to clean up the system has also come with a flip side, particularly because the new adoption process is carried out almost entirely online.

According to Prajakta Kulkarni, founder of Snehankur, an adoption agency in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, the new system has reduced an agency’s job to mere care-giving for children rather than enabling adoptions. Meanwhile, the Central Adoption Resource Authority’s role has expanded from monitoring agencies to executing adoptions. “Agencies are feeling demotivated because the personal, human touch we provided is now missing from the adoption process,” said Kulkarni.

Under the old system, she explained, staff at agencies would meet and speak with prospective parents right from when they came to make inquiries and register. The agencies would get a chance to know the parents even before their social workers went to conduct an official home study assessment.

“Sometimes, we see prospective parents with very poor education or regressive thinking and we feel the need to reject them because the rights of the child to a good home are more important,” said Kulkarni. “Sometimes, particularly in remote towns, there are parents with influential connections who put pressure on adoption agencies to make a good home study report even if they do not deserve it. At times threats are issued. But under the old system, we were able to manage those pressures at an interpersonal level, even before the home study assessment.”

Cold and distant

Under the new adoption process, an agency’s interaction with prospective parents has virtually ended. Once a parent registers online, the central authority assigns the task of conducting a home study to the agency nearest to them and this is usually the first time that agency’s social workers meet the parents. Once the home study report is uploaded on the national database, however, there are slim chances of the parent adopting a child from the same agency. Most often, the child is from an agency in another state.

While Kulkarni believes the brief home study period does not allow the agency to get to know a prospective parent well, many adoptive parents disagree. “Home studies have certain methodologies and protocols and agencies can send social workers multiple times to meet prospective parents before writing the report,” said Swarna Venkataraman, an adoptive parent from Bangalore who cofounded For and Of Heart Babies, a support forum for parents who adopt. But agencies have little interest now, she complained, because the parent is unlikely to adopt from the same agency.

“The way agencies are now behaving towards parents has also changed,” said Venkataraman. “They tend to be cold, matter-of-fact and not very cooperative, perhaps because they do not know who the parents are and do not feel like they have done due diligence. Now they are just custodians of the children.”

According to Deepak Kumar, the chief executive officer of the Central Adoption Resource Authority, adoption agencies are resentful of the new online system. “There has been resentment from the adoption agencies who can no longer place children at their own whims and fancies by giving children to parents out of turn, by taking large sums of donations,” said Kumar.

Not enough time

The rise in inter-state adoptions is a direct consequence of one of the most visionary aspects of the new adoption system. Earlier, the adoption pool was limited to just a handful of eligible children in two or three agencies where a prospective parent was waitlisted. Under the new centralised system, the pool has been widened to include children in all adoption agencies in any three states of the parent’s choosing.

This is intended to cut short the waiting period before a child is referred to a prospective parent. However, once the referral is made and the parent accepts a child, they are given just 20 days to travel to the state where the child is from, complete the paperwork, medical tests and other formalities, meet the child and take her home. Kumar believes that this 20-day window is adequate for parents to complete the formalities, and it is also extended by a few days in case parents request additional medical tests.

However, for many parents, 20 days is not enough, particularly now that a greater number of older children and children with medical conditions are being adopted.

“Eight years ago, when I adopted my first son from an agency in Odisha, I took two months and several trips to the agency to develop a rapport with him,” said Jyoti Swaroop Gupta, a single father from Delhi whose son was three years old when he adopted him. The boy is 11 now and Gupta has been trying to adopt another son – this time under the new adoption system.

Jyoti Swaroop Gupta with his 11-year-old son Amitesh.

In April, Gupta received a referral for a child – also 11 years old – from an agency in Odisha’s Rourkela district and when he “reserved” the child, he had 20 days to go and fetch him. “But my son had exams at the same time, so how was I to leave him and go all the way to Rourkela?” Gupta asked. “It also takes time to make arrangements for the journey, and two days to travel one way.” He sought the central resource authority’s help to get an extension but was eventually forced to give up on the adoption. “I will now wait for the next referral,” he said.

Failed adoptions

According to Prajakta Kulkarni at Snehankur, the brief 20-day window to meet a child and take her home has led to a gradual rise in “failed adoptions” from her agency.

“Parents from other states show up and say they have been matched with a child from our agency,” she explained. “They meet the child for the first time and they spend just a couple of hours before taking the child home, to a new environment. Because it is often expensive to travel from other states, most parents do not even want to stay for a few days and let the child get comfortable with them.”

This sudden switch is particularly difficult for children above three. Kulkarni knows of at least four cases where the parents, unable to connect with the adopted child, have returned the child to her agency before the end of the two-month foster care period. Although adoption is legally finalised only after the foster period, Kulkarni is still worried. “Earlier we never had any failed adoptions,” she said.

From a psychological perspective, this is not in the best interests of children. According to Radha Nagesh, an adoption counsellor from Bangalore, the lack of bonding time with new parents is made worse by the fact that there is little counselling available for both parents and children in the adoption system.

“Older children often have memories of abuse, violence or rejection that new parents are not equipped to handle,” said Nagesh. “Yet, a lot of parents expect the child to adjust and assimilate in their new environments quickly, and many times these adoptions do not work out.”

At the central resource authority, however, Deepak Kumar denies that failed adoptions are on the rise, and claims the rate of dissolutions or disruptions in adoptions of older children has been “miniscule”. He also claimed that the authority provides adequate tele-counselling facilities through its helpline and has set up a counselling centre at their office in Delhi.

“Registration for counselling can be done online through a link available on the CARA website,” said Kumar. “Similar counselling centres are being set up at the state and district level as well.”