A 35-year-old autorickshaw driver from Bhopal is fighting for the return of his children, as he said they were adopted by a couple in the United States without his consent, boosting calls for a ban on inter-country adoptions to stop child trafficking.

Jay Prakash Ahirwar said his mother took his three children in 2015 to the local Child Welfare Committee, which protects vulnerable children, after his wife died – only to discover last month that a US couple had adopted them.

The committee placed the children – then aged three, five and seven – with the SOS Children’s Villages in Bhopal, where the charity runs a group foster home as part of its work to support 25,000 vulnerable children across India.

“I wanted to take my children home for Holi festival last year, but [SOS Children’s Villages officials] said they were getting good education and I should not spoil their lives. I thought maybe they were right,” said Ahirwar. “When I went last month, I was told they were adopted by a US family. They did not inform me or ask me. Did they give them away or did they sell them? I don’t know.”

The committee’s response

A spokesman for SOS Children’s Villages said the charity told the government’s child welfare department in 2016 not to put the children up for adoption as their father was alive. Ahirwar never visited his children and efforts to contact the family at their address and via newspaper adverts failed, the spokesman said, so in 2017, they were included in a list the charity gave the Child Welfare Committee of all the children in their facility.

The committee then declared the children as “legally free” for adoption as the newspaper adverts had elicited no response. “The adoption process was carried out on the directive of Child Welfare Committee and the specialised adoption agency,” said Sudarshan Suchi, India director of SOS Children’s Villages, a global charity supporting children without parental care and families at risk.

About 80% of some eight million children in orphanages globally or other institutions are not orphans, according to the charity Lumos, but they can be lucrative for trafficking networks, leading many “origin” countries to ban international adoptions.

“These children were made ‘legally free’ in 2017. We are finding out if there was a criminal intent in doing so,” said Tarun Kumar Pithode, district head of Bhopal.

Widespread racket?

Some 2,500 children have been adopted overseas since 2015, according to the Central Adoption Resource Authority, which regulates adoptions. “This is a big racket. It validates our demand to stop inter-country adoptions,” said Arun Dohle, director of Against Child Trafficking, a charity which has reunited dozens of inter-country adoptees with their birth mothers.

India tightened its adoption rules after cases emerged of parents being coerced or tricked to give up their children for inter-country adoptions. But the slow pace of the tightly-regulated process has fuelled baby trafficking, activists say.

Ahirwar is unsure whether he will see his children again. “They have gone so far,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If they come back, it will be good. But if they don’t, I just want to continue meeting them and talking to them. I don’t want them to forget their father.”

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.