It was February 1 when Neena John (name changed on request) and her husband received the good news they had been desperately waiting for. Nearly three years after they had registered as prospective parents to adopt a child, they had finally been matched with a five-month-old baby girl.

The child was at an orphanage in Bidar, Karnataka, while John and her husband lived in Muscat, Oman, with their 7-year-old daughter.

Under ordinary circumstances, the couple would have been able to fly to India, complete the adoption paperwork and fly back to Muscat with their new daughter within the span of a few weeks.

But the Covid-19 pandemic got in the way of a smooth adoption.

John and her family have been stuck in a hotel room in Chennai for the past six months, unable to formally complete the adoption and take their baby home. Their story of anxiety, frustration and helplessness is reflective of the many ways in which Covid-19 and the nationwide lockdown have affected adoptions across India.

Every year, around 4,000 children are formally adopted from adoption agencies across India, regulated by the Central Adoption Resource Authority or CARA – the central government’s nodal agency for adoptions. The number of registered prospective parents is much larger – between 20,000 and 25,000 every year, according to a CARA spokesperson – and they usually have to wait for at least two years before they are matched with a child.

With the Covid-19 lockdown, the waiting time for parents who were at the verge of getting matched was delayed by more than three months. It is expected to be longer for thousands of other parents who are further down the waitlist.

Meanwhile, parents like John, who were matched with their babies just before or after the lockdown, have another struggle on their hands: the formalisation of their adoptions are stuck in district courts that have been unwilling to conduct adoption hearings through video conference calls.

‘I have been weeping’

When John and her husband were first matched with their baby in February, they were told she had developed a medical condition: a small hole in her heart. They ensured that the baby received medical treatment in Bangalore as they prepared their paperwork to formally file for adoption in the Bidar district court.

For parents based in India, adopted children can be taken home during the “foster” period before a court officially approves of the adoption and a birth certificate is made for the child. This foster period usually lasts for two months.

But John and her husband are non-resident Indians, and could not fly their baby to Muscat without getting a court order, a birth certificate and a passport for her. In the first week of March, as the novel coronavirus began spreading in India as well as Oman, John realised they would have to make quick decisions.

“We heard that the Muscat airport was going to shut down soon, and we did not want to be stuck away from our daughter,” said John, 39, a former e-learning consultant. “I flew down to Chennai on March 10 with my elder daughter, and my husband joined us a few days later.”

On March 16, John and her husband picked up their baby from the orphanage in Bidar. They decided to spend a few days in Chennai before travelling to John’s father’s house in Tiruchirapalli, where they planned to wait out the foster period till the Bidar court approved the adoption and the baby’s passport was made.

On March 24, before they could head to Tiruchirapalli, the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed. As transport services shut down, John and her family found themselves stranded in a hotel room in Chennai. With no option but to wait, they settled into a chaotic routine of parenting a 7-year-old and a baby, while John’s husband, a banker, also “worked from home”.

In mid-June, when lockdown rules began to ease and courts began opening up, CARA requested district courts to conduct video conference hearings for adoption cases. “But the magistrate in the Bidar court was not willing to do a video call for our hearing, and we had to do a lot of paperwork before he finally agreed,” said John.

They were granted a hearing on July 18, but once again, the pandemic got in the way. “Karnataka went into a one-week lockdown on July 15, and our hearing didn’t happen,” said John.

Since then, the adoption case has been stalled by an unexpected turn of events that John has not yet fully understood. In late July, she and her husband were told that a judge in Bidar’s family court had objected to the district court hearing adoption cases.

According to the Juvenile Justice Act, adoption cases can be heard by either a district court, a family court or a city civil court. “Our lawyer explained this to the family court judge in Bidar, but it did not work,” said John, whose daughter’s adoption is now stuck in an alleged impasse between the district and family court judges. “From Chennai we are trying to coordinate between two courts and two judges, and no one wants to touch our case.”

John has been in the Chennai hotel for six months now, distraught that their baby’s fate is stuck in “no-man’s land”. Her husband and older daughter, meanwhile, have flown back to Muscat to get back to work and school.

“I have been weeping because we don’t know how to solve this, and we’re not getting help from anyone,” she said.

Travelling back without a child

While John and her husband have been grateful to have their adopted baby with them throughout this period, another couple in Chennai had to spend three and a half months away from their adopted daughter even after they travelled to Odisha to pick her up in March.

The couple, who wished to be identified as Mrs and Mr Bharadwaj, had been on CARA’s waitlist for two years and four months before they were matched with a baby girl in Odisha’s Sambalpur district. With great excitement, the couple – along with Mr Bharadwaj’s parents – travelled to Sambalpur.

“We met our child and we were so happy,” said Mrs Bharadwaj, a 36-year-old technologist at a private company in Chennai. “But on March 18, just before we could begin the paperwork for our court procedure, CARA announced that no child could be taken out of any orphanage to protect them from Covid.”

Heartbroken at the narrowly-missed opportunity, the Bharadwajs returned to Chennai without their daughter. “Those three months of waiting were extremely difficult, because we had a dire desire to adopt a baby since such a long time,” said Mrs Bharadwaj. Their baby was 4.5 months old when she was matched with them, and the couple missed watching her grow into an eight-month-old even though the orphanage frequently uploaded new photos of the baby on CARA’s website for her parents’ benefit.

Counsellors who specialise in adoption cases have witnessed such pain and anxiety among several parents who had waited for more than two years to be matched with a baby, only to be blocked by the lockdown.

“In the beginning of the lockdown there was a lot of apprehension among parents about when they would get to see their child, or whether the child would get enough care in the orphanage,” said Gayatri Abhraham, an adoption counsellor from Bangalore and the founder of Padme Foundation, which helps parents through the process of adoption. “Most children from adoption agencies have a nutrition and health gap compared to other children, so the sooner a child leaves the agency, the better it is for them.”

Bharadwaj said their baby was cared for very well by their agency in Sambalpur, and they were finally able to travel there on July 2, when lockdown restrictions lifted. Since there were no direct flights from Chennai to Sambalpur, they carefully selected flights with stopovers in cities less affected by the virus. “It was an anxious wait, but it was worth it because we were able to bring our baby home without any institutional quarantine,” she said.

The parents were able to file their adoption petition in the district court only in July, and had to travel again to Sambalpur, with the baby, for their hearing in early September. “Video conference hearings may be possible in metro cities, but in small districts, it is very difficult,” she said. Their hearing, conducted on September 7, was smooth, and Bharadwajs are now officially parents of their adopted girl.

A silver lining

Digangana Mukherjee with her husband and older son. Photo courtesy: Digangana Mukherjee

Despite the heartache caused by delayed adoptions during the lockdown, some adoptive parents believe there is a silver lining.

One of them is Digangana Mukherjee, a 36-year-old communications consultant from Bangalore, who was able to bring her baby daughter home from an adoption agency in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, on July 29. Mukherjee and her husband were supposed to be matched with a baby in March, but the lockdown extended their waiting period by three and a half months.

Now that their baby is home, they are thankful for the fact that they have to work from home due to the virus. “The law grants six months of maternity leave in the case of biological children, it lets individual companies decide how much adoption leave to give,” said Mukherjee, whose company gives her just 30 days of leave for having an adopted child. Her husband, an information technology professional, gets 42 days of adoption leave.

“If we were not working from home, it would have been very difficult to leave the baby so soon and go to work,” said Mukherjee. “But right now I have more flexible work hours and we are able to spend more time with the child.”