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Despite a favourable law, why do single women and men struggle to adopt a child in India

Although the law no longer discriminates against them, the agencies involved sometimes do.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Aug 11, 2019, 12.14 PM IST
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It is because of these biases that a lot of women approaching adoption counsellors hesitate to even disclose their marital status.
In January, Disha Parekh, a 31-year-old single woman from Bengaluru, decided to take a big baby step — adopt a child. The tech professional registered online with the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), the nodal body that regulates all adoptions in India.

While registering, she chose the gender and age group of the child and picked three states from where she could adopt, depending on availability. Additionally, she chose one of CARA’s affiliated adoption agencies in her city to conduct a Home Study Report (HSR).

This would determine her suitability as an adoptive parent. Once her HSR was approved, Parekh would be on a waitlist. The moment a child was available in any of the three states she had picked, she would be notified and given a 48-hour window to meet the child and make her decision. If she decided not to proceed, she would lose her spot in the waitlist and go right to the bottom of the queue.

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Parekh knew the process like the back of her hand. She had done this before. Two years ago, she had registered on CARA for the first time. But she had to withdraw her application a few months later as she couldn’t get past the HSR phase. “The social worker from the adoption agency kept asking me why I was not getting married,” alleges Parekh. “At one point, she clearly told me I should get married and have a child of my own first. Then I could think of adopting.” These words sound familiar to 31-year-old Aditya Tiwari from Pune.

On New Year’s Day in 2016, he became the youngest single parent to adopt a child with special needs in India, but it had not been easy. “During my Home Study Report interview the previous year,” he says, “I was asked if I had considered that adopting a child at the age of 27 might hinder my chances of getting married, that it’ll spoil my life.” The attitudes towards single people have some way to go but CARA’s laws have changed over the years, becoming more accommodative and even encouraging of them.

In 2015, CARA laid down fresh guidelines for adoption to streamline the process. These guidelines leave no room for discrimination on the basis of an applicant’s marital status — except that a single man cannot adopt a girl child. In July 2017, the law became even more favourable for single women over the age of 40. Their waiting period for adoption is now fast-tracked by six months when the average waiting period for prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) is two years.

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Over the last four years, this has led to an increase in the number of single PAPs, especially women, applying for adoption. In 2015-16, 412 single women registered for adoption with CARA. By the end of 2017, the numbers almost doubled to 817. While this was only one-twentieth of the 18,000 registrations that year, the numbers are growing consistently.

Seventy five single women adopted a child in 2015-16, 93 in 2016-17, 106 in 2017-18, and 121 in 2018-19. Still, it has not been easy for several single PAPs, who complain that specialised agencies that are part of the adoption process — those conducting HSR or giving the child — can be biased towards them. “A lot of agencies ask single PAPs questions that end up discouraging them. They make you feel that you’re doing something wrong,” claims Tiwari. “Recently, a friend told me he was asked during an adoption meeting if he was gay because he had applied for adoption shortly after his divorce.”

While CARA has the last word on any adoption-related matter, the agencies have the right to raise objections, often turning what could be a seamless process into an unnecessary battle. Subhalakshmi Nandi from Gurgaon is all too familiar with this situation. Hers was one of the first cases after CARA centralised all adoption-related processes in 2015. The resistance, she says, came from the agency she was going to adopt her child from.

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“They indirectly suggested that single parents don’t have a stable household and delayed adoption formalities,” alleges the 39-year-old. Nandi had to fight back, citing the law; she said she could take them to court. The development sector professional had worked with the United Nations in the past and reached out to people to guide her in the fight. “Even then I had to struggle a fair bit and the adoption process turned quite unpleasant. But what about those who don’t have a strong support system, who are not that confident or even aware of their rights?” asks Nandi.

People like Parekh, for instance. When Parekh registered with CARA for the second time, her plan was to choose a different agency for HSR. “But that agency declined my request because I lived too far from their office.” They suggested that she approach her former agency — and she is keeping her fingers crossed. “They don’t make it easy for single PAPs,” says Shubha, an HR professional based in Dehradun. She began her adoption process five years ago. The adoption agencies were more difficult then, she says. “An agency worker in my hometown Pune told me they will never choose me over a couple wanting to adopt. A person at a well-known adoption agency in Ahmednagar made derogatory remarks about my divorce,” alleges the 47-year-old.

This happened a year before CARA centralised the adoption process and brought it under its fold. However, the bias against single PAPs is evident in many specialised adoption agencies even today, says Tiwari based on the conversations he has with people who approach him for adoption counselling. Most of the applicants hesitate to talk about their experience as their applications are still being processed and they fear it will further hamper their chances of adoption, says Purnima Sood, a fertility and adoption counsellor based in Delhi. “Only the extent of the bias differs from city to city,” alleges Tiwari.

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“Complete Family”
Agency heads that ET Magazine spoke to say they only have the child’s best interest in mind. “Today, the number of children available is limited and the number of people waiting to adopt is growing. We end up asking ourselves: why should we not give them (children) a complete family?” says the director of a Mumbai-based adoption agency on condition of anonymity. “A 19-year-old adopted child asked us recently why we gave him to a single parent, why we couldn’t find a normal family for him. We can keep debating about this but let’s not forget the child goes through a lot during this process and has to be our priority,” she adds.

It is because of these biases that a lot of women approaching adoption counsellors hesitate to even disclose their marital status, says Sood. “It’s only after a few calls or sittings that they feel comfortable to say that they are single women wanting to adopt.” Not all adoption agencies harbour biases against single people. Bal Asha Trust in Mumbai, for instance, says it doesn’t look at applicants as couples or single parents. “We look at how motivated they are, whether they are emotionally and financially stable, how stable is their family and, most of all, what kind of parenting they would do a few years later. For, what good is a couple over a single parent if they are always fighting with each other?” says Sunil Arora, executive director, Bal Asha Trust. The Mumbai-based trust is associated with a lot of celebrity adoptions, including actor Sushmita Sen’s. The former Miss Universe is a single parent to two adoptive daughters.

Mumbai-based Pracheta Sharma has chosen Bal Asha for her HSR. “I was warned in online communities about biases against single adoptive parents, so I did my due diligence before choosing the agency,” says the 38-year-old documentary filmmaker. She is currently waitlisted at 435 in a queue of 2,000 people in Maharashtra. The waitlist is a lot shorter in Jharkhand, the second state she has chosen, where she is at 162 in a queue of 900. “It’s only a couple of months away,” says Sharma, who has already started shopping for the baby girl she will be adopting. A recent UN Women report states that only 38% of global households conform to the couple-withchildren norm. Over 8% households the world over are single-parent households. Last year, the domestic single-parent adoptions accounted for less than 4% of the total 3,374 adoptions facilitated by CARA. “Orphanages in India need to be sensitised to the idea of diverse families like same-sex couples or single-parent households,” says Sharma.

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Arora of Bal Asha agrees. “I’ve never heard anyone from an adoption agency objecting to single-parent adoption. Some of them are just not equipped to deal with such cases and need to be professionally trained,” he says. He even suggests that an agency can offer to counsel a single PAP’s hostile family instead of using the family’s disapproval against them to turn down their application. “Adoption agencies can also add value to the process if instead of focusing on whether single parents fit the bill, they guide them on what kind of parents they need to be,” says Shubha from Dehradun, who eventually managed to adopt a child, now 5 years old, after dealing with multiple agencies.

For its part, CARA has been conducting three-day workshops at the state level to sensitise agencies for the last four months. “We will be covering all states by the end of this year,” says Deepak Kumar, CEO, CARA. “There have been a few instances of single women reporting biases of agencies in 2016-17, but we haven’t heard any such case in the last two years,” he adds. “The increase in the number of adoption is a reflection of changing mindset. The workshops will only make things better.” Once singles overcome the agency bias, they have to fight the societal bias. But PAPs like Parekh will not take a baby step back. “The more resistance I face, the stronger my resolve to adopt becomes,” she says.

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