by Saptarshi Mandal
How should we build the systems that help us build our families? Should we only pursue the interests of efficiency and transparency, that we generally prioritise in any system delivering services? Or should we build them in a way that they are also equipped to address the emotional aspects involved in building new relationships and affinities?
The Bombay High Court is likely to address these fundamental questions in an ongoing litigation. The central government established a new online system of adoption in August last year, some aspects of which have been challenged in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the High Court. Among other things, the petitioners have argued that the online system is impersonal.
Adoption: An emotionally draining process
Prior to August 2015, parents wishing to adopt had to register with a state or a state licensed adoption agency, which would then send a social worker to assess the suitability of the prospective parents to adopt. A detailed 'home study' report would be prepared recording the observations of the social worker about the emotional, financial and social circumstances of the prospective parents. When a child (legally available for adoption) who fit the profile of the prospective parents was identified, the parents would be intimated by the agency. After a series of meetings and counselling sessions, if the parties were found to be compatible, court proceedings for adoption would be initiated and the child would be placed with the new parents.
Though appearing to be a simple process, most prospective parents found it to be an emotionally draining one — full of procedural bottlenecks, uncertainties and multiple nodes of corruption. There are stories abound of social workers not conducting home visits or not submitting home study reports on time, thus obstructing the adoption process. Parents would not know their position in the waiting list and agencies would often tell them that there were no children legally free for adoption, while others willing to pay a hefty donation would go home with a child within a few months from the same agency.
New online registration system
Reforms initiated by the central Ministry of Women and Child Development last year sought to boost the number of adoptions in the country by addressing the above problems in the system. A new online registration system is now in place called the Child Adoption Resource Information and Guidance System (CARINGS), which is managed by the nodal body dealing with adoption, the Central Adoption Resources Agency (CARA). As per the new guidelines framed by the CARA, parents desiring to adopt must register with the online system by uploading a list of documents. Next, a home study report is prepared within a month by a social worker based in the state where the prospective parents reside. The report is vetted by one of the specialised adoption agencies — either declaring the parents eligible to adopt or rejecting their application with reasons.
If declared eligible, the prospective parents are placed on a waiting list (called seniority list) and when their turn comes, they are shown the photographs of six children, along with background information and medical history. The parents must “reserve” one among the six options within 48 hours, which means they let go of the remaining five, who are then showed to the next prospective parent in line. The specialised adoption agency from the state where the child is then meets the prospective parents to assess their suitability for the child. The prospective parents also meet the child. This entire process of “matching” is to be completed within 15 days. If the parents decide to adopt the child that they reserved, then the agency proceeds with the legal work. If they do not, they are placed at the bottom of the waiting list and wait for their chance to come up again.
The new system has a couple of advantages. First, the pool of children available for adoption, which was earlier limited to the state, has now been made national. So if there are no children legally available for adoption in the state where the prospective parents reside,the online system gives parents the option of viewing children available for adoption in other states. Second, the computerized process has the potential of ensuring transparency and freeing the process from the clutches of unscrupulous adoption agencies. Third, a number of adoption agencies do not favour single men and women or when one or both prospective parents are disabled, though such persons are not legally barred from adopting. The online system, which requires the agencies to record their reasons while rejecting applications might just discourage these negative biases from creeping into the system.
Where the online system falters
Whether these laudable goals are ultimately realised in practice or not, and whether the number of legal adoptions in the country go up in the long run or not, there are a host of other concerns for which the online system can be faulted. Let's first begin with the question of access: How many people in the country have access to computers to get onto the online registration system? Though the minimum financial means required to be eligible for adoption set by the Cara is pretty low, the new system effectively excludes those without access to computers or cyber cafes from the adoption process. Additionally, how are the visually impaired prospective parents expected to see the photographs of children generated by the system in the first round of the matching process?
A concern raised by some, including one of the petitioners to the case currently being heard by the Bombay High Court, pertains to the manner in which the new system prioritises “choice”. It has been argued that allowing propective parents to select one child out of six options based on photographs and other basic information, turns the child into a commodity in the marketplace. The format does conjure up the image of online shopping that helps customers decide whether to buy or not by providing striking images and a range of information about the product. While this might be a disturbing thought in the context of children, it needs to be scrutinised in the light of what we know and see about family formation in contemporary India.
If we do not have any problem with online dating or match-making in the context of spouse selection, which allows the users to express their preference for certain physical attributes, caste, sub-caste, gotra, raashi and so forth, then there should not be a problem with a similar format for selecting children. While it is true that there is a religious and cultural notion that children are the gifts of god — it co-exists with the other widespread views of children as economic resources, as helping hands (in the fields or the family business), as old age security for parents. Thus market considerations are not completely alien to the domain of family and hence, in my opinion, the commodification argument is not particularly convincing.
Yet another concern raised pertains to the place of the adoption agencies in the new system. In order to curb malpractices by some adoption agencies, the new system has completely reduced the role of the adoption agencies spread all over the country and has invested most of the authority in the central body, Cara. The primary function of adoption agencies in the new system is to look after the children till they are adopted and carry out the legal formalities, however, they play no substantial role in the decision making process.
Earlier, the agencies provided the vital service of personalised counselling to prospective parents and helped them make decisions. They would gently nudge parents to go for older children or siblings – categories of children that are usually less favoured by most prospective parents – and help place these children in appropriate families. They would often discourage complexion, caste or zodiac related prejudices of the parents in the course of face to face meetings. Even without harbouring a romanticised view of the role played by the adoption agencies earlier, one must accept that no entity in the current system is allowed to play this part, since the new system does not allow for a bond of trust to develop between the parents and the agency personnel, who meet during a brief period after reserving the child online. It is logistically impossible for a body located in Delhi to provide these services for the entire country, when it does not even have a functional telephonic helpline.
Adoption involves handling complex emotional issues and channeling them in a manner that result in fulfilling relationships, even without the connections of biology, caste or culture. Pursuing this goal is surely not incompatible with the goals of transparency and efficiency. Earlier, the Bombay High Court and the government had stated that it is amenable to make changes in the new system. I hope that the government does not mean only technological changes in the CARINGS.
The author teaches Family Law at the Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, Haryana. He was a member of the sub-committee constituted by the Twentieth Law Commission of India that recommended major changes to the laws governing child custody and guardianship.