I stepped across the familiar threshold and collapsed into sobs while my husband held me up.
We were at an orphanage in the south Indian city of Hyderabad, the place where 12 years before, my husband John and I had tried to become the parents of a little girl named Haseena. Sister Teresa Marie, the elderly nun who’d once cared for Haseena, cried too.
The adoption agency had, those years ago, offered us a picture of a 6-month-old girl wearing faded yellow pajamas. The baby looked anxious, her brow furrowed. Her bare feet curved inward, like parentheses, a deformity they said had caused Indian couples to reject her. We’d expected to adopt an infant, but by time that picture reached us, the baby had already grown into a toddler. Imagining her stuck in the orphanage, waiting day after day for a family to embrace her, had made me tear up.
“How beautiful,” I remember John saying. Then he reached out and gently touched the image of Haseena’s crooked feet.
My children — a sister and brother adopted from Ethiopia at ages 2 and 3, and our oldest girl, adopted from a different orphanage in North India at 5 — have always known about Haseena, the child we tried to adopt before they became ours. They grew up seeing her baby picture on the mantel. They studied the photo album that showed Haseena in my arms at age 2, then age 3, and then the final photos taken of us just before her 4th birthday, where after more than a year in India spent locked in a battle with adoption activists, I’m wearing a traditional salwar kameez. I tried to explain the unexplainable to my kids more than once when they were little: “We tried for a long time to adopt her, but there were people who thought Indian children should stay in India, even if they had to live in an orphanage. We fought a long time, until the people in charge finally decided an Indian family would be best.”
My children are young teenagers now, old enough and smart enough to hear a story with more nuance, a story I’ve attempted to relay, but I don’t think they truly comprehended until we visited Haseena’s old orphanage together last Christmas Eve. Most of the girls who’d known me as “Haseena Mummy” were gone, placed with Indian families years ago. But more than a dozen remained, teenagers now, who led my three outside to the garden where Haseena and I had once played. Watching Haseena’s old friends and my children embrace one another made it easy to imagine a life in which we were a family of six, not five. For the first time, I think my kids imagined it too.
One of the girls at the orphanage claimed to remember me. Another, whom I’ll call Padma, smiled when I explained that I’d known her when she was small.
“Soon I will go to Spain,” she said proudly, and I nodded, unsure how to respond. Her Spanish mother and I still kept in sporadic touch, but I decided it would be cruel to tell my friend about the girl’s enduring false hope. I put off contacting other families too, even though I knew they were desperate for news of their once-hoped-for children, despite the passage of time. After the visit, I spent the next 24 hours – Christmas Day – in my hotel bed, sick with fever and resurrected grief.
Adoption is now more accepted among Indians than it was when my husband and I pursued Haseena in 2001, or even when we brought our oldest daughter home from New Delhi eight years ago. Urban women are delaying conception for career and experiencing greater infertility. Caste strictures have relaxed. Domestic waiting lists at licensed adoption centers have grown so long that most healthy infants are placed via the black market. The Telegraph reports that many Indians prefer illegal adoptions for their speed and the illusion of a “clean break” from the child’s past, but the lack of oversight puts children at risk and leaves birth parents vulnerable to exploitation. What hasn’t changed since 2001 is a lack of homes for older children and those with medical needs.
In July, India issued new Guidelines Governing Adoption of Children designed to confront these problems. The goal is to make the legal adoption process more efficient, reduce child trafficking and help more of the nation’s estimated 16 to 30 million orphaned children, most of whom are well past infancy, find good families. India’s federal government has assumed control over adoptions nationwide, creating a centralized and secular framework in a country where adoption practices have historically varied state to state, and where different laws applied to different religious groups. In fact, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity recently announced the organization has decided to stop adoptions rather than place children with single, separated or divorced parents in accordance with the new rules.
Despite all of the changes, I received a shocking message in late summer from my old friend in Madrid: We are going to Hyderabad next week. We have a court appointment on the 14th to adopt… [Padma]. I am a bit scared because the adoption law in India changed on the 1st August and the maximum age to adopt is 55… my husband, is 56!! I hope the judge won’t apply the law in retrospection.
I’d opened that message on my phone, in a bustling airport, and I stared at it for a couple of minutes until I understood: my friend’s daughter, the girl I’d seen at Christmas who told me she’d soon be going to Spain, really was going. Her adoption had taken 14 years. I wouldn’t have wanted Haseena to spend that time deprived of a family, but again, I couldn’t help but ache for what might have been.
Back in 2001, when Haseena’s adoption was nearly complete, Hyderabad police raided multiple orphanages on suspicion of child trafficking and swept hundreds of children into state custody. Haseena’s orphanage was never shuttered, but police tore through the nuns’ files, looking for evidence. The local activists joined the fray, casting international adoption as neo-colonialism. They claimed that people like us planned to use Indian children as servants or sex slaves, or would harvest their kidneys – not so farfetched in a country where 1 in 11 children is working, where trafficking of women and girls for prostitution has climbed steadily for the past two decades and where poor people sell their organs just to survive. They charged that children going to the West would be forced to convert to Christianity — an affront to Hindu fundamentalists, as well as an assault on the traditional caste system. The activists vowed to find Indian families for all the kids slated to go abroad.
After other parents began traveling to Hyderabad to personally fight the activists in court, John and I followed. Once I met Haseena — already 2 years old — once I held her in my arms as she wept, I couldn’t leave. For a time, we thought our love and commitment to Haseena would matter, but even when we began to see that we would lose, magical thinking, and the fear that Haseena would be left to rot in the orphanage if we walked away, kept us fighting. In the end, after years of litigation and an investigation that that uncovered no evidence of trafficking in her case, the Andhra Pradesh government placed Haseena with a state employee and his wife. The High Court of Andhra Pradesh used our case to suspend all international adoptions from the state, a decision that was later repealed when local orphanages began to overflow. Some children found Indian homes, some didn’t, and a few, like Padma, eventually joined the foreign families who’d wanted them all along.
In a recent case involving an international adoption by an Indian American, the justices of the Delhi High Court expressed concern about the fate of Indian children who’ve gone to America, and called for an investigation. I wish I could tell the judges about my Delhi daughter’s triumph over dyslexia, the product of her hard work and years of tutoring. I’d like to show them her report card filled with A’s, her shelves overflowing with athletic trophies, and reassure them that she identifies as a proud Indian American who is passionate about global education for girls.
If I could, I’d also ask the justices to quietly investigate the fate of Haseena, now 16. Perhaps it’s not my place, but I’d want to hear that she is thriving now, living a happy life with parents who love her. I’d tell the court that I love her still, and then I’d beg them to please, please try and ensure that India’s adoption overhaul, coupled with social programs to make adoption less needed in the long run, would offer every Indian child a safe place to call home, somewhere.
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