A Challenge in India Snarls Foreign Adoptions

Published: June 23, 2003

HYDERABAD, India, June 16— Sharon Van Epps remembers the day she first held Haseena, with her rich black hair and dark eyes. The baby, just beginning to walk, did not make a sound, just held on to her tightly.

”I felt like something I’d been missing my whole life that I didn’t even know I’d been missing had been found,” she recalled.

Ms. Van Epps, an American freelance writer, saw Haseena nearly every day afterward, bonding with the girl she hoped to adopt with her husband, John Clements, a partner in a major accounting firm. The couple had received nearly all the necessary approvals from agencies in the United States and India, and Ms. Van Epps expected to leave here with Haseena within two months.

But that was 15 months ago, and since then she has been locked in battle with a small but determined group of activists.

Led by Gita Ramaswamy, a longtime union-organizer-turned-book-publisher, the group argues that the foreign adoption system in India is riddled with corruption and encourages trafficking in baby girls, who are often seen as a burden by poor families. In some cases, the police say, babies have been sold by their parents for as little as $20.

Ms. Van Epps, 37, and Ms. Ramaswamy, 50, are fighting it out in the state of Andhra Pradesh, but Ms. Ramaswamy wants a nationwide moratorium on foreign adoptions for several years.

Last year, according to the Indian government, American and European families adopted nearly 800 children from India, compared with 1,200 in-country adoptions. The numbers may not seem large for a country of a billion people, but Indian law allows only Hindus and Buddhists to adopt; Christians, Muslims and Jews in India may only become guardians.

For Ms. Van Epps, and other Westerners seeking to adopt here, the only number that counts is one — the child they are seeking.

Ms. Van Epps’s experience has left her pained and angry. ”I am a test case for them,” she said.

Pilar Galán, a Spanish woman who has been blocked from adopting a 3-year-old girl, even though she and her husband had already adopted an Indian girl several years ago, agreed. ”She can’t give up, because there are other families fighting for their children,” she said. Ms. Ramaswamy insists the dispute is not personal. ”We’re not working on Haseena not going abroad,” said Ms. Ramaswamy, whose five sisters live in the United States. ”We’re working for changes in the system.”

Ms. Ramaswamy argues that poverty and the degradation of women in Indian society are the reasons that so many poor women are induced to sell their girl babies. Rather than address those problems, the Indian government allows foreigners to adopt babies as a partial solution, she said.

What really drives baby trafficking, she says, is demand from rich Western couples. Poor women do not go around offering their babies, she said, but are persuaded to sell by offers of what to them are irresistible amounts of money.

Ms. Ramaswamy and her colleagues have sought to portray Ms. Van Epps as a rich American who is throwing her weight around. Indeed, two United States senators have written letters on her behalf, and the American Embassy has made inquiries about the case, though it has remained neutral.

”Her faith in the power of the color of her skin, and the superpower status of her country, is so strong” that she is convinced ”she must win,” Ms. Ramaswamy wrote in April in an op-ed article against foreign adoptions in the Deccan Chronicle, the state’s leading English-language daily.

Ms. Ramaswamy and her group have publicly asserted that Haseena was trafficked, though Ms. Ramaswamy conceded in an interview that there was no hard evidence that Haseena was bought by the orphanage.

She said there were serious doubts, however, about the authenticity of the so-called relinquishment document, which was ”signed” — with a fingerprint — by a woman who claimed to be Haseena’s mother. She was, according to the document, an illiterate, unmarried 20-year-old peasant woman, who said she was offering Haseena for adoption because of the stigma in India of raising a child born out of wedlock.

Haseena was 6 months old at the time, and it is not clear why the mother waited so long to give her up.

Even if Haseena had been bought, there is no evidence that Ms. Van Epps knew this.

Indian law requires that before a child can be adopted by foreigners she must first be offered to an Indian couple; then to an Indian couple living abroad; then to a couple with one Indian spouse.

On March 23, 2001, the Central Adoption Resource Agency, the federal body in India that regulates adoptions, said the government had ”no objection to the placement” of Haseena with foreigners, after another agency had said it could find no Indian parents because the girl had mildly deformed feet.

But a month later, before the couple could petition the Family Court for approval, the police in the state of Andhra Pradesh uncovered a baby-selling ring. Baby girls were being bought from poor families and brought to orphanages, which in turn made them available to foreign applicants, who pay more for a child than do Indians seeking to adopt.

After the scandal, two orphanages in Andhra Pradesh were closed. A few months later, charges were filed against St. Theresa’s Tender Loving Care Home, the orphanage where Haseena was. It was charged with ”procuring children since 1996 for the purpose of giving the majority of the children in intercountry adoption for huge monetary considerations.”

The case is pending, and the orphanage remains open, though it has not had its license renewed.

Sister Teresa Marie, the 69-year-old Roman Catholic nun who runs the orphanage, denied that it had engaged in baby-trafficking. She said the charges were politically motivated.

Of the 33 children at the home now, Sister Teresa said, 2 were expected to go to Italy, 2 to Germany, 2 to Spain, 10 to Minnesota and several to California. A couple from Minneapolis, she said, has been waiting since November 2000 for twin girls, Sasikala and Sreekala, now 3 years old and who have been in the orphanage since they were a week old. (The girls would have to be separated if they were adopted by an Indian family because Indian law prohibits an Indian couple who already have a girl to adopt another.)

Ms. Ramaswamy and her colleagues have mounted an effort to find Indian parents for these and other baby girls in the process of being adopted by Americans and Europeans.

One Indian couple, B. Venkata Subrahmanyam, a businessman, and his wife, have come forward for Haseena. About two weeks ago, the state agency for Women Development and Child Welfare wrote to the court that Mr. Subrahmanyam’s desire to adopt Haseena ”does not come out of love and affection for the child.” Its director added that there was ”strong reason to believe” that Mr. Subrahmanyam was acting ”on account of certain external pressures,” a clear reference to foreign adoption opponents.

Mr. Subrahmanyam dismissed that notion as ”absolutely rubbish.” In a telephone interview, he said it was the welfare agency that had acted under external pressure — from the United States government.

On May 28, the state removed Haseena from the Tender Loving Care Home, and placed her in a state-run orphanage here, Sishu Vihar. The head of that orphanage declined requests to be interviewed.

Since June 7, the state authorities have not allowed Ms. Van Epps to see Haseena. But every afternoon, she shows up at the orphanage, hoping that this time she will be granted permission.

On a recent day, sitting outside in a car, she looked dejected, holding a photo album with pictures of the little girl. ”When I open it now,” she said, ”I just cry.”

Photos: Gita Ramaswamy, left, is leading the campaign in Andhra Pradesh to stop foreign adoptions, arguing that the practice encourages baby trafficking. Her efforts have halted an adoption planned by Sharon Van Epps, right.; Children at the Tender Loving Care Home in Hyderabad whose adoption has been stalled by a legal challenge. (Photographs by Amit Bhargava for The New York Times) Map of India highlighting Andhra Pradesh: The police uncovered a baby-selling ring in Andhra Pradesh.