Officials scramble over Minnesota adoption controversy

February 05, 2010 20:57 IST
Tags: Shallu, Maria Melichar, India, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, Mark Solheim

Could a 21-year-old woman be adopted in a Minnesota household, passing herself off as a 12-year-old? But it has allegedly happened–and Indian officials, the United States immigration, the adoptive parents and the agency that helped the adoption from Chandigarh are embarrassed.

Komal, who was allegedly 21 in 2006, was deported in 2008 to India [ Images ] along with her younger sister Shallu, who said she was 11 but was 15. This is perhaps the first time the US has deported two orphans. The adoptive parents, Maria Melichar and her husband Carl of Meyer, Minnesota, are demanding $ 50,000 as compensation from Crossroads Adoption Services of Edina, Minnesota, for misleading them. The parents claim to have spent $30,000 to adopt the girls. Crossroads denies any wrongdoing.

Maria Melichar said she did not want to say more because the case has attracted much attention after the Star Tribune published an article recently. They had earlier adopted seven-month-old Remya from India in 1993 through the agency.

Maria, a nurse, said she felt Komal’s and Shallu’s human rights were violated by the adoption. “They are strong young ladies. They knew their story. I just want to get out of all this now. It has gone too far,” Maria said. The girls have not called her after they were deported and she does not know where they are.

In 2005, the Melichars decided to expand the family. They had four children, including Remya. ‘We were both getting older. If we were going to do it, that was the time,’ Maria said Soon they got the photographs of the sisters. In November 2006 Maria and two children went to bring Komal and Shallu from the orphanage.

Rajeev Agarwal, the Crossroads representative at the time, assisted them; he left the agency soon after. At home, the Melichars found Komal’s behavior strange. She would not eat with the family, was defiant and aggressive, and often bullied and slapped her younger sister, the report said. The girls spoke English, but Komal sometimes would speak to Shallu only in Hindi, even in the Melichars’ presence. One day, she threw all of Shallu’s possessions out of their shared room. The report said Komal forced Shallu to refuse to do homework.

In February 2007, Shallu revealed the sisters’ birthdays fell on separate national holidays in India, an improbable coincidence. Maria began to doubt the girls’ ages. When an X-ray exam suggested Komal was older, she was moved from the fifth to the 10th grade.
In July 2007, Komal announced her real age and said she wanted to go back to India. The sisters later told federal investigators that Agarwal had falsified their ages. Agarwal reportedly insisted the girls’ original birth dates are accurate. The medical experts–Dr Mansur Ahmad, an Indian-American director of oral and maxillofacial radiology at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, and Dr Leah Willson, a pediatrician and adoption medical specialist at Hutchinson Medical Center in Hutchinson–said the girls admitted the photographs sent to the Melichars in 2005 were taken years earlier, and that they had different fathers, contradicting information from Crossroads. They also said they spent much less time in orphanages than claimed by Indian officials, and were separated from a younger brother.

A US immigration judge ordered the sisters be sent back to India in July 2008 for visa fraud, after medical tests confirmed the age discrepancies.
Arun Dohle, a German of Indian origin who was adopted as a child from India, told over the telephone that the girls were in Delhi [ Images ].

“Adoption is a big business in India,” he said. “Unfair practices are the standard thing in India and the cover up starts from top to bottom. Everyone goes scot-free after flouting laws.”

He is the founder of the Belgium-based advocacy group Against Child Trafficking and author of a 2008 law review article on Indian adoption fraud. He had created sensation with his adoption story as a child a few years ago.
The sisters’ return to India in 2008 prompted an Indian government review of the system. J K Mittal, chairman of India’s Central Adoption Resource Agency, said the investigation was not finished but that no fraud has been found.

Attorney Mark Solheim, who represents Crossroads, said the agency never instructed any adopted children to lie about their age. Over the past 33 years, Crossroads has successfully placed 3,500 children, including 500 from India,in adoptive homes, he said.

“Crossroads adamantly denies all of the Melichars’ claims and believes that they are not entitled to any compensation. Crossroads did not mislead the Melichars,” Solheim said.

He said the Star Tribune report is one-sided, and Crossroads could not reveal all the information because the Melichar family had not waived confidentiality requirements, as required under Minnesota law.

“Crossroads asked the Star Tribune to seek a waiver so it could report on both sides of the story,” Solheim said. He said he doubted a 21-year old could pass for a 12-year-old.

“We have seen no evidence that anyone was misled or that any certificates were manipulated. To the contrary, the best available information was provided fully and completely to the Melichar family. Again, because of Crossroads’ duty of confidentiality, we cannot say more than this,” he said, adding that the organization has seen nothing similar before.
Solheim said Crossroads is now trying to determine where the girls are.

In India, a child usually finds its way into an orphanage when s/he is abandoned. Typically, there are no birth records or other information. A police report is filed on each abandoned child, a physician examines the child and a birth date is assigned based on available information. Next, the Indian Child Welfare Committee tries to find the child’s kin. If that effort is unsuccessful, the process to get the child adopted begins.

George Joseph in New York