German Claudia Gerstner in search of her biological mother in Mangalore

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 2:08:54 PM (IST)
Florine Roche
Daijiworld Media Network – Mangalore

Mangalore, Jul 10: “Blood is thicker than water” is a well-known German proverb, which means that bonds of common ancestry are stronger than any other. This is what has brought many of the foreign nationals who were adopted from India, especially from Mangalore decades ago come searching for their roots back in India. Many of these adopted were able to find loving and caring foster parents in European countries and are well settled in life. But they are constantly bothered by the urge to find their biological parents, without which they feel their life is incomplete. Remember the famous lines of Deewar ‘mere paas maa hai’ that really struck a chord with the audience and has become a cliché ever since?

One such person who is on such a mission is 37-year-old Claudia Sabitha Gerstner alias Ida Maria Esther from Germany, who desperately wants to trace her mother Cecilia Pinto, whose name she says is mentioned in the records of her baptism at Nirmala Convent Chapel in Mangalore. Claudia, who is currently in Munchen, Germany, has been searching for her biological mother since 2008 but without any success so far. But she is not the one to give up hopes as she has been inspired by Arun Dolhe, an Indian born German adopted from Mumbai, whose 17 years of persistent struggle including litigation bore fruit resulting in his tracing his biological mother in Pune in 2010. Her hopes are rekindled especially after Arun was able to trace his half sister Eva Dohle in 2006 from Mangalore. Eva was adopted by a German couple from Nirmala Convent in Ullal, Mangalore and was reunited with her biological mother after an agonizing search.

Speaking to daijiworld from Germany, Claudia said that though her adopted parents have given her everything, she wants to trace her Indian roots. “I want to trace my mother and want to know the real truth why I was given away. I am interested in the real circumstances that led to my abandonment. I want to know if mine was an illegal adoption. I want to know more about my Indian roots. As an adopted person I often feel rootless, as if I don’t belong anywhere,” she confesses. Claudia who is a laborial dentist worked for ten years at Siemens AG, but due to the adoption trauma she had to quit her job and has not been able to lead a normal life since then. In her quest for searching her biological mother she has the full support of her partner Thomas and adopted mother Lydia Gerstner.

No headway since 2008

When the Ullal police station received a complaint in May this year against three institutions, including Nirmala Social Welfare Centre of Ullal, holding them as one of the parties in inter-country adoption/child trafficking, it was just another addition to the list of complaints they have on hand on the issue. If anything, the complaint has once again brought to the fore the sad plight of many foreign nationals of Indian origin adopted from many of the adoption homes in Dakshina Kannada and elsewhere and their quest for their biological parents.

Having failed to achieve any response to her numerous mails seeking information, Claudia took the painful step of registering a complaint in May this year against Nirmala Social Welfre Centre, Mangalore (where she was born and baptized on December 7,1975), Salvation Army of Mumbai (where she was admitted after she was sent to Mumbai under mysterious circumstances) and former German adoption agency Terre des Homes” with its office in Pune, as it had facilitated her adoption. Claudia wants the police to consider her complaint as an FIR and the police have already started their investigation in the matter. In this complaint filed through child rights activist Anjali Pawar, Claudia has accused Nirmala Convent of destroying the relevant documents to protect crimes committed by their predecessors in this adoption centre.

Many of us are quite familiar with the never-ending efforts of India born Chaya Maria Schupp of Germany to trace her parents since 2005. Chaya was adopted by a German couple from Nirmala Social Welfare Centre, Ullal, Mangalore, when she was six. Chaya has even approached the High Court of Karnataka in this regard and a division bench in its order in March 2013 asked the police to investigate the complaint she lodged in 2006 to get details of her past. The investigation is on in this matter and the High Court reprieve has rekindled Chaya’s hopes of tracing her biological mother.

Spotlight on Nirmala Social Welfare Centre

Claudia unfolded the trauma she has been undergoing in her relentless pursuit to trace her biological parents and requested daijiworld to help her in her efforts. She shared all relevant documents pertaining to her baptism with daijiworld, her subsequent mysterious admission at Salvation Army Women’s and Children’s Home, Mumbai as a rehabilitated child, documents pertaining to her adoption by German couple, the correspondence Terre Des Homes had with Nirmala Convent requesting them to divulge details of her parents. In the scanned copies of the records sent to daijiworld by Claudia, records of Baptisms at the church clearly show the name of Ida Maria Esther Pinto in the column where name, surname and gender of the child baptized is to be mentioned. It shows Ida Maria was born on September 28, 1975 and was baptized on December 7, 1975 at Nirmala Convent Chapel, Ullal. In this record the name of her mother is shown as Cecilia Pinto and the name of her godparent is mentioned as Juliana D’Souza.

However, in the declaration document giving the consent for adoption of Claudia alias Ida Maria Esther Pinto dated April 14, 1976, the affidavit given by Brigadier Ruthbai Teldume representing Salvation Army, where Claudia was admitted after her arrival in Mumbai, does not say Claudia alias Ida Maria Esther was born in Mangalore. It merely says “after she was institutionalized in our home no person claiming to be a parent or a guardian of the child has come to our institution”. However, the document giving guardianship of Ida Maria to be adopted by Herbert Gerstner of Germany in a petition in the Bombay High Court mentions the name of Sr Esther, Supdt of Nirmala Convent, Ullal, whose affidavit was read to the petitioner before adoption.

Naturally, the entire episode of adoption of Claudia and many others like her including Chaya has put the spotlight on Nirmala Social Welfare Centre of Ullal, where these children were initially adopted. In Claudia’s case, the records maintained by the convent confirm that she was adopted by the centre (in copy of baptism record available with daijiworld) and then given on adoption allegedly under fraudulent methods. It is bewildering to note the missing link in Claudia’s case, because there is no mention of how she was transferred to Mumbai. Records maintained by Salvation Army haven’t mentioned she was born in Mangalore. Moreover, there are no relinquishment documents in her case, strengthening the suspicion that hers was a case of illegal adoption where huge money may have been involved.

Chaya, who was adopted from Nirmala, in her petition claimed that her mother had kept her at the center for studies and had not actually handed her over to the centre. Chaya was adopted by German couple Ingrid and Wolfgang Schupp in 1981 and surprisingly, only those records between 1974 and 1981 are missing mysteriously from Nirmala and this had rendered credence to their belief that the centre had meddled with these records.

Daijiworld visited Nirmala Social Welfare Centre to get a broader view of this deal and met Sr Veera, who is superior of the convent. Sr Veera claims that they don’t have any records prior to 1984 except for the Baptism register. However, Arun Dolhe of ACT and Chaya Schupp had come to Mangalore in 2004 and 2006 in search of her biological parents and of four others adopted from here. Arun Dolhe who spoke to us from Germany pointed out that Chaya and he had seen the records including admission registers for the period 1965 to 1980 and subsequent period when they got access to check the records of the centre when they first came in 2004.

Sr Veera who is the superior of the convent for the last four years said, “Earlier Italian nuns were in charge of the convent and we do not know anything about the earlier records. We have shown whatever documents we have and there is nothing to hide. Prior to 1984 there was no requirement of recognition or license from the government for child adoption. In 1984 it was made mandatory to have recognition and we have maintained up to date records ever since.” The centre in its response to the single bench judge of the High Court also had maintained that it was a recognized agency for inter-country adoption.

Missing records hold the key

“This is far from the truth considering that those in charge of the convent keep on changing and records help smooth transition and management of an institution like this. When Baptism records are maintained meticulously and when records pertaining to 60s and early 70s are maintained how come records for the period from 1974 to 1980 can go missing conveniently?” asks Arun. Sr Veera and her associates, however, stick to their guns and maintain that they have records only from 1984 onwards. It may also be recalled here that Arun Dolhe’s half sister Eva Dohle was able to reunite with her biological mother based on the records found at Nirmala.

Arun Dolhe contends: “My half sister sister was adopted from Nirmala convent and in 2004 I saw the records after applying pressure on them. Then in 2006 we traced her mother based on the name and address which we gathered from Nirmala’s books. Also, Chaya, as per court’s direction went once again to Nirmala and saw some of their old records and the records were still there. Now they are saying we have records only from 1984 onwards. That’s a lie and that is the reason why we cannot trace Ida’s/Claudia’s mother. Further, Claudia’s adoption process was illegal. She was transported to Bombay illegally. The letter attached from the lawyer reveals a lot. That letter we found in the adoption file of my half sister.”

Nirmala Social Welfare Centre now claims that they have been facing mental stress and harassment from 2004 onwards ever since the ghost of inter-country adoption racket came haunting them. They are also complaining of police harassment for no fault of theirs. Sr Blanch, a senior pharmacist at the centre points out, “We feel sad and hurt that for all the good work we have done on humanitarian grounds we face harassment. This centre has given life to many people and served the society. We had instances where newborns were abandoned at the doorsteps of our convent and we have taken care of them. There have been instances of unwed mothers leaving their children at the centre. Now, if they are leading a good life with their families and if these adopted people are bent upon tracing their parents there is a possibility that this might create discord in many families”.

Arun Dolhe, however, negates this argument and says that their mission is not to cause havoc in families. “There have been no problems in Eva’s and in my case after we traced our parents. I have also been successful in tracing the parents of three more people one of whom was adopted from Nirmala Social Welfare Centre and three from Mt Rosary Charitable Institution, Moodbidri. If the parents of these adopted people want to meet secretly we would facilitate it without any third party’s knowledge. But that cannot be cited as a valid reason for refusing to give relevant documents,” Arun contends.

When we spoke to Ullal police inspector Madan Goankar, he said, “We have received the complaint filed by Anjali Pawar on behalf of Claudia Sabitha Gerstner and we have started investigating the matter. We have visited the convent and checked some records. We have taken this complaint as a petition and not as an FIR. To treat it as an FIR we have to confirm some more facts pertaining to the case.” Gaonkar was not willing to discuss anything about the issue saying, “he is not the authorized person to do so”. He went on to add, “I am as much interested in knowing the truth as any of you are. We are doing our investigation and we are doing it as per the High Court order in Chaya’s case and now in Claudia’s case we have just begun the investigation. We are doing our duty and that cannot be termed as harassment.”

Long battle

What has incensed Claudia is the attitude of Nirmala Centre, which she says failed to respond to several letters she wrote to the centre since 2008. Finally she approached Holz working for Terre des homes that had facilitated the adoption of kids from Maharashtra and neighboring states to Germany, (copy of mail written by Holz to Sr Veera available with daijiworld) seeking their help to trace her biological mother. Holz in turn mailed Sr Veera on November 14, 2011, which incidentally happens to be Children’s Day in India. Terre des homes dealt through Carla Wiedeking (Karla) between 1976-78 as evident from the correspondence between Carla and B D Shenoi, the High Court advocate, Mumbai and they were in fact indulging in suspicious practices (copy of letter by Shenoi to Carla written in 1976 available with daijiworld).

This unsavory episode has opened a Pandora’s Box pertaining to the issue of illegal inter-country adoption and also raises many unpalatable questions. The fact that Claudia’s adopted parents had coughed up 2500 Deutsche Mark (about Rs 1 lac) for her adoption in 1976 goes to prove that big money was involved in the adoption of many of these children and hence the undue haste to bring children illegally from other places to Mumbai and give for adoption. The Bombay High Court which got suspicious of the motives of B D Shenoi, advocate, Mumbai High court in many adoption cases, came down heavily on it in (Giovanni Marco Muzzu case) in its order of July 22, 1982.

It has to be noted that Claudia was shifted to Mumbai without any authority and without any relinquishment documents. Even some confidential information documents made available to daijiworld in English and German, citing circumstances for giving children for adoption state relinquishment by parents as the reason. But Claudia has serious misgivings about this and says her mysterious transfer to Mumbai points the needle of suspicion towards all the three agencies against whom she has now filed the complaint. Claudia alleges that Sr Pratima (who is now transferred) who was in charge of the convent in 2008 has purposely hidden the relevant documents.

Ullal police have already begun the investigation and it is said that they have been successful in tracing some of the people who worked at Nirmala Social Welfare Centre in the 70s and 80s and have got some vital clues from them. This means that the police are sure to make some headway and ferret out details from them. Any further move by Claudia and Chaya depends on the report filed by the Ullal police based on their investigation. But it is going to be a long, long battle. One only hopes they would be successful in their mission.

Those who wish to share any information that may help Claudia trace her biological mother may contact: 9880810329.