Family Secrets

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Cross-border adoption: the trauma of knowing one was given away at birth and the travails of trying to find out why

BY Mihir Srivastava EMAIL AUTHOR(S)

THE QUEST Arun Dohle, in his foster father’s lap

THE QUEST Arun Dohle, in his foster father’s lap

On the evening of 29 July 2012, Carina Roodenburg, a kindergarten teacher from Utrecht, the Netherlands, wrote this brief note describing what had transpired earlier in the day:

‘Carina, come here,’ a voice unknown two days ago, but sounds familiar already, is calling me. It is my uncle. I stand up. Finally. I’m already waiting for two hours and it surprises me that the tension didn’t drive me crazy yet. I am aware of every footstep I take. How many will it be? Fifteen? Twenty?

This is the moment I have [been] longing for. Maybe already thirty years. That many years ago they flew me out of this colorful country into the Netherlands. Between all those tall white people which some of them I could call family and a lot of them even friends, I kept thinking of her. My mind could not remember her smell, her skin, her voice. But my heart did. It started to hurt. More and more. The missing. The not knowing. Tears were piling up and there was only one way to go. Back! And that is where I am now. Still three footsteps to go. Then I will be there. Back to whom it all began. Where I began. One step. I look up. Our eyes met. Now I know. Forever. There she is. My mother.

Carina had been adopted in 1982 by a Dutch couple, Adriana and Pieter Roodenburg. Her life with her adoptive family has had all the usual intimacies of belonging. Recently, her ailing 95-year-old grandmother called Carina and her brother—two years younger and also adopted—and said that to her they were no different from her biological grandchildren. “It was a vindication of the fact that my family, my life, is here in Holland,” says Carina. But, growing up, she was also aware of being different. ‘It’s hard to put in words what being adopted does to a person,’ she writes in an email to Open, ‘You’re getting out of your natural system and culture. Then, they put you between people who don’t look like you at all. Everywhere you see White people. At school, I was always the only dark girl. Not to forget that in Holland, most people are tall so I was always the shortest. You see your friends looking like their parents and brothers or sisters. I could not refer to anything. It makes you feel very lonely and sometimes you think you are crazy because you feel so different.’

As a child, India was entirely unfamiliar to her. Later, India was just a unit of information, a place of her birth, and it wasn’t until she was past her teens that she developed a strong urge to contact her biological mother. “When I used to see daughters shopping with their mothers, I would imagine doing the same,” she says on Skype, “The image of my mother was blurry in my mind.” She would think of her mother on her birthdays. “That’s my day. I would wonder if my mother misses me [on my birthday].” Some of Carina’s thoughts were far from pleasant. ‘I have had a lot of psychiatric expenses because of all the problems I suffer of being abandoned (identity crisis, lack of confidence, bonding problems etc),’ she writes.

Three years ago, Carina began searching for her biological mother. All she knew was that she had been adopted from Pune in 1982 after her unwed mother surrendered her as a one-month-old to an orphanage.

‘I had to see where I came from, hear what the story was, and see if I looked like them,’ writes Carina, ‘But it was easier said than done. My institution, where I was born, didn’t want to give me my files. So there you’re standing. In the country where you were born, where everybody looks like you, but you can’t talk with them because you don’t speak their language and they don’t want to help you. You feel empty handed and lost. So then I decided to get the help of a social worker who lives in Pune. I couldn’t do this alone. She speaks the language and knows the culture. So she [helped me], and now after 31 years I am going to meet the woman who gave birth to me.’

The reunion described in her note took place on 29 July. Her mother belongs to a small village on the Pune-Satara road. Seeing each other, they both froze. Emotions found vent only later. ‘This is the woman I have been thinking of all my life,’ was Carina’s first reaction, while her mother kept mumbling ‘It wasn’t my fault’ in Marathi. Her mother, it turned out, was a widow with two other daughters, and was suffering throat cancer. Carina offered to pay for the treatment, but her mother’s family declined.

Back in the Netherlands now, Carina is trying hard to deal with her feelings. “I will always feel a major part of me is missing: a family in India,” she says, “I cannot do anything about it. I will have to live with it.” For her, abandonment as a child is “one of the most traumatic experiences a person can face”. And she is clear about one thing: “Every child/person does have the right to know who his/her parents are.”

Carina’s is not an isolated case. As we spoke to Indian borns who were adopted in the 70s and 80s by White couples abroad, we found a pattern to their stories: they grew up in an environment where their physical attributes were a constant reminder of their difference.

Some did well, but many of them had difficult—even traumatic—childhoods. They were haunted by one big question: why had they been given up? Some even wondered if they had been kidnapped.

The question gnawed away at them, drawing many to India for what would be the most arduous quest of their lives—the mothers who bore them. In some cases, it meant crossing hurdle after hurdle put up by adoption agencies, orphanages, powerful families and governments. Information, they found, was a nightmare to obtain. If they got hold of documents, they found their birth records fudged. They had to take recourse to the courts to force agencies to reveal information.

Most of those who succeeded found their biological parents leading lives of poverty.

Others still struggle. No one gave up.

THE SEAMY SIDE

German national Arun Dohle met his biological mother after a 17-year search, involving prolonged litigation, in 2010. It was a reunion both emotional and composed. No words were exchanged; Dohle couldn’t speak Marathi. He had been adopted as a two-month-old by a German couple, Michael and Gertrude Dohle, in 1973. His single mother had given him up for adoption to Pune’s Kusumbai Motichand Mahila Seva Gram.

Dohle took his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, just to force authorities to reveal information that would lead him to his biological mother. According to him, his adoptive parents were friends of NCP leader Sharad Pawar’s brother Pratap, the one who’d facilitated the adoption. Had it not been for “the power of the family”, he says, he’d have found his biological mother sooner. On being contacted by Open for his response, Pratap Pawar refused to speak.

Having won his battle, Dohle now wants to focus on the rights of all adopted children. His battle has left him with deep disdain for the procedure of foreign adoptions in India. He terms the paperwork “complete crap” and “nothing but a bunch of lies”. “I am not against adoption,” he clarifies, “I am against the trade in children in the name of adoption.”

To expose one of the world’s ugliest forms of “commerce” and campaign for the proper implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Dohle has started an NGO called Against Child Trafficking (ACT) in alliance with Roelie Post, a bureaucrat of the European Commission. ACT has declared an open war against aggressive foreign adoption agencies that are in the alleged business of “legalised child trafficking”. So far, Dohle and Post have investigated over a hundred adoption cases and exposed horrors like the abduction of children, irregularities like false documentation, and cash trails that wind their way not just from India but also countries like Malawi, Ethiopia, China and Peru to places with ‘demand’ for children.

Dohle also helps Indian-born adopted adults trace their genetic forebears with the help of Anjali Pawar, who heads a Pune-based child rights NGO called Sakhee. She is the ‘social worker’ who came to Carina’s aid. For Dohle, she carried out an extensive investigation using whatever little details were available. She has lost count of the reunions she has facilitated over the six years she has been working as a child rights activist.

What is clear is that Pawar, Dohle and Post are a bother to the establishment. In its recently issued guidelines, India’s Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), a nodal government body that oversees in-country and inter-country adoptions of Indian children, has banned third-party searches. Pawar and Dohle, already starved of funds for their work, expect the going to get tougher still. But Pawar is defiant. “They can’t stop me,” she says, “It’s my constitutional duty to expose and fight against wrongly carried out inter-country adoptions.”

“Adoption has little to do with child protection,” says Dohle in a Skype conversation from his home in Aachen, Germany, “Child protection is the responsibility of the State. A real help would be to support poor parents at the local level. It will prevent the forced relinquishment of children, as poverty is the single largest cause of parents deserting children.” Inter-country adoption, to his mind, ought to be “the last resort for children in need”.

THE US MONEY TRAIL

Somalia and the US are the world’s only two countries that have not notified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which makes it incumbent upon the State to take care of a child ‘deprived of his or her family environment’, ‘ensure alternative care for such a child’, and ensure that ‘due regard [is] paid to the desirability of continuity in a child’s upbringing and to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background’.

The case of Jennifer Haynes illustrates the consequences of America’s refusal to accept those terms. She was eight years old when she was adopted by Edward and Melissa Hancox, a US couple, in November 1989. She had only stayed with them a few months when they told her they would not be able to take care of her anymore. Jennifer was adopted by another family, but she did not get to stay long with them either. Her childhood was an unbroken chain of being shunted from one house to another. In all, she moved around 50 homes, mostly in Michigan. The reason was shockingly simple. The US provides financial aid to some families based on the number of children in the household, and she was reduced to a mailbox for the cheques, an income supplement for her foster families.

It got worse. As a child, Jennifer was often molested—by inmates of orphanages where she spent time awaiting adoption, a few foster brothers, and even one foster father. “I didn’t think it was wrong.” It was only after she started attending school, at the age of ten, that she realised what was happening. “There was no love,” she says, “I craved the love and affection of a family.”

Jennifer’s adulthood has been no less traumatic. In 2002, at the age of 21, she married an African-American businessman called Justin and had a couple of children, a girl Kadafi in 2004 and a boy Kanassa a year later. But the couple ran into trouble with the law. Justin was imprisoned in 2002 for illegal possession of drugs; out on probation, he found himself back in the slammer on the same charges in 2004. Around this time, Jennifer was booked for a drug felony too, and an immigration inquiry was initiated against her. All she had were a few adoption documents, as her citizenship formalities had been left incomplete by her adoptive families. Technically, she was not a US citizen and thus a fit case for deportation. She fought a long legal battle to stay in the US, but lost. On 2 July 2008, she was asked to pack up. She took a flight to Mumbai without money, without documents, and without even a chance to speak to her children.

After 20 years in America, first as an adopted child and then a wife and mother of two, Jennifer was summarily expelled to the country of her birth. She had nowhere to go in Mumbai, and sought refuge initially at the YWCA in Colaba. Without documents, she couldn’t find a job, and had to seek judicial help to access her Baptism papers.

In 2010, these papers led her to her biological family in Ambarnath, a distant suburb of Mumbai. Her mother was long dead. Her father died two months after she met him. Her brother lives with his wife and son in abject poverty. She gifted him a mobile phone to stay in touch, but he lost it. In retrospect, she doesn’t regret being put up for adoption. It was an emotional reunion, but she still doesn’t feel at home. “I don’t belong here,” she says.

Jennifer’s sole goal in life is to get back to her son and daughter, who live in Chicago with their paternal grandparents. A call centre job sustains both her life and legal battle to reunite with her children. She has sued Americans for International Aid and Adoption (AIAA), the agency that processed her adoption—apart from that of 5,088 other children born in Asia, South America and East Europe. She holds it responsible for her plight.

In the agency’s defence, Nancy Fox, executive director, AIAA, wrote to CARA on 23 March 2009 discussing Jennifer’s case: ‘The first [adoptive] family wanted to disrupt the adoption because of Jennifer’s difficult behavior [at] home and in school.’ Fox claims that the agency took custody of her and found her a new home. ‘We were totally unaware of her deportation,’ wrote Fox, ‘It has been 17 years since the finalization of her second adoption in 1992 and Jennifer has never contacted us previously.’ In an affidavit filed at the Bombay High Court dated 11 March 2010, Fox denies what she calls ‘unsubstantiated statements, allegations and contentions’ made by Jennifer, and asks for her petition’s dismissal saying it was unfortunate that neither her foster families nor she on turning 18 applied for US citizenship. The High Court dismissed the case and it is now pending at the Supreme Court.

It seems unclear if Jennifer will be able to bear another emotional upheaval. “My parents abandoned me,” she says, “I am forced to abandon my children.” It has been six years since she last saw them. She has tried everything within her means, even written to US President Barack Obama: ‘Can you please help me? … I am an American without a country; a lost child who was sent away from my home, my family and my children.’ No help came her way. “If I am a fit case for deportation from America to India,” she says, “so is Obama to Africa.”

Hers is not the only such tragedy. Kairi Abha Shepherd, 30, another AIAA adoption, is also on the verge of being deported to India. She was adopted in 1982 by a single woman, a US citizen from Utah, when she was three months old, one of a dozen children her foster mother adopted from all over the world. Kairi’s mother died before she could get citizenship, and she was booked as an adult for forging cheques to support an alleged drug habit. She served her sentence, but is now at risk of being thrown out of the US. Kairi’s life, says her lawyer Alan Smith, “just fell between the cracks”.

THE GENUINE CASES

Neil Ghosh lives in New York City and works in finance.  He was adopted at birth by a Bengali American couple in 1983. ‘They have been and continue to be the only parents I know,’ he writes in an email, ‘They’ve given me a privileged life that has afforded me many luxuries, such as an Ivy League education and world travel—a life that a poor child in Kolkata might only see in his dreams.’ He holds a Bachelor’s degree in South Asian history from University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s degree in Bengali Modern painting from Columbia University.

Neil was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and grew up spending a month every summer with his maternal grandparents in Kolkata. ‘But I made a different kind of journey in 2006—one to discover my roots. As a child, I struggled to understand why my birth parents had given me up. By the time I was a teenager, I understood that life was more nuanced.’

His genes, he realised, would cast a lifelong shadow on him. ‘Still, adoption has left me with more practical questions, such as whether I’m predisposed to heart disease or diabetes. And, with the availability of relatively affordable genetic mapping, I am no longer frustrated that I couldn’t learn more about my biological parents’ health.’ He got some information on his biological family from the Kolkata obstetrician—a friend of his mother—who delivered him. It was all he needed to know. ‘I learned that my birth mother was widowed during the pregnancy and had other children to feed. While I couldn’t learn about my family’s medical history, I learned that her love and influence is with me every day. I occasionally wonder whether my birth mother is still alive or where my older biological siblings might be. While I probably will never meet her, I feel blessed to have been born to a woman who put her children’s well-being above her own emotions and desires.’

AN UNENDING BATTLE

For some, there has been no resolution. The search, in many cases, goes on. Take the case of Rebecka Saudamini Arnes, a 34-year-old psychiatric nurse from Hoor, Sweden. Adopted by a Swedish couple 33 years ago, she has been in search of her biological parents for the past five years.

She was just two days old when she was given away to Shraddhanand Mahilasharam by her mother. She has filed a joint petition with her adoptive mother Eva Lindgren, 60, against this women’s home for denying her what she sees as her “legitimate and constitutional right to know about my origin and roots in India”.

Rebecka’s adoption was facilitated by Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and later Tushar Gandhi, the great man’s great grandson, through a Mumbai-based trust called the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation.

Last month, the Bombay High Court rejected her petition, asking her to start afresh at the lower court level. But the legal rigmarole and travel back and forth from Sweden are proving costly. She does not want to talk about her case because it is sub judice. Her court documents, a culmination of years of digging done with Anjali Pawar’s help, offers a few crucial leads. Her birth certificate, she alleges in her petition, has been manipulated to hide her mother’s identity. The X-ray image shows a smudged mother’s name: ‘Zarina’. She was delivered by Dr KT Shah of Parle hospital, Mumbai.

Rebecka’s boyfriend, Johan Berggren, who was helping her in the search, had contacted Dr Shah—who directed him to Tushar Gandhi. ‘He has all the relevant details and is in a better position to guide you,’ Dr Shah wrote in a mail to Berggren on 14 July 2009. Meanwhile, Rebecka got in touch with Rucha Samant, daughter of the nurse Pushpa who took care of her for three months before her adoption. It was Pushpa who named her Saudamini, claims Samant in an e-mail: ‘You were the most beautiful child. She cried when you left.’ But the identity of her mother could not be determined.

Rebecka’s only hope was now the Gandhi family. So she kept writing to them. To her dismay, they wouldn’t part with much information. Arun Gandhi wrote back on 13 July 2009: ‘The father and mother have a right to privacy. So, no one, even if they know it, will give the information unless the mother or father waives the right.’ He adds, ‘You must remember: you are assuming that your mother lives in poverty and destitution. That is not so. Anyone who could go to a private nursing home for delivery has to be upper middle class.’

The Gandhis tried to persuade her to give up her quest. ‘You seem to think that I have nothing else to do except help you. First of all, you forget that I stopped doing adoption work almost 25 years ago; second, you were one of a hundred odd babies we rescued and gave in adoption; third, we did not keep records of all of you because we don’t need them; fourth, Sunanda was handing all this and she died.’ Arun Gandhi sent this email with an address tag ‘160, Wintergreen Way, Rochester, NY, 14618’.

Rebecka’s persistence was too much for the Gandhis’ patience, as the increasingly dismissive tone of their mails makes clear. Wrote Tushar Gandhi: ‘I told you that if you trouble Dr Shah of Parle hospital again… I am going to write to the Indian embassy in Stockholm requesting never to give you a visa to come to India, and believe me they will listen to me.’ And: ‘If anybody from Sweden ever visits Parle Hospital and questions the doctor there, I will have them arrested for the charges of harassment and intimidation.’

Why would a 34-year-old adopted girl worry the Gandhis so much?

Tushar Gandhi’s correspondence does not end here. In another email the next day, 29 January 2010, he wrote: ‘[Your biological mother] never imagined that 30 years later the curse she had thought she was rid of was going to come back to dishonour her. But then you are her curse but not her offspring… You have been a curse on her fate since the day you took root in her womb and like a terminal cancer you will be satisfied only when you kill her.’

If Tushar Gandhi regrets his words, he has a strange way of expressing it. “[The emails] may have been insensitive on my part but I was at my wits’ end. She would just not listen to logic. I had tried to explain to her rationally but she remained persistent. How can one produce a woman after 30 years?” he told a newspaper.

Rebecka Saudamini Arnes has not given up her search. It is her right to know who she was born to, not Tushar Gandhi’s to deny her that information, however great his biological forefather’s soul may be.

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