Bias and family pressure on adoption often sidelines special needs kids: Our journey

A father recounts his journey into the Indian adoption system and the young girl who forever changed his mind about what it means to be a child with special needs.
Bias and family pressure on adoption often sidelines special needs kids: Our journey
Bias and family pressure on adoption often sidelines special needs kids: Our journey
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By: Karthik Ranganathan

"Appa, I want 2 more sisters. One of them should be between me and Akka and one should be older than Akka," my 5 yr old younger daughter Tamia told me one day. "But won't that be difficult now?" I replied, but she was ready with a prompt response: "We can adopt them. Just like I was adopted"

Tamia is our heart baby and has been with us ever since she was 4.5 months old. Back then, CARA’s (Central Adoption Resource Authority) adoption process was significantly different from now, and several things fell in place rather fortuitously. Within just two months of registration with CARA, she was flying back home with us.

While agreeing to adopt was one of the prerequisites my then-girlfriend and now-wife Chetana had listed for getting married, after we had our first child 10 years ago, it seemed like there was neither time, nor love to spare for a second one, be it biological or adopted. But a chance question from a dear friend from overseas about our earlier plans to adopt was the spark needed to get ourselves registered with CARA. The whirlwind two months that followed had enough drama for a movie script. We heard plenty of stories — good, bad, some possibly even apocryphal — about adoption centers. There was strong support from members of various adoption support groups. Inevitably, there was also drama high on emotion from near and dear ones who could not fathom that we were even considering something like this. Crucially, unwavering support from some quarters helped push me through the wall of negativity, just when it threatened to overwhelm me completely.

The next few weeks or even months for that matter were a bit of a delightful blur, with my wife successfully being able to breastfeed Tamia. Then strangers, now among our best friends, reached out and congratulated us. Even family members told us we had done something they wanted to do, but could not due to family opposition. The period was not without its challenges, be it trying to avail adoption leave from my workplace, where nobody knew how the process even worked, or casteist relatives posing queries about whether any possible "criminal" antecedents of the adopted child would come back to haunt us. There were also tone-deaf neighbors who asked our toddler child to go and fetch her "aunty" while referring to my wife. These are stories I am sure every adoptive family has gone through in one way or the other.

Then there was Laila, the child we did not adopt. Technically, she was not available to us for adoption at that point of time, and we adopted the first child offered to us, Naira.

Naira (subsequently named Tamia, after the village she was likely born in), used to ask us every once in a while about Laila as we had told her stories about her adoption journey several times. She believed that Laila would have been her first friend, considering Laila was only a couple of months older. Tamia had pretty much forgotten the one time she met her again (after coming home with us) in December 2017 and was very eager to meet her again in December 2019, when we went back to the adoption centre. 

Tamia might have forgotten her friend, but I definitely could not.

Laila had a lovely smile when we saw her for the first time, as radiant and cheerful as six-month-olds tend to be, oblivious to the trauma she had undergone as a newborn baby. Laila was found in the middle of a forest, abandoned, with one eye, and sections of flesh between her neck and chest, eaten by wild ants. Those who rescued her estimated that she was probably a day old then. This miracle baby turned out to be quite the fighter and survived well beyond the trauma. When we saw her for the first time, we were informed by her caretakers that they had applied for government support for an eye-transplant, and that it was only a matter of months away.

Meanwhile, in the two days that we spent there, Naira quickly became one of us, even as we took her around the town with the adoption centre staff for a battery of medical tests. This is considered "normal" in the world of adoption, as several kids have non-existent medical records and PAPs (Prospective Adoptive Parents) end up asking for the child's medical history, ifat least to be better prepared as caregivers.

The entire exercise was as much to detect potentially life-threatening conditions as to detect any special needs the child might have. The two days that we spent together, running from lab to clinic, was enough to convince us, irrespective of what the medical tests would reveal. Long story short, we had fallen in love with her and no condition was going to change that. 

However, like 98% of adoptive parents in India, we had also specifically opted for only "non-special-needs" children when we filled out our preferences in our CARA application form. But what we realise now, but did not back then, was that had we rejected Naira quoting one of the medical test results, her name would have, in all probability, been added to the special needs list, effectively reducing her chances of adoption significantly.

Back to December 2019 and the trip back to the adoption centre: When we slid open the gate right next to the iron crib located outside where people could leave their babies if they couldn't care for them, the first child to come running towards uswas none other than Laila. Even as Tamia shyly held back after realising this was the girl about whom she had heard so many stories, Laila came bounding right to us and motioned for me to lift her up. 

Some of the caretakers were still around from 2014 and they were overjoyed to see Tamia again. Soon enough, we started exchanging stories. The happy stories of adoption were indeed many, as they rattled off names of children we remembered and whenthey had been adopted. Laila, though, with her impaired vision and developmental difficulties (we were told that her vocal chords were damaged), was a special needs child, and the only child still at the centre from the day we adopted Naira. Laila's case is not unique.

Out of a total 3374 domestic adoptions during the financial year 2018-19, only 40 special needs children were adopted by domestic parents, while 364 such children were adopted by international parents.

As far as I can remember, I have had a reasonably noticeable stammer. Many a time, you might see sudden twitches, hand-movements or a subtle shift of weight from one leg to another, but with the speech somewhat unhindered. At the worst of times though (thankfully, a rare occurrence) you could see all of the above in high definition, with words scarcely coming out at all. And trust me, those few seconds feel like a lifetime. With my sometimes-pronounced stammer, it is not difficult to imagine I could have been labeled a special needs child, had I ever been put up for adoption. The 2017 adoption regulations published by CARA confirm that children with severe cases of stammering come under the special needs category. While stammering is considered a fairly common condition in India, there appear to be no studies documenting the rate of prevalence in the country. In other parts of the world, studies have shown that this is a permanent problem for nearly 1% of those affected, while the prevalence rate does vary with age and gender.

And yet, having lived with it for nearly four decades, I did not even consider adopting a child with special needs. Here we were, a family with the financial means to provide adequate medical and physical support, and with even some of the perspective that comes from not being able to do things taken for granted by most people. Why then was this never even an option? Was it the lack of facilities to make this work (unlike countries in the West for example) societally? Or was it something more intrinsic, an instinctive desire to "other" certain people, even if they were in some ways similar to me?

It took a hard-hitting, yet beautiful documentary named "(Un)conditional Love" by Meha Dedhia, featuring couples who had adopted special needs children, to open my eyes to my glaring blindspot. The documentary screening turned out to be a blessing in more ways than one, as it put me in touch with Sarmishta Venkatesh, a childhood friend and relative of mine I had lost touch with over the years, and who happened to be one of the parents featured in the video. Visiting them at their place and seeing their 9-year-old son Abhi, born with the condition spina bifida, where the spinal cord is malformed, zooming around the house in his special board with wheels, showing us around and playing with our children, were truly moments to treasure and has opened up new avenues for all of us to grow as a family.

Much like how there is a need to normalise adoption, by being completely truthful and vocal about it (our daughter knows all about her story, and so does everybody who knows us as a family), there is an even more pressing need to normalise the adoption of children with special needs. The Lailas of the world would be better off for it.

Karthik Ranganathan works in a semiconductor company in Bangalore. He is also the co-founder of the YouTube channel 'Retro Ticket' which reviews old Tamil films.

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