The story so far: To adopt a child, India’s almost 30,000 prospective parents wait for an average of three years. Data reveals that only about 10% of orphaned children — somewhere between 30,000 to 30 million — are adopted annually. Flagging this disparity, the Supreme Court earlier this month questioned the “great delay” plaguing India’s adoption systems. “Why are they (Central Adoption Resource Authority) stalling adoptions? Why CARA is not doing it. Hundreds of children are awaiting adoption in hope of a better life,” the Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud observed, in response to a petition that called India the ‘orphan capital of the world’.
CARA is the nodal body regulating the adoption of “orphaned, surrendered and abandoned children” in India. The body found mention during the same-sex marriage verdict when the CJI said CARA “exceeded its authority” in restricting queer and unmarried couples from adopting children. Two years ago, civil society organisations and legal bodies flagged that the COVID-19 pandemic left children vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking, and urged CARA to simplify its onerous adoption processes.
The Hindu looks at CARA’s roles, contentious amendments and the challenges confronting the regulatory body today.
When was CARA formed?
India set up CARA in 1990 under the Ministry of Women and Child Development to oversee child adoption procedures, in the best interest of the child, for Indians and non-resident Indians living abroad. These procedures include centralising registration for children and prospective parents, conducting home study reports, referring children, preparing orders and conducting post-adoption follow-ups.
To regulate inter-country adoptions, CARA became a signatory to the Hague Convention On Protection of Children and Co-operation of 1993. The international agreement facilitates adoption beyond borders to help find “a permanent family for a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her State of origin” and to “prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children.” India ratified the convention in 2003.
Adoption is governed by two laws in India — the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 (for Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists) and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. CARA comes into the picture for parents taking the JJ Act route.
CARA and the JJ Act
CARA’s powers have expanded with the evolution of juvenile justice laws in India.
Around 2011, when CARA operated under the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000, the adoption body’s failures were flagged to the Supreme Court; CARA had failed to maintain comprehensive records, monitor placement agencies, encourage timely adoption or provide training to stakeholders. Adoption agencies urged the court to review the regime, “with a particular reference to the CARA’s status and functioning and the procedural hindrances to an expeditious adoption procedure”.
The passage of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, intended to reform the adoption system and curb inter-country adoption rackets and malpractices. Among other things, the then-WCD minister Maneka Gandhi empowered CARA to streamline the process and infuse transparency and efficiency into the system. The revisions as mentioned in the 2015 “Guidelines Governing Adoption of Children” included setting up an e-governance system (CARINGS) to facilitate adoption, allowing prospective parents to track applications and setting out times for domestic and inter-country adoptions to “ensure early deinstitutionalization of such children.”
The streamlined process also meant that once CARA gave a no-objection certificate to childcare institutions and civil society organisations, they could directly give a child for adoption, minimising the possibility of trafficking and corruption. Between 2015 and 2019, in-country adoption increased from 3,011 to 3,374. In 2018, CARA allowed individuals in a live-in relationship to adopt children from and within India.
The next round of changes came when India amended the JJ Act in 2022. Among other revisions, the Act authorised local District Magistrates (DMs) to issue adoption orders “in order to ensure speedy disposal of cases and enhance accountability” — thus decentralising responsibilities. The DMs would also be charged with inspecting the functioning of local childcare institutions, child welfare committees, juvenile justice boards, etc.
What are CARA’s functions?
CARA monitors and regulates bodies such as the State Adoption Resource Agency (SARA), Specialised Adoption Agency (SAA), Authorised Foreign Adoption Agency (AFAA), Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) and District Child Protective Units (DPUs). A prospective parent’s interaction with the adoption system navigates these checkpoints:
- Parents register themselves on CARINGS.
- The SSA conducts a Home Study Report and uploads its findings on CARINGS. Unsuitable parents are rejected and informed of the reasons. Prospective parents are required to reserve from one to six children for adoption within a stipulated time.
- On CARINGS, the SAA completes the referral and adoption process. Parents can then take in the child for pre-adoption foster care.
- SAA is required to file a petition in the court.
- CARA conducts post-adoption follow-up for a period of two years.
CARA relies on the SAA, CWC, and DPUs, among other branches in the system, for a seamless adoption process. For a child, the SAA is the first point of government contact— the Agency admits an abandoned or orphaned child into a temporary home and feeds their details into the centralised system. “CWCs play the vital role of declaring a child legally free for adoption thereby releasing the child for adoption placement,” a 2011 paper on CWC’s functioning stated.
CARINGS provides a platform to around 469 specialised adoption agencies, 625 district child protection units and 34 state adoption resource agencies, as per the 2018-19 annual report.
What are CARA’s challenges?
CARA’s trials have remained unchanged for the last decade: children who should be legally registered elude CARA’s attention, further prolonging waiting periods for anticipating parents. The adoption figures have dropped from 6,321 in 2010 to 3,405 in 2021, despite the legal and procedural changes. Out of the lakhsof children in need of a home, only 2,430 were available for adoption last year, as per a Parliamentary Standing Committee on the “Review of Guardianship and Adoption Law”. The panel recommended district-level surveys to ensure that “orphan and abandoned children found begging on the streets… are made available for adoption at the earliest.”
Three challenges — bringing children into safety nets, declaring them legally free for adoption and ensuring they are actually adopted — are intertwined. Infrastructural deficiencies and a lack of awareness mark each step, activists note.
For one, channels like the SAA and CWC fail to identify children due to poor functioning and administrative hiccups. Districts are legally mandated to have licensed adoption agencies but fall short, Lt Col Deepak Kumar, CARA’s chief executive, told a media outlet this year, adding that childcare centres that act as temporary homes for abandoned children are often not licensed. A collective failing of the adoption programme leads to a “thriving practice of children being informally placed by hospitals/nursing homes/private health clinics directly with families, thus denying them any legal safeguards,” the 2011 paper noted.
The gaps interfere with the CWC’s ability to declare a child “legally available”: out of the 6,996 orphaned, abandoned and surrendered children residing in childcare institutions considered adoptable, CWC declared only 2,430 legally free last year. SAA is required to produce the child before a Child Welfare Committee within 24 hours and place them in a CCI; the committee can declare a child legally free for adoption if it is unable to locate biological parents or families and link them further to adoption agencies. A child can be registered on CARA only through a licensed agency, but children find themselves in a loop of transfers and delays due to missing localised adoption channels. A group of more than 300 people wrote to the government in 2021 to expand CARA’s adoption pool by integrating more CCIs in its systems.
Adoption also suffers due to confusing laws and complicated processes that play out in courts. The Supreme Court last year pointed out that CARA’s “tedious” process precludes people from adopting. Mr. Kumar mentioned that the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Law of 1956, which allows Hindus to adopt without involving agencies, remains popular, adding to concerns about trafficking and illegal adoptions.
Moreover, the latest JJ Act change which empowered DMs to pass adoption orders sowed confusion among activists and parents: most DMs were not aware of the revised changes, and the transfer of cases from courts to DMs would further extend timelines, they noted. In terms of inter-country adoptions, CARA’s ‘no objection certificates’ and high costs of conducting home surveys have added to prospective parents’ difficulties. The Delhi High Court on October 18 took a “grim view” of these requirements, noting that CARA cannot make “the issuance of NOCs…so onerous for persons who wish to adopt”.
Some say the procedural challenges are not the problem but a symptom of a “parent-centric system” that fails to safeguard a child’s well-being and address the finer points of care.CARA’s centralisation, in a bid to weed out delays, may foster a detachment that may dehumanise the process. “The human contact, bonding and psychological preparedness have been taken away. Therefore, parents may look at other ways to adopt a child,” Nilima Mehta, former Chairperson, Child Welfare Committee, Mumbai, told The Hindu last year. India is seeing a trend of children being returned after adoption is formalised. The parent-centric approach also reflects the bureaucratic red tape that bandages the whole system. A delay in a court adoption order once the child is in pre-adoption foster care, for instance, interferes with their ability to get a school admission or avail of health care.
CARA, arguably, should be governed by a “child-centric, optional, enabling and gender-just” special adoption law, Ms. Mehta pointed out. HAMA “provides son to the son-less for reasons of succession, inheritance, the continuance of the family name and for funeral rights” and the JJ Act “only has a small chapter on adoptions,” she noted. Both fail to achieve two objectives of a robust adoption regime: that children are not eternally institutionalised, and that the process protects the child rather than punishing them.
An excerpt from The Hindu’s editorial from August 2022 underscores the schism between CARA’s intended form and functions: “Wanting to do good must be matched by knowing the right thing to do in the circumstance, and in the case of children, be guided by child-centric policies.”
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