I knew little about adoption in India until I read A long Way Home, a memoir by Saroo Brierley, the thirty something Indian Australian man whose adoption as a five-year-old boy from India to Australia and subsequent efforts to find his biological mother inspired the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Lion. Ultimately Brierley’s memoir is a love-letter to his adoptive parents who raised him in Tasmania, Australia.
For Indian expat, Omana Menon, this type of public declaration of love from children to their adoptive parents is what keeps her motivated. Menon has spent the last 32 years facilitating the adoption of Indian children to Indian couples living outside of their native country. Now in her late seventies, the mother of two and grandmother of four is as passionate as the day she started. She considers her role of ‘facilitator and counsellor’, a calling rather than a job. It is most fulfilling when she witnesses an adopted child grow into a happy young adult.
She recalls, “I was invited to the wedding of a young man who is now 29 and was adopted as a baby by a couple I helped. To hear him stand up on stage and tell his parents that he loved them and wouldn’t be the person he is today without them, filled my heart with joy and put a big smile on my face. This is the only reward I need.”
Adding, “For a child to be loved and grow up in a family who love them is the most important thing, regardless of however that family comes together.”
Menon who lives in Dubai is the only licensed official by India’s Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) to help couples in the Arabian Gulf countries adopt Indian children. While she points out that she isn’t an adoption agent, she is the only person who can facilitate the adoption of Indian children in the GCC region.
Menon runs a tight ship and keeps things lean. With operational costs at the bare minimum, she passes on these savings to those that seek her assistance. She explained, “I have everything I need. I don’t take a salary or make any money from this and I refuse to rent out an office space because that would force me to increase the fee that parents have to pay just to cover these costs.”
Menon does have a small staff to help her review and submit paperwork as she candidly admits, she’s “not so good at that part”.
Currently, couples in the GCC who wish to adopt from India pay around USD 1,000, which covers the administration costs for the adoption process— a cost significantly lower than in other countries. On occasion, she has taken the magnanimous decision to personally cover these costs for couples who could not afford it.
“Raising a child is expensive so it’s important that couples can afford to care for a child and they have to provide a salary certificate as part of the documents they must submit to prove they can afford to raise this child.” However, if this fee is all that stands in the way of them adopting, then she will work with them to overcome that hurdle.
“I tend to deal with mainly middle class families, I know there are always financial pressures and I don’t want to add to that,” she explained.
As part of her role, Menon meets with every prospective adoptive couple. She is the only person authorised to carry out a home study one of the requirements for adoption set out by CARA. Menon says she works exclusively with Indian couples as it is preferred that Indian children are placed with Indian parents- at least one parent must have an Indian passport to be considered eligible for adoption.
This change came about as part of an overhaul of the adoption rules in India in 2015. While the new rules have resulted in longer waiting periods—currently there are 190 couples waiting in the GCC for a child with average waiting times of two and a half years for the adoption process to be finalised— Menon believes the process is now more streamlined and there are more safeguards in place to protect the child.
“Previously, parents were free to approach children’s care homes in India directly to look for a child. Under the new rules, they cannot do this,’ she says. “Everything must go through CARA and they only work with homes that are registered with them to match parents with children based on certain criteria.”
After thirty-two years of helping thousands of couples adopt, it’s safe to say that Menon can size up parents’ suitability for adoption pretty quickly in her first meeting with them.
“I have certain rules that if a couple don’t meet on our first visit then I won’t consider them again,” she said. This includes, refusing to work with couples who are still undergoing fertility treatments and couples whose families may not be fully on-board with the idea of adoption.
“It’s so important that the entire family approves of adoption,” she said. This is especially important in Indian families as the whole family plays a role in raising a child, according to Menon. “If there is a grandparent who does not approve from the beginning then it will never work, the child will feel they are not accepted or loved by them and it will never be a happy home so everyone must be on board from the start of the process,” she says.
One of the most common misconceptions about adoption in India is that there is an abundance of children waiting to be adopted. While there is some truth in this, since the new rules came into effective in 2015, Menon says there is actually a shortage of children compared to the numbers of couples who are looking to adopt a child.
“As we only work with homes that are approved and registered with CARA, there is an availability problem now,” she said, which contributes to the longer waiting times.
Another misconception about adoption in India is gender bias: an assumption that Indian families prefer to adopt boys. In Menon’s experience it’s the opposite. She says almost 80 per cent of the couples she has dealt with ask for girls. The reason? “They see girls as being less problematic than boys,” she says. “They do better in school and study more, while boys tend to cause more trouble by getting in fights.”
One of the most important messages that Menon emphasises to all couples in her very first meeting with them is that once a child becomes part of the family there is no turning back, regardless of whatever problems they may encounter along the way. Once a child is placed with a couple and the formal process of adoption is done, they cannot refuse to care for that child should the child become “difficult”. Thankfully she says in all her years of facilitating adoptions this has never happened. Menon keeps in touch with families for three years after the child is placed them. After that point she says, the family must cope on their own.