CUSTODY BATTLE

Between Periamma and a Home in Italy

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Two orphaned boys found a home in Italy when their children’s home in Bangalore put them up for adoption. Soon after, the boys’ maternal aunt and her husband lodged a case, protesting they had not been consulted
The Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of Mysore meets twice a week on the first floor of a government-run girls’ home in the city. On 23 November, as they dealt with cases and complaints, two brothers sat on a bench waiting for their turn to be heard. Holding on to their little bags, they sat quietly. When their names were called, the eight-year-old older boy started crying, while the six-year-old clung to his brother’s sweater tightly. The boys were asked to settle down and stop crying. The next time they were called, 15 minutes later, the two stood up and hesitantly walked into an adjacent room quietly. They were surrounded by adults—CWC officials, social workers from their orphanage and an uncle and aunt—all saying they knew what’s best for them. As the adults argued, the two boys watched, nervous and teary-eyed.

For the past few months, the brothers have been at the centre of an adoption row that has put a question mark on their future. Cleared for adoption in 2012, the boys were due to be adopted by an Italian couple within a few months. But the boys’ maternal uncle and aunt approached the CWC in Mysore opposing the adoption; the adoption case is being heard in a Bangalore district court.

The ongoing battle to find the ‘ideal home’ for the brothers has put the entire adoption process under the scanner, and the two young boys who ‘like painting, eating pizza and reading’ in the spotlight.

The search for a home for the boys began in 2008, when the boys’ mother Chamundi was sexually assaulted and murdered by upper-caste men near her village on the outskirts of Mysore. A couple of days later, consumed by grief, her husband committed suicide, leaving the siblings orphaned. The boys were three and one-and-a-half years old at the time.

Chamundi’s distraught sisters took the boys to the Deputy Commissioner and asked him to take care of them. In an August 2008 report, the Deputy Commissioner named the Social Welfare Department the caretaker of the orphaned boys, stating that the immediate family was not in any financial position to give them a good home and education. The report added that the Department should ‘rehabilitate them and put them in a bal mandir or ashram (government-run or affiliated children’s home)’.

“We didn’t know what else to do,” says a distraught Neelamma, Chamundi’s eldest sister, clutching a photo album full of family pictures. “Our financial position was not good and we didn’t want the boys to grow up listening to stories about how their parents died. We felt we were doing the best for them, that they would get a much better life than what we could have given them.”

In accordance with their wishes, the siblings were sent to Bapuji Children’s Home in Mysore, which was declared a ‘fit institution’ by the Karnataka government in 1977.

“We were happy that they were there,” says Neelamma. “The rest of the family was not very involved, but my husband and I visited them off and on. We were always told to observe them from a distance. We didn’t mind because we knew they were being taken care of.” Neelamma’s other sister, who had initially taken the boys to the Deputy Commissioner with her, has since not been involved in the lives of the boys.

The boys spent two years at the Home after which the management thought about finding a ‘family’ for them. Reluctant to speak on the issue, they say that “everything was done in good faith”.

“The process was initiated only after the guardians failed to visit the boys for over a year,” says a Home official. “And we made sure we had cross-checked everything legally before approaching the CWC with a request for clearing the children for adoption. We have been doing this for years. We know the issues involved—and the law.”

The management of the Home adds that they had discussed the possibility of adoption with the guardians. “We talked to them about it in 2009, but they said ‘no’ and we didn’t go ahead,” a member clarifies. “It is only after they stopped visiting that we explored the possibility again.”

“We couldn’t go and visit for a while because my wife was sick,” says Nataraj, Neelamma’s husband, a group D employee with the Alanahally Gram Panchayat in Mysore. “That doesn’t mean we don’t care. We just couldn’t manage to go and visit them, and while we were struggling with sickness and financial issues, they transferred the boys to Bangalore and arranged to give them away.”

The adoption process was initiated in 2010. It started with an advertisement in the Kannada newspaper Prajavani on 20 June 2010. As per guidelines of the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), the newspaper notification was followed by a radio announcement to trace the ‘parents or biological family’. Reports filed with the CWC by Bapuji Children’s Home indicate that there was no response to either. The family tree submitted for the records mentions only the paternal side of the boys’ family. It mentions one paternal uncle who is still alive, and says that he has not come forth and made any claims till date.

“But why didn’t they just call us?” asks Nataraj. “They had our contact details. They should have told us. After all, the boys are our nephews.”

The inquiry report and a report by the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights set the grounds for the brothers to be cleared for adoption. In the inquiry report for each of the boys, submitted to the CWC in 2011, the probation officer states: ‘In spite of all efforts nobody has come to claim the male child…’

The state Commission report says: ‘So the priority of Bapuji Children’s Home shall be to find suitable adoptive parents in the present case since the children are orphans.’ The report further suggests that the aunts be given a chance to reconsider their decision on the custody of the children, and an opportunity to bring up the children. It also suggests counseling, explaining to the aunts the ‘importance of the children’s right to a family’ and the option of visiting rights.

“Everything has been done,” explains NT Venkatesh, chairman of the CWC Mysore. “Even today, the guardians are not willing to take the boys home and bring them up. They want the state to take care of them and put them in a boys’ hostel in Mysore. They are opposing adoption, but are not willing to take the children home either. It is in the best interest of children to grow up in a family and our mandate is the best interests of the child.”

“We are family,” argues Neelamma. “I named both the boys when they were born. It is just circumstances. We are basically scavengers and we don’t want the boys to grow up to be the same. But we definitely don’t want them to be given up for adoption because we know that over a period of time, we will cease to exist for them. The new family will become their family. That is not okay.”

CWC members, however, point out that as per CARA guidelines, it is okay. The guidelines state that ‘in case of surrendered children, if the reclaim period of 60 days is over, the particular agency shall approach the Child Welfare Committee for declaring the child legally free for adoption’. Accordingly, in September 2012, the boys were declared legally free for adoption by the CWC, with instructions to ensure that they are not separated and must be adopted together.

Finding no takers for the children in India, Bapuji Children’s Home then sought to transfer them to the Vathsalya Charitable Trust in Bangalore, the only organisation in the city that does inter-country adoptions. “We found prospective adoptive parents for them almost immediately,” says Mary Paul, executive director of the Vathsalya Trust. “We have worked with this Italian agency for years and placed a number of children in Italian homes. Everything was done and the prospective parents had even sent photographs of their home to the boys.”

While the boys were sent to a foster home to accustom them to the idea of living with a family before the Italian adoption came through, Neelamma and Nataraj visited Bapuji Children’s Home sometime in June. “They told us the boys had been sent to Bangalore and it made us very nervous. We came to the CWC to check, and they told us that the boys were being adopted. The thought scared us.”

The couple approached a Bangalore district court, where the case is now underway. “The judge has asked them to bring proof of their relationship to the boys by 20 December, the next date of hearing,” says advocate N Balaji, who is representing the couple. “We want them to be made a party in the ongoing case and the court to hear their side of the story.”

Paul says that the family’s entire argument is flawed, since the boys, too, are keen on adoption. CARA guidelines also state that ‘no child of the age of seven years or above, who can understand and express his or her opinion, shall be declared legally free for adoption without his or her consent’. In this case, the older boy has informed the CWC that they are keen on being adopted.

“But they are just children,” pleads Neelamma, very upset that the boys refuse to acknowledge her presence. “I understand that they have been cared for by someone else, but I am still their periamma (aunt) and I want them to call me that. We want them to come home for festivals and spend time with us. Family ties cannot be broken so easily.”

Meanwhile, in Italy, a couple in the process of getting their home ready for the boys is now unsure of whether the adoption will go through. Waiting to adopt since October 2008, the couple were finally matched with the boys on 13 December 2012.

“The prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) in Italy accepted these children as their sons, presented a dossier of papers, and renewed this dossier twice according to rules of the Indian court,” says Gabriella Demicheli, who is in charge of adoptions in north Italy for the organisation AIPA (Italian Association Pro Adoptions). “Also, the psychologist approached the children at the Vathsalya Charitable Trust and they expressed their willingness to become sons of these PAPs.”

In an emailed response, Demicheli also states that the couple agreed to adopt the two boys because ‘all the papers were regular and showed their abandoned situation,’ adding that the Italian couple is ‘shocked to know that these children could suffer again because of the attitude of these two persons’.

For the moment, after much deliberation, the CWC has decided that the boys shall continue to stay at the Vathsalya Charitable Trust. ‘They are in the middle of their academic year, and have clearly told us that they don’t want their education to be disrupted. Till this matter is sorted out in court, the boys will be in Bangalore.’

This decision comes in spite of protests by the aunt and uncle, apart from the Ambedkar Adi Dravida Sangha. They have already staged one protest in Mysore and have threatened more if the boys are not sent back to Mysore. “This was done without our knowledge, and that is wrong,” says Nataraj. “We want the boys in Mysore, and we will fight for it.”

Demicheli says that the Italian couple doesn’t ‘accept the claims of the adults (the uncle and aunt) and will ask for a meeting with Indian authorities to clarify if the best interest of these children is to stay with persons that for so long did not claim them and now want them back for the aim of exploitation’.

The boys have withdrawn. For them, the future has just got more uncertain. And the wait for a normal home, longer.

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