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After hours hunched behind the wheel of a rented Kia, flying past cornfields and small-town churches, I'm parked on a Midwestern street, trying not to look conspicuous. Across the way, a preteen boy dressed in silver athletic shorts and a football T-shirt plays with a stick in his front yard. My heart thumps painfully. I wonder if I'm ready to change his life forever.
I've been preparing for this moment for months in the South Indian metropolis of Chennai, talking to khaki-clad officers in dusty police stations and combing through endless stacks of court documents. The amassed evidence tells a heartrending tale of children kidnapped from Indian slums, sold to orphanages, and funneled into the global adoption stream. I've zeroed in on one case in particular, in which police insist they've tracked a specific stolen child in India to a specific address in the United States. Two days ago, the boy's parents asked me to deliver a message to the American family via their lawyer, seeking friendship and communication. But after traveling across 10 time zones to get here, I'm at a loss for how to proceed.
The dog-eared beige folder on the passenger seat contains the evidence—a packet of photos, police reports, hair samples, and legal documents detailing a case that has languished in the Indian courts for a decade. There's a good chance that nobody in this suburban household has a clue. I wait until the boy ambles around to the back of the house, then jog over and ring the bell.
An adolescent Indian girl with a curious smile answers the door. "Is your mother home?" I stammer. Moments later, a blond woman comes to the door in jeans and a sweatshirt. She eyes me suspiciously.
On February 18, 1999, the day Sivagama last saw her son Subash, he was still small enough to balance on her hip. Sivagama—who, like many in the state of Tamil Nadu, has no last name—lives in Chennai's Pulianthope slum, a place about as distant from the American Midwest culturally as it is in miles. Children play cricket in bustling streets swathed in the unbearable humidity that drifts in from the nearby Indian Ocean. Despite the hubbub, it's considered a safe area. Unattended kids are seldom far from a neighbor's watchful eye.
So when Sivagama left Subash by the neighborhood pump a few dozen feet from their home, she figured someone would be watching him. And someone was. During her five-minute absence, Indian police say, a man likely dragged the toddler into a three-wheeled auto rickshaw. The next day, Subash was brought to an orphanage on the city's outskirts that paid cash for healthy children.
It was every parent's worst nightmare. Sivagama and her husband, Nageshwar Rao, a construction painter, spent the next five years scouring southern India for Subash. They employed friends and family as private detectives and followed up on rumors and false reports from as far north as Hyderabad, some 325 miles away. To finance the search, Nageshwar Rao sold two small huts he'd inherited from his parents and moved the family into a one-room concrete house with a thatched roof in the shadow of a mosque. The couple also pulled their daughter out of school to save money; the ordeal plunged the family from the cusp of lower-middle-class mobility into solid poverty. And none of it brought them any closer to Subash.
In 2005, though, there was a lucky break. A cop in Chennai heard reports of two men arguing loudly about kidnapping in a crowded bar. Under questioning, police say, the men and two female accomplices admitted they'd been snatching kids on behalf of an orphanage, Malaysian Social Services (mss), which exported the children to unwitting families abroad. The kidnappers were paid 10,000 rupees, about $236, per child.
According to a police document filed in court, the orphanage's former gardener, G.P. Manoharan, specifically confessed to grabbing Subash; records seized from mss show that it admitted a boy about the same age the next day—the same day Nageshwar Rao filed his missing-person report. He was adopted about two years later. The surrender deed, which I reviewed along with similar documents for other kids, is a fraud, police say: The conspirators changed the child's name to Ashraf and concocted a false history, including a statement from a fictitious birth mother.
From 1991 through 2003, note documents filed by Chennai police, mss arranged at least 165 international adoptions, mostly to the United States, the Netherlands, and Australia, earning some $250,000 in "fees."
Assuming the Indian police have their facts straight, the boy they seek has a new name and a new life. He has no memory of his Indian mother or his native tongue. Most international adoptions are "closed," meaning the birth parents have no guaranteed right to contact their child, and the confidentiality of the process makes it difficult to track kids who may have been adopted under false pretenses.
After Subash disappeared, Sivagama fell into a deep depression. Ten years later, she's still fragile, her eyes ringed by heavy dark circles. At the mention of her son's name, she breaks into tears, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with her sari.
"Why should we pay like this," she pleads, "for what criminals started?"
And why would a crowded orphanage conspire to steal children off the streets? Perhaps Subash was viewed as particularly adoptable due to his light skin and good health. In Chennai, hoping to learn more, I negotiate my tiny black Hyundai past an endless stream of lorries, rickshaws, and stray cattle toward the outskirts of the city, where mss is located. It has closed the orphanage and no longer does international adoptions, but still runs several social programs and a school for young children.
I pull up outside the bright pink building, get out, and peek through the wrought-iron gate. A man in a crisp white shirt promptly intercepts me and then introduces himself as Dinesh Ravindranath, a name I recognize from police reports that list him as an accomplice in the kidnappings. He says he has been running mss since his father died in 2006. He's also its lawyer.
Ravindranath tells me the investigation of his organization—which made headlines in India—has been blown out of proportion; he's the real victim here. The police, he alleges, have been using their investigation to extort money from the institution. "The law says that we cannot ask too much about the history of a woman who wants to give up her child to adoption, so we have to accept children on faith," he says.
But surrender deeds obtained by Mother Jones bear the signatures of mss officials alongside those of the suspected kidnappers, who have admitted to handing over multiple children under different aliases. When I press Ravindranath about the fees the suspects told police they'd received from mss, he claims the situation was misconstrued. "We give the women 2,000 or 3,000 rupees [about $47] when they come here out of charity, not as a fee for kidnapping," he says. "This happens everywhere. We are only the scapegoats."
The problems with adoption are certainly widespread. Over the past decade, scandals in Delhi and the Indian states of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu have exposed severe breaches of adoption protocol and claims by parents who have lost children to foreign families. The promise of lucrative adoption fees motivates orphanages to create a steady supply of adoptable children. (It costs about $14,000 to bring a child to the United States from India, not including the standard $3,500 fee to the orphanage.) In the most egregious cases, once-respected agencies get wrapped up in child trafficking, and well-meaning American families never realize they're not adopting a child—they're buying one.
The scandals aren't limited to India. In 2007, employees at the French charity Zoe's Ark were arrested trying to fly out of Chad with 103 children they claimed were Sudanese war refugees; police later determined that most of the kids had been stolen from families in Chad. In China's Hunan province, a half-dozen orphanages were found to have purchased nearly 1,000 children between 2002 and 2005, many of whom ended up in foreign homes. Last spring, an abc News team discovered that some institutions in the region were still purchasing children openly for $300 to $350.
In 2006, celebrity watchers were riveted by Madonna's adoption, from a Malawi orphanage, of David Banda, a child who was not, in fact, an orphan. More recently, in January, workers from the Utah adoption agency Focus on Children pleaded guilty to fraud and immigration violations; according to a federal indictment, they had imported at least 37 Samoan children for adoption after misleading the birth parents and telling prospective adoptive parents that the kids had been orphaned or abandoned. "This is an industry to export children," says Sarah Crowe, unicef's media director for South Asia. "When adoption agencies focus first on profits and not child rights, they open up the door to gross abuses."