The Hague convention on intercountry adoption, which addresses this type of criminal exploitation, was ratified by 50 countries—the United States signed on in 2007—but the pact is toothless, according to David Smolin, a law professor at Alabama's Samford University who has adopted two children from India. "The Hague itself has the weakness of relying on [the] sending countries to ensure that the child was properly relinquished," Smolin told me via email. "Receiving countries cannot afford to simply take the sending country's word."
Smolin should know. His adopted kids were placed in orphanages in Andhra Pradesh by their birth mother to receive an education—a practice not uncommon among India's poor. But the illiterate mother was tricked into signing a surrender deed at the outset and was later turned away when she tried to regain custody. The girls, 9 and 11, had been coached to say their father was dead and their mother had given them up, but they eventually told the Smolins the truth. The American adoption agency refused to look into the matter. By the time the family tracked down the birth parents, six years had passed, and the girls had acclimated to life in Alabama. Although the kids remain here, the Smolins opened up the adoption; they have traveled to visit the Indian family and kept in regular contact.
Smolin has since retooled his legal career, and he is now among the nation's leading advocates of adoption reform. The Hague convention's biggest flaw, he notes, is that it doesn't cap the adoption fees paid by rich countries. "If you don't sharply limit the money, all of the other regulations are doomed to failure," Smolin says.
Police, lawyers, and adoption advocates in India echo this sentiment. "If you didn't have to pay for a child, then this would all disappear," says Deputy Superintendent S. Shankar, the lead investigator in Subash's case (who requested that his full name not appear in print).
When the Chennai police first linked Subash to the United States based on mss documents, they called Nageshwar Rao into the station to identify his son from a photo lineup. He quickly chose a snapshot police say they recovered from Ashraf's orphanage file. Subash was lying on a comfortable bed, dressed like a Western child, recalls Nageshwar Rao, as he sits on a plastic deck chair in his cluttered abode flanked by Subash's siblings (Sasala, 17, and Lokesh, 15). "Even after almost six years, I recognized him immediately," he says.
The police commissioner was satisfied with the identification, but told the father to forget his boy. Subash was better off in America. "The police treated me like I was nobody, but how can I be happy that my son was stolen from me?" asks Nageshwar Rao. "I don't want my son to live his life thinking that we abandoned him."
At least he knows what's likely become of his child. Some 300 mss adoptions (foreign and domestic) have yet to be investigated; police probes at the local level seem to progress only in response to media attention. The overall mss inquiry has moved at glacial speed as it has been batted from city to state to federal police jurisdictions, narrowing in scope with each handoff. It's now with India's Central Bureau of Investigation, which is under court order to pursue just three mss-related cases in which stolen slum children allegedly went to adoptive families—in Australia, the Netherlands, and the United States. The latter is Subash's case.
Shankar, the agent in charge, concedes that his agency's investigation only scratches the surface of the problem. In reality, a family that can't afford a lawyer to usher its child-kidnapping claim through the court process will likely see the case go nowhere. "At this point, all we see are 10-year-old cases," says the burly, gray-haired cop. He says other orphanages have arisen to replace mss. "But I have no power to investigate," he adds. "My hands are tied."
It wasn't too difficult, though, to obtain the American family's address from the records of Chennai's High Court—it's listed on the legal document that makes the adoption official. When I tell Nageshwar Rao that I'll be traveling to the United States to make contact with the family, he touches my shoulder and eyes me intently. He was greatly relieved when the police told him his son was adopted, not trafficked into the sex trade or sold to organ brokers as he'd heard. Now he just wants some role in Subash's life. With the few words of English at his disposal, he struggles to convey his hopes. Gesturing into the air, toward America, he says, "Family." He then points back at himself.
"Friends," he says.
Two days and 8,000 miles later, on a front stoop in the Midwest, I'm finding communication equally difficult. Clutching the evidence folder, I introduce myself, grasping for the right words. The boy has come back from behind the house to stand next to me; his sister is listening just inside the door. I tell the mom we have to talk, but not in front of the kids. We agree to meet elsewhere after her husband gets home.
An hour later, in an empty park two blocks away, I lean against my rental car, checking my watch every other minute. Finally the father pulls up. He doesn't get out, but rolls down the window to talk. He seems unsurprised at what I have to say. "I saw something about this in the news a few years ago. I knew that it was a possibility," he says. "I've never been able to tell my son about it. It would be too traumatic." He flashes a nervous smile, and I hand him the folder. It includes the letter assuring that Subash's parents don't aim to reclaim the boy, but hope his new family will engage in friendly communication so that the Indian parents can still be part of his life. I ask the father to look the materials over, and we arrange to reconvene in 24 hours.
The American family didn't go through mss directly. Like most, they used an agency. I visited that agency, and my editors and I wrestled with the question of whether to name it here; there are serious questions about the conduct of US adoption agencies in child-stealing cases that should be addressed openly. Yet we decided to withhold this and other details that could have identified the family, because the child's privacy overrides the journalistic imperative to provide all the facts.
The Midwest-based agency in question has arranged hundreds of international adoptions over the years. Just inside the entrance to its offices—a stately brick building opposite an elementary school—are bulletin boards overflowing with worn photos, kids it has placed from all around the world. I find the co-owner sitting behind the front desk. She is not happy to make my acquaintance.
She concedes that she has followed the adoption scandals in the Indian press, but maintains that the Indian government signed off on every case her agency brokered. She'll cooperate with an investigation if need be, but won't discuss the case with me. When I ask the woman why she never contacted the family to warn them they may have adopted a kidnapped child, she refuses to comment.
The agency has never been under investigation for anything involving international adoptions, says an attorney for the state department that oversees adoptions, nor was the department aware of any irregularities. Even when complaints do surface, the state has little investigative power. "All we have is the paperwork," the attorney says. "And we can only look at the face validity of the documentation." While adoptions from India require extensive recordkeeping, there's no way to know if a document is forged, she adds; communication between Indian and American authorities on this issue is practically nil.
In short, there's no way to know for sure where some of these children come from. During her 10-year tenure at a US agency now known as Families Thru International Adoption, Beth Peterson worked closely with some of the largest and most respected Indian orphanages, helping arrange American homes for more than 150 children. In the process, she came to believe that many orphanages have become de facto businesses that engage in criminal activity. That's unlikely to change so long as the financial incentive remains, says Peterson, who currently runs iChild, a support website for families adopting from India.