Adopting a child anywhere in the world is a difficult, lengthy process. And it should be thus. Prospective parents jump through many hoops in order to prove they are the best fit for a child. However, when the hurdles arise due to the absence of legislation or social stigma, as can be seen in Pakistan, the process becomes almost impossible.
‘Closed adoption’ — sometimes called ‘confidential’ or ‘secret’ adoption — refers to an adoption process where there is no interaction of any kind between the birth mother and the prospective adoptive family. This means that there is no identifying information provided either to the birth families or adoptive families. In Pakistan, an Islamic state, closed adoption is not an option for parents, as Islamic principles stipulate that a closed adoption is not possible as a child’s parentage cannot be hidden from him/her under any circumstances.
The Guardianship and Ward Act of 1890 was put in place for cases of adoption within the family in case a minor’s presupposed guardian (the father) cannot take care of the child or is deceased. The law helps resolve guardianship disputes within the family. With the absence of any specific legislation for adoption in Pakistan, the Guardianship Act of 1890 is used as a blanket law to facilitate the adoption of abandoned children.
Becoming a legal guardian
The Guardianship and Ward Act is used to appoint the adoptive parent(s) as the child’s legal guardian(s). An appointment for a court hearing to appoint guardians is only made when the court is satisfied that this will be in the child’s best interests. Then, an application is sent to the court on behalf of the adoptive parent(s).
This process seems very straightforward on paper, but the inefficient and slow process rate of adoption cases in courts means that new adoptive parents have to wait for weeks, if not months, for their case to be heard. Thus, many hopeful parents are encouraged to circumvent the courts entirely. Many couples contacted for this story refused to go on the record, even when anonymity was guaranteed, as they had skipped the correct legal procedures when adopting their child. Instead of procuring a guardianship order, many new parents choose to name themselves as the child’s birth parents on the birth certificate. These parents say they are forced to do so for two reasons: to shield themselves or their babies from social marginalisation or to save themselves the trouble of enduring the cumbersome process of legal adoption in Pakistan.
Champions for adoption
Even as some parents choose to avoid going to court, many organisations are working tirelessly to ensure that thousands of abandoned or unwanted children will find legal routes into a loving home.
For 32 years, the Edhi foundation has been at the forefront of childcare services and adoption in Pakistan. The entire operation is overseen by Mrs Bilquis Edhi and the Edhi Foundation is considered to be a pioneer in creating safe havens for abandoned children. To date, the foundation has placed about 23,500 children with adoptive families. However, Mrs Edhi is not one to rest on her laurels. “We have had to bury twice as many children,” she says with regret. “We have appealed to people for years to place their children in the jhoolas outside our centres, and this has worked to some extent. But for every life we save, two more are lost.”
Mrs Bilquis Edhi is the pioneer of child adoption in Pakistan. PHOTOS: ARIF SOOMRO
Once a couple decides to adopt from the Edhi Foundation, they fill a form — available via the Edhi website — and then meet with Mrs Edhi for an interview. When she is satisfied that the couple is genuinely interested in adopting a child, their names are added to a list of prospective parents. “These first interviews are very important to me, as they show how willing the husband and wife are for adoption,” Mrs Edhi explains. “Sometimes one parent is less willing than the other to adopt a child and that is when I advise them to sort out their differences before they return for another interview.”
Mrs Edhi says that this is a crucial component in any adoption. “The adoption won’t work out unless both parents are interested,” she says firmly. Sometimes it takes more than one interview for Mrs Edhi to be sure that the couple is interested in adoption. Once a couple clears this hurdle, a file is created for them and they must wait for a call from the Edhi Foundation.
This adoption process only takes place in Karachi. If the couple is residing in a different city or country, they can appoint a trusted relative in Karachi to take the baby into custody once they receive the desired call. The Edhi Foundation seeks to place children in the new parents’ care as soon as possible and thus the couple is given 48 hours to make their way to Karachi to be united with their new child.
No matter which city a child is rescued from, they are brought directly to Karachi and placed in Mrs Edhi’s custody. Here, the child undergoes preliminary health exams while it waits for a match with parents. It can take five to seven days for a child to get the perfect match. Even once the child has been placed with the new parents, the Foundation can ask for its return if the biological parents come looking for it. If after three months, no one claims the child, the Foundation issues a letter stating this. Thus, no further claims of biological parentage can be entertained.
The Edhi Jhoolas have saved thousands of children over the years. PHOTOS: ARIF SOOMRO
The Edhi Foundation makes it a point to place non-Muslim children with families belonging to their own religion, in case the religious background is mentioned when the child is left in a jhoola or given to the Foundation. All children found are presumed to be Muslim, unless otherwise stated or found, and are placed with Muslim families. Additionally, the Foundation does not entertain adoption requests from single people hoping to adopt.
Health Oriented Preventive Education (HOPE)
HOPE NGO is an organisation dedicated to the health and education of the less fortunate. Dr Mubina Agboatwalla, a well-known paediatrician in Karachi, is the founder and visionary behind HOPE Foundation, Pakistan. When children started being abandoned at HOPE hospitals, Dr Mubina took the initiative of putting these children up for adoption and to date, HOPE has found homes for around 50 abandoned children since 2010.
“We receive around 20 applications each month from people interested in adoption,” explains Dr Agboatwalla. Once a child becomes available, Dr Agboatwalla shortlists three to four candidates and starts interviewing them until she is satisfied she has the perfect match. “Only three or four adoptions take place every year as we do not find many abandoned children anymore,” she says. Social and financial security of the child is the biggest concern here and thus, a second adoption is a possibility if the family is financially stable.
“I am still in touch with all of the children that have gone to live with their new families as they come visit me and their families send me regular updates,” Dr Agboatwalla says. Like the Edhi Foundation, HOPE waits for three months to lapse before declaring the child adopted, as they must wait for biological parents to make any claims. During this three month period, three letters are issued to the adoptive parents: the first states that the child was found by the organisation’s workers and is being handed over; the second letter is issued at 45 days stating that no one has come to claim the child; the third and final letter is issued at the completion of the 90-day period and states that the child was not claimed and now no claims regarding its parentage by the biological parents will be entertained.
Dr Agboatwalla herself has adopted two boys and, unlike the Edhi Foundation, the organisation encourages single parent adoptions for women.
Imkaan is a Karachi-based organisation working to combat infanticide in Pakistan. It has a network of community workers and volunteers in many low income communities working with abandoned children. Babies left here or found in such neighbourhoods are immediately taken for medical care at Imkaan’s partner hospital and then housed at the Imkaan Ghar. These children are then united with families willing to adopt them.
Keeping in touch — Parents send regular updates about their children’s achievement to the adoption agencies. PHOTOS: ARIF SOOMRO
Candidates applying for adoption fill out an extensive form available on the organisation’s website. “After the form is submitted, we shortlist and interview applicants,” explains Imkaan director and lawyer Tahera Hassan. Interviews with applicants outside Karachi are carried out via Skype as well. Members of the team interview and evaluate candidates on the basis of these discussions, and talks are in-depth, modelled on home-study or home visit processes carried out by adoption agencies internationally.
The applicants’ homes are visited by the team and extended family members and friends may be interviewed as well. Every possible factor from emotional health to the couple’s financial situation is taken into consideration before a child is placed with the family.
“As a relatively small and relatively new organisation, Imkaan does not have a huge number of adoptions at the moment. Each adoption journey for us is a very personal one,” Hassan explains. “Imkaan considers each child a part of the Imkaan family. We are in constant touch with the families and are sent updates on a regular basis.” Hassan has worked as an adoption lawyer for the past 10 years and has processed close to 60 cases — to date, she receives updates from all these families.
Hassan says Imkaan has not personally taken part in the adoptions of older children, as they have yet to receive such a case. However, this option is always on the table, she adds. Discussing second adoptions, Hassan explains that Imkaan prioritises childless couples, but acknowledges that everyone has a right to add to their families. “Imkaan is supportive of second or third time adoptive parents and open to single-parent adoption for women,” Hassan says.
According to Hassan, while there is room for improvement in the process of adoptions in Pakistan, there have been some encouraging changes, especially for single women wishing to adopt. For instance, NADRA has very recently added a guardianship column to B-forms/birth certificates and passports can now also be issued in the names of the child’s guardians, as a guardianship column has been added to these forms. Hassan says, “Having a formal structure makes it easier and less time consuming for single women to get these documents made now.” Previously, whenever a single woman wished to adopt, she had to make a special request and go the court for approval of documents made in her name. This case-by-case approval process took additional time that can be saved with the guardianship column now in place on these documents.
The road from deciding to adopt to having a beautiful baby in your arms is long and full of emotional and psychological obstacles. The long wait itself gives rise to doubts that must be assuaged before taking responsibility of a new life. Additionally, there are questions that new adoptive parents have. The following organisations cater to the psychological and emotional needs of new parents in the pre- and post-adoption phases.
Karachi Adoption Resource Center
The Karachi Adoption Resource Center (KARC) was established in 2012 as a centre devoted to providing information and support to adoptees and adoptive families. KARC is directly linked with Imkaan although they deal with prospective parents waiting to adopt from other organisations as well. They do not provide referrals or assist in the placement of children from any facility. KARC provides pre-adoption consultancy to prospective adoptive parents as well as post-adoption counselling at different stages.
Institute of Professional Psychology
The Institute of Professional Psychology operates under Bahria University. The institute provides assistance to people thinking about adoption, as well as to prospective adoptive parents while they wait for their child. The institute encourages post-adoption family visits as well, to help the family bond together emotionally as well psychologically.
Infanticide in Pakistan
The merciless killing of a child within a year of its birth has been on the rise in the country every year. In 2008, the bodies of 890 infants were recovered, and the number increased to 999 in 2009. By 2010, the number spiked to 1,210, and in 2011, 70 bodies of infants were found in Karachi alone. The numbers have been rising every year and the Edhi Foundation estimates that there is a 20% increase in the number of infanticides in Pakistan with each passing year. Although there are no fresh statistics available regarding the phenomena, the Edhi Foundation says that 60% of these infants are female.
Child Protection and Welfare Bureau Punjab
Since 2004, all adoptions in Punjab have been taking place through the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau. The autonomous organisation was established in July 2004 under the administrative control of Home Department after the Punjab Destitute & Neglected Children Act was passed by the Government of Punjab in 2004. It is an autonomous provincial government body mandated to protect and rehabilitate destitute, abandoned and neglected children through the provision of an environment that maximises opportunities for childhood development and promotes access to education, health care and psychological well-being. The Bureau is currently delivering child protection services in seven districts of the province including Lahore, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Rawalpindi, Multan, Faisalabad and Dera Ghazi Khan. Approximately 39,270 destitute and neglected children have been facilitated by the Bureau in six years.
When religion plays a role
Pakistani law dictates that only children clearly identified to belong to a specific religion can be adopted by parents belonging to that religion. Discussing adoption as an option for non-Muslim communities, director of Imkaan, a Karachi-based organisation assisting with adoption, Tahera Hassan explains, “Adoption is very much an option for non-Muslim communities, but the only issue that arises is that every abandoned child is presumed to be Muslim, unless something specifies otherwise.” In a few cases, children abandoned at Edhi shelters across the country bear a note disclosing the parent’s religious inclination, Mrs Bilquis Edhi explains. However, it is most often the case that children left without any such clues are presumed to be Muslims and thus, very few non-Muslim child adoptions go through in Pakistan every year.
Hurmat Majid is a subeditor at The Express Tribune.
She tweets @ bhandprogramme
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 26th, 2015.