This is the story of a little Indian girl in Scandinavia abandoned by her adopters and betrayed by the State. Statistics are showing that the rate of adoption failure in these countries is quite high, leaving rejected adoptees to be institutionalised and marginalised once more in their adopted land. One of the reasons adoption is thought of as a welfare measure for abandoned and orphaned children is the idea that giving these children the family that they have lost is the best solution to their tragic situation. But with the breakdown of the family and the increasing take over by the State of childhood in the advanced welfare states of the West, perhaps we need to re-think intercountry adoption as a measure of child welfare, atleast to Scandinavian countries. Are these societies really capable of providing full and stable families even to their own birth children? It would be better for Scandinavians to direct their considerable resources to sponsoring and managing better facilities for destitute and abandoned children in India, or even sponsoring them for their education abroad, instead of moving them so cold-bloodedly from adoptive family to state care, placing them in a state of moral and emotional destitution that is no less an evil than the material one they face in India.
This article was first published in the Sunday Guardian on 9 June 2018 with the title, “Abandoned by her adoptive family, betrayed by the state” as part of the ongoing weekly series called “Global Child Rights and Wrongs” in collaboration with this website, www.saveyourchildren.in. The series critiques the role of governments and NGOs in the child rights field.
Mallika contacted me with her story after reading my articles in this column about violation of children’s and mother’s rights in Denmark. Mallika was born in India. Four decades ago she was adopted by a Danish family from a children’s home in Coimbatore in South India at the age of four.
Eleven days after her arrival in Denmark, Mallika’s adoptive mother decided to send her to a psychiatric ward for children, apparently because Mallika was silent and uncommunicative. Mallika was shy and probably traumatized at being suddenly brought to a strange country. She did not know the language. Also, she was old enough at the time of her separation from her family to have known her biological mother. Till today she suspects she may have been kidnapped from her birth family in India – her adoption was at a time of many intercountry adoption rackets. So her silence and confusion were understandable. Fortunately for Mallika, the child psychiatrist concluded that she was just shy and needed time to adjust.
Mallika says her adoptive mother was strict and distant. She believes that her mother was disappointed that she received a psychologically scarred child and wanted to send her back. On the other hand, Mallika says her adoptive father was kind and prevented Mallika from being sent away. But when Mallika turned 11, her adoptive father suddenly fell ill and died. Mallika says her adoptive mother seized the opportunity to get rid of her. She packed Mallika’s things and left her at a children’s shelter – the sort of institution to which children removed from their families by child protection services (CPS) are sent. Mallika says that her adoptive mother never visited her there.
Mallika says this experience left her with very low self-esteem. She had few friends and was desperately lonely. Her studies suffered and she was unable to complete a college degree. Craving affection and a family she became pregnant as a teenager, having her first child at 18, and a second child at 20. She had hoped to find family at last but instead she found herself as a very young single mother.
Then at 22, Mallika thought she had finally found a stable life partner. She fell in love with a man who worked in the Danish CPS. They had two more children together but Mallika says she had walked into a trap. She claims her partner turned out to be abusive but she could not leave him as he would threaten to take her children away. It should be stated here that her partner denies these allegations.
Mallika claims that she suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse at her partner’s hands. She has shown me documents recording her attempts to get help from the Danish police and “Statsforvaltningen” (child protection authority). But she says that no one believed her. She says that as he worked in the CPS system, her partner knew exactly what to tell the authorities to calm them down and disbelieve her. Mallika believes that racism also played a role in the lack of support she received from the authorities as it was her word against that of her Danish partner’s. Mallika believes that the authorities were prejudiced against her by the fact that she became a teenage mother in the past and that her adoptive mother had tried to bring her to a psychiatric ward several times as a child. Mallika also believes that the Danish police were inclined take her partner’s word against hers as he was considered to have “passed scrutiny” being in the CPS.
But Mallika had two children with this man and lived with him for a decade. I ask her critically, “Why did you put up with it for such a long time?” She answers, “He was a man of authority, he knew all rules, he kept threatening that I will lose all my children and no one would believe me because my adoptive mother had tried to send me to the psychiatric ward.” He had even formed a cordial relationship with her adoptive mother who was willing to help him rather than Mallika.
In the end, after what Mallika claims was a particularly violent encounter with her partner she left him taking the children with her. But then exactly what she had feared happened. Her partner took away her two elder children from school and claimed custody of the two younger ones. Custody disputes between separated couples are commonplace. But in this case the two elder children were born before Mallika met her partner and she was their sole legal custodian. Ordinarily in Denmark, a man in the position of her partner would have no claim over those children being neither their biological father nor their legal custodian. Yet he was able to simply go to their school one day and take them home, never to send them back. Mallika went to the police and the child protection authorities but they refused to act. The usual procedure in such a case would have been for the police to immediately arrest the man and bring the children to their mother. Denmark is famous for its women friendly laws, and it is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the system not to act when a woman with a history of claiming domestic violence by a partner says he has removed her children. That the children in this case were not even his either legally or biologically makes the case all the more egregious. Again Mallika believes that the system ignored her because of racist bias and her ex-partner’s credentials of being part of the CPS system.
Her ex-partner refused Mallika access to the elder children and slowly brainwashed them into not wanting to see her. The now separated couple also went to court over custody of the younger two children, both girls, who were the biological children they had in common. At this point Mallika decided to go public with her story. A media outlet showed interest and began working on a documentary of her life. The court gave the father custody of the elder biological daughter, and Mallika was given custody of the younger one. Mallika says that she was able to get custody of her youngest daughter only because of the media interest in her case.
In the years following, her two elder children attained majority. The daughter has reached out to Mallika, and they have re-established contact with each other. Mallika has not yet been successful in re-connecting with her son. She fears the years of alienation have taken their toll, but hopes to be re-united some day.
Mallika tells me that the media also contacted her adoptive mother who has started sewing clothes for children in Africa “in order to create another image of herself.”
This is, ofcourse, only Mallika’s version. In fairness, her ex-partner and adoptive mother may have a different view of their actions. However, what emerges strongly are the failings and contradictions of the Danish system in dealing with Mallika. Should there not have been an investigation into Mallika’s adoptive mother’s seeming abandonment of her as a mere child of 11? Once in state custody Mallika’s story followed an oft-repeated pattern of young girls in state care becoming teenage mothers and failing to get through college. Apart from housing her, little seems to have been done by her state custodians to help Mallika overcome her situation. Abandoned as a child by her adoptive family in Denmark and ending up as a teenage single mother without a college degree, Mallika’s fate hardly commends either international adoption as a measure of child welfare or the Danish child protection system. Once Mallika grew to adulthood, the system having neglected her by leaving her, other than materially, to her own devices, then used her resulting vulnerabilities to punish her by effectively depriving her of her children.
There also seems to be no logic in a system that allows Mallika sole custody of one child while doing nothing to enable even contact with the others. Even the division of the biological children between the parents as if it were the mere division of property between separating parents is strange. Though it has to be said that this would be considered a “fair” outcome in Denmark.
None of what Mallika has suffered is exceptional in Danish adoptions. Det Nationale Forsknings og Analysecenter for Velfærd (“The National Research and Analysis Centre for Welfare”), also known by the acronym “VIVE” has done extensive research on the outcomes of adopted children as compared with other children in Denmark. The study shows that 18 percent of adopted children have been given a psychiatric diagnosis before they turn 20. This is double the figure among other children. Mallika’s experience of failed adoption is also not exceptional. According to the VIVE study, 7 percent of adopted children in Denmark end up living not with the adoptive family but in institutions or are sent to an altogether new foster family before they turn 18 years old.
With declining fertility rates in the developed world (in Denmark, for instance, every 12th couple is reported to be taking fertility treatment in order to conceive) the demand for adoptive and surrogate children can only be expected to grow. An earlier story in this column about the conviction under child pornography laws of a Norwegian CPS expert who had obtained surrogate children from India threw light on the vulnerabilities of children obtained through international surrogacy as well. There is a pressing need for developing countries like India to tightly regulate and follow-up international adoptions and surrogacies. India should hold countries to account when children taken from here are abandoned or placed at risk in their adoptive nations.
Mrutyuanjai Mishra writes regularly for the Danish and Indian newspapers. At present he is based in Denmark and writes for the Danish newspaper BT.