Heightened security has turned international airports into armed camps, but regular travelers know the drill. Show a photo ID and answer all the questions-Did you pack your own bags? Did a stranger give you anything to carry?-with a quick but polite, "No."
Queuing up to the airline counter in Madras, my automatic answers to this routine are tested.
"Did you pack your own bags?"
No, not the diaper bag.
"Were you given anything to carry on board?"
Well, yes. A 16-month-old orphan.
"Does she have a photo ID?"
Yes, but it gives only her first name. She has no last name.
I held my breath, but the Indian Immigrations and Customs officials were not nonplused. International adoption is a growing industry, and this airport scene, an American escorting a young foreigner to a faraway home, is more and more becoming a common event. The officials looked over young Prathiba's immigration papers and court documents, stamped her passport, then mine, and waved us through to await our flight.
The business of adopting internationals is burgeoning. Hundreds of international adoption agencies are springing up in the United States. Fifty agencies have sprung up in Missouri alone, where Love Basket, the agency responsible for Prathiba and two other infants being escorted on this particular flight, is located. Only a handful were there 10 years ago. The number of overseas adoptions has proportionately mushroomed, from 7,000 in 1990 to over 11,000 last year. Adoptions from India have actually held steady during that time. In 1996, 380 adopted children came from India, compared to 348 in 1990. But the number of agencies working with India has grown steadily, even if it is outranked by the perennial Big Three in the adoption business, China, Russia, and South Korea.
Other countries, like China, require adopting parents to travel personally to meet their child. It is an expensive two-week trek and a potential disappointment: Bureaucratic delays mean parents may return empty-handed.
India has no such stipulation. In fact, Love Basket discourages adopting parents from traveling to India. Most families are ill-prepared for the rigors, discomforts, and risks of Third World travel, especially when combined with the emotional overload of bringing a new person into the family.
For baby girls Prathiba, Malini, and Nitya, the overnight flight from Madras, a city of 5 million near the southern tip of India, to Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where new parents await, is the final 24 hours in a nearly 16-month adoption process that began almost the day they were born. Each of the girls was placed for adoption at birth. Each was named by an attending physician because the mother chose not to. Each arrived at the Concord House of Jesus, an adoption home, when she was three days old. Loving care and a search for good Christian homes in which to place them followed, even though Indian law favors placing children in Hindu homes.
The stories of Prathiba and the two other babies, Malini and Nitya, according to Concord House director Geetha Muthu, are typical of most children who come into the adoption home. "Children often come in severely malnourished or sick due to poor prenatal care. It is not uncommon for newborns to weigh less than one pound," she said. "Our staff prays for these frail babies, continuously holding, feeding, and prodding the little ones to cling to life."
Working directly with Love Basket, Concord House accepts 30 orphans a year. The Indian government allows three months for a birth mother to reclaim her baby. Concord House extends that waiting period two more months, Ms. Muthu says. Then the child is eligible to be pledged to a family in the United States, and the paperwork begins.
The process of approval for adoption is necessarily cumbersome. Indian court orders authorizing the adoption must be obtained, a passport processed, and a visa applied for. In India this phase alone can take nine months to a year. Meanwhile, U.S. immigration officials require a home study of adoptive parents, fingerprint and financial checks, and meeting local and state requirements before a visa may be issued to a prospective new member of the family. In the end, the paperwork packet, as essential to tote along as the diaper bag and the baby, easily weighs as much as each child.
As foreign adoptions go, India is popular. In a country with 60 new births per second, there is no shortage of children. Since 40 percent of India's 850 million people live in extreme poverty, many Indian families give up a baby, believing they cannot afford the child. And more women there are having babies out of wedlock.
Despite the factors that increase the "supply," the majority of children placed for adoption are adopted by other Indian families. Sensitive to accusations of "baby selling," Indian officials have passed strict laws requiring that Indian-born children be first offered to Indian families for adoption. Even orphanages whose charter is to facilitate international adoptions are required by law to adopt half of their children to families in India.
Adopting families in India, however, prefer boys, who are favored because of strong social pressure to carry on the family name. Girls are often considered a liability. When a girl reaches marrying age, the family is expected to provide a sizeable dowry to the groom's family. Concord House has no problem adopting most of its boys to local families. The quota for in-country adoptions is easily met this way.
At the same time, Americans seeking overseas adoptions seem to prefer girls. The three families waiting at O'Hare-one from Chicago, one from St. Louis, and one from Apple Valley, Minn.-all requested girls during the lengthy screening process.
Predicting a child's personality is a more difficult task, but a 24-hour flight is a good litmus test. Little Nitya is a dream, bonding instantly with her escort. She sleeps on the first leg of the journey, 11 hours in the air from Madras to Frankfurt, Germany. During the second, she plays cheerfully.
Malina is more typical, moving from calm to miserable as the trip among strangers wears on. Sarah Haas, 16-year-old daughter of escort Bill Haas, walks the aisles with "Mali" for hours. Mali is finally persuaded to bond with her escorts-just as they arrive in Chicago. The transition to Mom's waiting arms is traumatic all over again.
The baby I escort, Prathiba, is sour and gives me no sleep. From the time she was handed to me in the Madras airport, she screamed for three unceasing hours. This, after I visited her three times in the adoption home the week prior to our departure. Once on the plane, however, I am less strange than anything else, and she holds fast to my lap, clutching a blanket, fingering its soft edges. But she refuses to sleep until the last hour of the trip.
Prathiba's new family stood at O'Hare with anxious hearts, open arms, and a humming video camera. Prathiba protested in her mother's arms, now wanting only me. It was an awkward beginning. Two weeks later, however, mom Lisa Bullard writes, "On our arrival home, it was as if she knew the house! She ran around taking it all in. She has adjusted beautifully, has even relinquished disgust to baths, American foods, sleeping in a crib [instead of the floor, as she was accustomed], and having bows in her hair. She even cries to go outside in the Minnesota cold."
Prathiba is now named Moriah Prathiba Bullard. She has mastered Legos and snow, her mother reports. "People frequently stop to ask, 'Is she always this happy?'" said Mrs. Bullard. Malini has kept her original Indian name, but everyone calls her Mali. She revels in the outdoors and quickly became proficient on the swing set and helping with the flower garden. She is learning how to swim. Nitya is now called Miriam. Her mother told WORLD, "Miriam is always the first at meal time to fold her hands and remind everyone it is time to thank God."