48 reunions and counting: Meet the duo helping foreign adoptees find their real parents

Shared from the 12/11/2019 The Times Of India – Goa eEdition

48 reunions and counting: Meet the duo helping foreign adoptees find their real parents
An India-born German national and a lawyer have teamed up to help the growing number of adoptees who come to India in search of their roots
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David Kildendal Nielsen, a 40-yearold bond trader in Denmark was sitting at home when a photograph popped up on his computer screen last June. It was of a young woman with two toddlers by her side. The woman was David’s birth mother, Dhanalakshmi, who is now 68 and works as a cleaner in Chennai, and the other child was his brother that he never knew he had. The six-year-long search by David, born Santhakumar before he was adopted at 16 months from an orphanage by Danish parents, culminated in a meeting a fortnight ago. “We did face a language barrier but to see her, talk to her, and feel her touch was a moment I’d been longing for, and it was mind blowing when it finally happened,” recounts David.

That reunion may never have been possible if David, in despair after hitting a series of blind alleys, hadn’t turned to Arun Dohle, an India-born Germannational and an adoptee himself, and Anjali Pawar, a human rights lawyer and activist, to help him with the search. “I had almost given up after four years of getting nowhere. Then I met Arun in Denmark and he, along with Anjali, was instrumental in me pursuing the search. Finally, one day someone reached out to him with a picture of my mother,” adds David.

The duo, who has spent close to two decades building a network of lawyers, child rights activists and trusted contacts in adoption agencies across the country, have orchestrated as many as 48 reunions between adoptees and their birth families. More recently, they set up an Adoptee Rights Council — a comprehensive search service to provide on-ground assistance to people adopted from India find their Indian roots. They are also lobbying for legislation that makes it obligatory to make all adoption records accessible.

Dohle’s motivation stems from his own quest of 17 years. He was six weeks old when his mother surrendered him to a Pune-based adoption agency. A couple from Germany later adopted him and he grew up in Aachem. Dohle was in his 20s and working as a financial consultant when he returned to India to look for his biological mother. The agency refused to share details and Dohle moved court. Matters reached the Supreme Court before he got a lead — his mother’s name and the address where she lived in 1973 — before he tracked her down.

While the 46-year-old was reunited with his mother, many adoptees that he knew from online forums did not have the same good fortune, and so he decided to help dig into their records, and pay the good deed forward. One of those he helped was Jyothi Bousle Svahn, adopted by a Swedish couple at five. Dohle helped her trace her biological father Dasaratha Rao who lives and works as a corporation worker in Bengaluru. The two met after 23 years in October 2016.

Pawar and Dohle, who also run child rights NGO Against Child Trafficking (ACT) in Pune, usually begin their search by analysing whether the adoptee was a foundling (abandoned) or a relinquished child. “In case of foundlings, searches are almost impossible due to lack of paper trail. For the rest, we try to get access to available records which is where the bottleneck is. Orphanages are usually not cooperative. They may give a first name, maybe a surname, the religion and the area if lucky but they rarely show you all the files,” explains Dohle, stressing the need for caution in order to not cause problems for the mother during a search. “Once we trace the family we collect a DNA sample and send it to the adoptee for testing. Then we arrange for a reunion and are present to mediate between the adoptee and his or her family till they are comfortable with each other.”

It can be a painful and complicated emotional process for adoptees since some mothers may not even want to see their estranged child conceived out of wedlock. “We’ve had two such cases. Often these mothers went on to marry and didn’t tell their husbands about their relinquished child and a reunion could result in old wounds being reopened. However, in most cases we’ve dealt with the mothers want to meet their long lost baby,” says Dohle, who, along with Pawar, arranges reunions at a mutually convenient venue.

Reunions can also create social problems, for which Dohle and Pawar counsel both parties in advance. “The first mistake that adoptees often make is offer an expensive gift. The mother might then be pressured into seeking help from an adoptee who, in turn, might feel like a cash cow. The idea is to reconnect and bridge cultural differences and expectations,” explains Dohle.

CARA, the nodal body for adoption of Indian children and for regulating in-country and inter-country adoptions, has a provision that allows root searches for adoptees above

18. “But what the adoption agencies should provide during a root search is not laid out,” says Avinash Kumar, former member of the CARA steering committee and founder of Families of Joy, a foundation for families in adoption. The problem, Kumar believes, lies in “the parent-centric regulatory regime that reflects the sentiment of a society still not comfortable about adoption.”

Meanwhile in Pune, Dohle and Pawar are busy with ten root searches for children adopted from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India despite a CARA rider that prevents a third party from conducting a search. “It puts severe restrictions on our efforts,” says Pawar, who now starts the search only after obtaining a Power of Attorney. Not everyone will have a happy ending but for many adoptees, the risks of disappointment are outweighed by the chance to find a missing piece of their lives.

FINDING MAMA: David Nielsen with Dhanalakshmi, his biological mother. Anusja Croonen was adopted when she was just 14 months old. She met her birth mother in 2016