Ever since Tania and Sergio decided to adopt a Nepali child three years ago, the Italian couple has been on an emotional roller coaster. They've joined an adoption association in Italy, been through a thorough screening at home, attended counselling sessions, been subjected to examinations by psychologists, and pursued an extensive paper chase in two continents. "At times it was extremely frustrating and humiliating," says Sergio. A doctor working in an Intensive Care Unit near Milan, Sergio is unable to father children because of a medical condition. "You have psychologists, people who had never adopted a child, putting a microscope to your life. It was very difficult."
All that was forgotten last week, though, when the anxious couple first set eyes on Sunita-the three-year-old girl they are adopting with the help of an Italian adoption association recognised by their government, and Nepal's largest children's non-profit organisation and orphanage, Bal Mandir. "When you first see the baby you forget everything," says Sergio, watching his wife Tania mouth the words "mama" and "papa" to a bashful Sunita on the sunlit grounds of Bal Mandir. "They say children pick up words in four months and that by six months, they're speaking the language."
Still, the anxiety hasn't ceased. Everyday, Sergio monitors the local papers. He's concerned a change in government might affect Nepal's adoption regulations-subjecting the couple to another round of uncertainty and heartache.
So far, nearly 1,000 Nepali children have found homes around the world. Since the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare took over, 69 children have been adopted, two-thirds from Bal Mandir. "The families we've met during our monitoring trips abroad are well settled," says Prachanda Pradhan, a member of the Executive Board of Bal Mandir. Adoptive parents are required to pay $300 as a monitoring fee. Bal Mandir has seven homes or branches around the country with about 400 plus children.
Roughly, the procedure to adopt a Nepali child is this: Orphans or abandoned children are taken in at orphanages after the Chief District Officer's office has looked into their case. If they are not claimed within 21 days of issuing a public notice, the homes can put them up for adoption. Bal Mandir, which has by far the most streamlined operation, requires prospective parents to submit 21 different documents, translated in English and validated. Private adoption is also possible if you deal directly with the child's family. Once processed, the files go through the Central District Officer and from there to the Ministry for Women, Children and Social Welfare where the documents are then reviewed by a five-member adoption committee that includes representatives of the Ministries of Home, Law, and Women, Children and Social Welfare, and the Federation of Child Welfare NGOs.
Having representatives from various ministries on the committee might make it easy to spread the blame in case of a controversy, but it does result in delay. Viola and Jan Hahn, who adopted a Nepali child actually featured in a documentary Germany-A Journey to Foreign Parents, so prospective adoptive parents would be better informed about the process. "Only people with an enormous amount of patience can survive the lengthy process," says Viola, who felt the anxiety and worry she experienced was comparable to a full-term pregnancy. Ellie Skeele, who has adopted two Nepali children, the first through the Home Ministry and the second last year after the authority had been shifted to the Ministry for Women, Children and Social Welfare, says the process has become less painful under the new jurisdiction. "After the initial familiarisation process, they've become systematic and organised. As long as the documents are legal and in order, there's no hassle. Probably some delays," says Uttar Tamata, president of Bal Griha, an orphanage also authorised by the government to put children up for adoption. Since the establishment of the orphanage in 1989, Tamata has become adept at shepherding files around the concerned offices.
Krishna Prasad Sharma Bhandari, joint secretary at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare and coordinator of the five-member adoption committee which gives the final stamp of approval, admits there are problems: "Sometimes it is difficult to get hold of all the committee members as they're with various ministries. Each file has to be screened carefully. Any oversight on the committee's part may result in a summons by the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority," says a candid Bhandari.
Another bottleneck for prospective adoptive parents, is a "guarantee letter" the Nepali government requires. In January 1999, the government suspended approval of all adoptions of Nepali orphans by foreigners. When it resumed foreign adoptions in March the same year, it imposed new requirements-like the need for a guarantee letter from the adoptive parents' embassy. Observers regard the regulation as a face-saving gesture on the part of Govinda Raj Joshi, then the Home Minister. Joshi, speaking at a public forum on adoption, made it clear he wasn't happy about Nepali children being adopted. "The pronouncement caused a tremor in adoption circles. As an individual Joshi has a right to a private opinion. But he was speaking as an official at a public forum. There were tears, outbursts," recalls Tamata.
Nepal's Civil Code says the concerned authority for adoption can change the criteria as and when it sees fit. While other consular sections accepted a revised edition of the guarantee letter, the British and Americans both submitted alternative wording, outlining the exhaustive screening parents go through in their home countries. "As America is a very litigious society, they probably had more problems with the phrasing of the letter. But it is unusual for the referring country to ask for a guarantee letter after the stringent screening process parents have been through," says Skeele, who is optimistic that the matter will soon be sorted out. Until it is, a US State Department flier strongly advises US citizens to not pursue adoptions in Nepal until further notice. Says a prospective American adoptive parent: "We visited Bal Mandir the summer before last. There are plenty of people who want to adopt kids from Bal Mandir. However, bureaucratic foul ups and pettiness on the part of both the US and Nepali governments has effectively prevented these children from being adopted by Americans."
The procedure is already complicated, and controversial demands like this one make people-particularly those who've had really bad experiences-refuse to speak on record. Unlike many adoptive families, Skeele wants to share her experiences. "I want to see the adoptive process become straightforward, ethical and transparent, to reduce the paperwork and to extend the safety net for children who need families," says Skeele, who runs n child, an email group. Members are families interested in adoption in Nepal, have adopted Nepali children, or are thinking of adopting.
Skeele, a single parent, adopted Mimi privately four years ago when the child was fourteen months old. She adopted her second child, three-year old Tsering, through Bal Griha last year. "To be approved as adoptive parents in the home country you go through hell. It's a very stringent process," she says. "It is always more emotional for parents who opt for adoption after trying to have their own kids." Skeele, who owns and manages a software development company in Nepal, is intent on dispelling misconceptions about foreign families adopting Nepali babies. "Sometimes adoption is misunderstood. Adoptive families are giving a child a home and not taking them to be servants as can often happen when a Nepali family takes in a child. People shouldn't apply their worldview to us," says Skeele. "Of course sensational horror stories and the occasional story of molestation haven't helped."
Both Mimi and Tsering call Skeele "mummy". Mimi is in contact with her birth family. "I prefer private adoption-maintaining direct contact with the birth family-because I want my children to know their birth families. It is in the best interests of the child. Sometimes it is difficult tracing them through a home," says Skeele as she and Mimi look at pictures of Mimi's siblings and birth mother. They're sorting them out for a school project that Mimi has decided to present to her class. Says Skeele: "There are many families who love Nepal, who have a bond with the country and given a choice would rather adopt from Nepal than China, Eastern Europe or Vietnam. Of course it would be ideal if the children were adopted by Nepali parents, but given Nepal's economic situation and the strong influence of the caste system, I don't see that happening."
Skeele probably holds the record for getting her adoption papers finalised in the shortest time in the labyrinthine circle of Nepali bureaucracy where it's common to sit on files. "The first adoption, at least the process at the ministry, took five days. People did seek gifts and try to find fault with every detail. But my papers were in perfect order. Everything was clear, legitimate." She made it clear that Americans didn't give gifts.
She was lucky, as were the Hahns and Sergio and Tania. Not everyone is, and they most often will not speak out.