What would you do if you discovered your adopted children were stolen and trafficked, and not willingly given up by their parents, as you’d believed?
South Asia correspondent Sally Sara investigates the insidious trade of children in India, and joins an Australian family in their moving search for the truth.
Sara reveals that dozens of Australian families are oblivious to the true background of their adopted youngsters, because of bureaucratic bungling and government ineptitude both here and in India.
It’s a remarkable story that reveals a shocking truth about some overseas adoptions.
We follow the journey of the Rollings family from Canberra.
For ten years Barry and Julia Rollings believed their son Akil and daughter Sabila had been given up willingly by their birth parents in Chennai. But after hearing suspicions reports about Indian orphanages, they set out to locate the childrens’ birth mother. The news was shocking. Akil and Sabila had been taken from their mother, and sold to an orphanage.
The Rollings have now embraced their ‘Indian family’ as part of their own – Akil and Sabila have ‘two mothers’.
It’s an inspirational story of one family’s courage.
Sally Sara also investigates claims that dozens of trafficked Indian children may have been placed for adoption in Australia – their new parents oblivious to the background of the youngsters.
She speaks to heartbroken couple Fathima and Salya, whose child Jabeen was kidnapped from the streets of Chennai by traffickers. Jabeen was adopted to an Australian couple, and now lives unaware of her background, while her adoptive parents live in anguish.
It’s a story of crime and cover up – its victims both here and in India.
Camera: Wayne McAllister, Geoffrey Lye
Editor: Simon Brynjolffssen
Research: Simi Chakrabarti
Producers: Trevor Bormann, Vivien Altman
SARA: The chaotic streets of Chennai offered perfect cover. This is where the child traffickers plied their trade, looking for what they regarded as ‘pretty children’. The stolen youngsters were sold to orphanages and then offered to families for legal adoption. India’s extreme poverty and a market for overseas adoptions, made its young a commodity. It’s a lucrative business with a terrible cost, destroying lives both here and abroad.
It’s a confronting idea for any unsuspecting family, that their adopted child may have been trafficked. But the truth is that hundreds of Indian children have been stolen and sold for adoption and some have found new homes in Australia. At the heart of this story is a difficult dilemma, but one Australian family decided to face the truth and to find out more. The result was a risky but quite remarkable journey.
This village, north of Chennai, is the home of Sunama and her five children. It’s a small house filled with love and hopes of a better future, but for ten years, Sunama lived with an agonising loss. Missing from this home are her two eldest children. In 1996 they were taken away and sold by their drunken father, for the equivalent of fifty dollars. The children aged two and three years old were traded by child traffickers.
SUNAMA: ‘I wept. I also tried to hang myself, so I could die. Everything was pointless without my kids. I swallowed medicines… drank kerosene oil. I was admitted to a hospital for a month. Then I swallowed pills, so I could die.’
SARA: Sunama grieved, hoped and lost hope again and again. The uncertainty was excruciating. She didn’t even know if her children were dead or alive. But Akil and Sabila were happy and healthy on the other side of the world in the suburbs of Canberra.
Akil, now 15, and his 14 year old sister, have become part of a family of eight children including six adoptees.
AKIL: ‘What’s the weather going to be like mum?’
JULIA: ‘When we’re in Chennai?’
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘This time of the year because it’s going into winter, it’ll probably be a little bit warmer than it is now here, so mid twenties which will be quite nice.’
[viewing video] ‘This is the first time I’d ever seen you guys for real. Here you are coming up to the front office.’
SARA: Julia and Barry Rollings had always believed that Akil and Sabila had been given up by their sick parents.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘And that was me moving into the doorway… and then you both took one look at me and stopped walking. You didn’t have any idea who this strange white woman was.’
SARA: This is the moment Julia Rollings first set eyes on Akil and Sabila, at an orphanage called MASOS on the outskirts of Chennai.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘Oh look at you, you are cute. Whether you like it or not, you were very cute.’
AKIL: ‘Nah. I look like a nerd.’
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘You looked gorgeous. We thought you had very cute eyes.’
SARA: It was early days, but Sabila was already throwing herself at her new mother.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘She’d spent nearly two years without a mother and I think that all of those needs, once she had the opportunity to be nurtured and get that individual attention again, she was obviously still at a point that she was just going to thrive with that individual attention.’
SARA: But soon the Rollings began reading reports that the MASOS orphanage had been caught up in a kidnapping scandal. They started to doubt the story they’d been told about Akil and Sabila’s origins.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘That really was the hardest part in this whole process, trying to decide whether we should look or whether we should just leave things as they were. It was the realisation as we were standing there on the crux of that decision, that if we set forward, if we walked through this door, that’s it. There’s no turning back. That we are then duty bound to follow through to the end. So that unknown was pretty damn scary.’
SARA: The Rollings felt that they owed it to their children to search for their biological mother, despite the dangers.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘My overriding fear was that we might lose the children, that there may be some legal avenue that we could end up in a situation that whatever our motives for searching might be, that we might find another family that would demand the return of their children.’
SARA: After months of waiting, an email arrived from one of the Rollings’ contacts in India. The message was short and shocking. Akil and Sabila had been taken from their mother and sold to an orphanage by their father. They felt they had to tell the children.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘The two words I just remember is the ‘stolen’ and ‘sold’. There really wasn’t any way of beating around the bush. We just had to find the words to try and say it as less brutally as we can but you certainly can’t dress it up in any way that takes the sting out. It’s hard stuff.’
SARA: ‘Did you use the word ‘stolen’?’
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘Yes I did because I thought that anything else really wasn’t explaining what had happened.’
SARA: The Rollings are planning a return to Chennai to spend time with Akil and Sabila’s biological family. This will be their second visit.
AKIL: ‘It’s very important for me because I really want to see them and spend most of the time with them and yeah I just really can’t wait to see them and spend time.’
SARA: Sabila is also looking forward to seeing her birth mother again and the chance to teach her sisters some dance steps.
SABILA: ‘Yeah like it’s just where I come from and so it’s another thing to remind me, like my background and everything.’
SARA: ‘So you’re quite proud of it by the sounds of it?’
SARA: It’s impossible to get an accurate picture of the true extent of child trafficking in India, but one thing is clear – it’s been going on for years. In Indian terms, there’s big money to be made and the temptations are everywhere. In the late 1990s, the child traders were brazenly kidnapping babies and young children from these streets.
One lawyer claims that out of the 400 or so Indian children who found new homes in Australia in the past fifteen years, at least thirty were stolen from their birth families.
In a tiny rooftop apartment, I met Fatima and her husband Salya. Time hasn’t diminished the loss and the anguish they feel for their lost daughter Jabeen.
FATIMA: ‘It’s a bond of pure love between a mother and a child. How can I describe it? How can a mother forget her daughter?’
SARA: It was late in 1998 and Jabeen had only been out of her mother’s sight for a moment as she walked along the street. The traffickers were looking for good looking children they thought would be attractive for adoption. She was snatched from the street by a woman travelling in an auto rickshaw.
FATIMA: ‘I wept. Had someone done something to my daughter? Had she been killed? I wept…. prayed to Allah.’
SARA: We now know that Jabeen is alive and living in Australia. I showed Fatima and Salya a photograph of their daughter who is now thirteen. The traffickers changed the child’s name and claimed she had been surrendered by her mother. She was adopted by an unsuspecting Australian couple who are now aware of the truth but have chosen to maintain their privacy. By law we can’t identify her. The case is now before the courts.
FATIMA: ‘I feel happy to know that she is fine. She is being raised in a good house and that makes me happy.’
SARA: ‘What would you do if your daughter walked in the door now?’
FATIMA: ‘I would hug her. I’d cry. If she comes I will hug her and cry, and ask ‘where did you disappear my girl’?’
SARA: To find out how a child snatched from the streets could have been adopted to Australia, I met Fatima and Salya’s lawyer. Geetha Devarajan claims Jabeen was sold by traffickers to an orphanage called MSS. She says corrupt orphanage officials forged the relinquishment papers.
GEETHA DEVARAJAN: ‘On plain reading of the document, there’s something very fishy. There is no proper procedure or guidelines as far as relinquishment. Anybody can walk into any organisation and relinquish a child. That is the existing procedure.’
SARA: This is the organisation where Jabeen is alleged to have been brought. The charity, known as MSS, runs a school and an orphanage. Police have claimed in court that in the late 1990s dozens of children were sold to MSS by traffickers. Most of them were adopted, some overseas. Jabeen was one of them.
I confronted the President of MSS, Vatsala Ravindranath, who’s been charged over the scandal and freed on bail. I showed her Jabeen’s forged relinquishment papers that claimed she’d been surrendered by a woman who was a single mother.
‘Can you tell me who the witnesses are on these documents? Do you know them or were they just people off the street?’
VATSALA RAVINDRANATH: ‘They are staff only.’
SARA: ‘They’re staff?’
VATSALA RAVINDRANATH: ‘This person has expired yesterday… the day before yesterday.’
SARA: ‘What do you mean?’
VATSALA RAVINDRANATH: ‘He died. He was staff with us at that time.’
SARA: ‘Mr Sivaraman?’
VATSALA RAVINDRANATH: ‘Sivaraman.’
SARA: ‘He died yesterday?’
VATSALA RAVINDRANATH: ‘The day before yesterday.’
SARA: The big flaw in the system is that the orphanages oversee the surrender of children without any adequate checks by government. It’s an open door for the traffickers.
GEETHA DEVARAJAN: ‘Children are so vulnerable in that situation, especially poor, and… children who come from difficult backgrounds. This will not happen to any upper class… any well to do family. It only happens with poor families. The easy target is children who are on the street playing or who are sleeping and where the parents are working parents… or they don’t have a proper residence to protect the children from these kind of vultures, they just take the child and disappear and once these children get into these orphanages, it’s a big screen where nobody can penetrate.’
SARA: The MSS organisation has now been banned from adopting children but it still canvasses charity support from Australia. And in the past, Australian service organisations have been very generous.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘Well really the problem is that a lot of these children, both in our case and another case, is by the time the adoption gets to the court in India or another country, it’s paper perfect. Everything looks absolutely correct and we had absolutely nothing to make us suspicious.’
SARA: But Australian officials were warned against dealing with the MSS orphanage. This letter is from an Indian agency set up to scrutinise adoptions. It claimed the MSS orphanage had a history of misrepresentation, falsifying records and even threatening the relatives of children in its care.
The letter was sent to Australian Family Services Department in 1995, five years before the stolen child Jabeen was adopted.
‘What do you think about those people who stole your daughter and then sold her for money, what do you think of them?’
SALYA: Give them harsh punishment and do not let them get away. Do not let them out. Give them punishment. I want my daughter to return – even now, I wish my child was with me. She is living happily but I want to see her.’
SARA: After months of planning, the Rollings are finally in Chennai, where Akil and Sabila were trafficked and finally, Sunama gets to see her children again. It’s an awkward, but moving moment. The two mothers of the same children have a precious bond.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘This is Anwar, Jan Basha, Fareeda and Zereena and Zeenath.’
SARA: Akil and Sabila’s father fled after he sold them. Sunama remarried and had five more children before their father died. After a cautious start, the two families warmed to each other’s company.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘It’s one of those situations that I think outsiders might find confusing for the children. The fact is that the children have had absolutely no problem with the idea that they have two mums.’
SARA: ‘Is it difficult having two mums in a way?’
AKIL: ‘It is a bit, because every time I say ‘mum’, Mummy looks at me and I’m like oh not that mum – but yeah, it’s a bit… but not much. I’ll get used to it.’
SARA: The Rollings are staying with their new extended family for two weeks on this visit. They don’t share a language, but they do share a deep love for their children.
SUNAMA: ‘I think that had they been here I couldn’t have brought them up in the manner that they’ve grown. They went to Australia, grew big… speak in English…it’s a happy matter, sister. I wouldn’t die a worried woman if I were to die just now. I have no worries for my kids.’
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘It’s nice seeing all the kids now relaxed. It only took about half a day but they’re now more relaxed and in each other’s arms and as soon as you got the kids doing something, kids just become kids and everyone relaxes. So it is lovely, it really is nice.’
SARA: After the beach, they head off to Sunama’s house for the day to meet the neighbours. The Rollings pay all of Sunama’s expenses including rent, food, school fees and medical costs.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘We realised that if we made that contact, that no matter what the situation was, we couldn’t then just say thank you and pack our bags and go home.’
SARA: ‘How special is it for you to come to Sunama’s house?’
SABILA: “Very special…. and all the welcoming…..’
SUNAMA: ‘It’s a cause for happiness. There’s also sadness in my heart. I am happy that they are out there. Wherever they are they’ll be happy. They’re looked after so well.’
SARA: But on this reunion the Rollings and Sunama are also asking questions. How could it be that Akil and Sabila were traded by a reputable orphanage? They’ve hired a lawyer to go to court to get hold of the surrender documents for the children.
BARRY ROLLINGS: ‘We think that it will prove our case that the children were not willingly given for adoption.’
SARA: They want to prove that Sunama, an illiterate woman, did not sign the papers to give up her children. They ask Sunama to sign her name to check it against the signature on the surrender documents.
BARRY ROLLINGS: ‘And is that what’s on the document?’
BARRY ROLLINGS: ‘It’s not?’
BARRY ROLLINGS: ‘Okay.’
LAWYER: ‘The name is perfectly written like this.’
BARRY ROLLINGS: ‘It’s written in script.’
LAWYER: ‘It is.’
BARRY ROLLINGS: ‘Okay.’
SARA: It seems a woman claiming to be Akil and Sabila’s mother may have accompanied their father to the orphanage. Another possibility is that the orphanage itself was in on the scam. Balaje Thangavel was in charge of adoptions in 1998 when Akil and Sabila were here. He agreed to meet us.
BALAJE THANGAVEL: ‘The biological father himself signed the document, saying that this is my wife. So we had to believe it.’
SARA: ‘She didn’t come and surrender those children. It is not her signature on that document so she didn’t know where they were.’
BALAJE THANGAVEL: ‘Maybe she is denying the fact. Maybe she is denying the fact.’
SARA: ‘So you don’t believe Sunama?’
BALAJE THANGAVEL: ‘I don’t. We don’t believe Sunama.’
SARA: Sunama denies being there on that day and the Rollings believe her. They paid the orphanage $3,400 during the long process of adopting the children, an attractive amount of money for any cash strapped institution.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘I guess the best case scenario I can say is that they were possibly involved with a very unscrupulous middle man. A worst case scenario was that they were complicit in the crime that occurred to Sunama and the children.’
SARA: Officially the Indian government has an adoption policy that favours keeping children in India, but in practice the bureaucratic hurdles and the expense make that impossible for many here.
Vidya Shanker runs a foundation that helps Indian couples become foster parents instead.
VIDYA SHANKER: ‘She says that she approached many adoption agencies and whatever conditions they were laying on….. you know for example finances, or the conditions that were given… putting down on documents and so many things, they couldn’t comply – like property and those kind of things.’
SARA: It’s a system that ends up working against local families and in favour of wealthier people overseas.
‘So how much is money driving this whole process?’
VIDYA SHANKER: ‘It’s the only thing that’s driving this process. The whole system is the money which is involved. When money is on the agenda, nothing else gets in focus. It’s pathetic.’
SARA: Fatima and Salya, the parents of Jabeen, the little girl snatched from the street, want her Australian parents to let them see her again. In an effort to reassure them about Jabeen’s new life in a faraway land, the Rollings and Sunama have arranged to meet them.
FATIMA: ‘I hope she will come here – that they will show her to me. I have hope.’
SARA: As a mother of six adopted children, Julia Rollings feels for both sets of parents, but her main concern is for Jabeen.
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘As much as I feel dreadfully for this family, the child that is the centre of all of this really has to be ready, otherwise it’s not going to be a good outcome for anybody and I’m very happy that our kids were ready for it.’
SARA: For Sunama, her loss of ten years has had a happy turnaround.
SUNAMA: ‘It’s a matter of happiness, sister. You know what I mean? I feel happy that my children have come all the way from Australia. It would be great if other parents were told that their kids exist wherever. Look at me. I know they went to Australia, I know that such a place exists, and I now know that place is a good place. But how would others know? Other mums will just keep crying.‘
AKIL: ‘I would like to come here every year or so just to see Mummy and spend more time with her.’
SARA: ‘And what about your little brothers and sisters?’
AKIL: ‘Yeah I want to…. I want to come back to see them as well, and…. teach them more soccer and, yeah… and hopefully they’ll learn some English so I can talk to them.’
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘Well the fact is, if anything did happen to Sunama, we definitely would somehow look after the children. Whether that was making sure they were maintained in India or whatever was appropriate. We are in for the long haul. Our families are permanently connected now.’
JULIA ROLLINGS: ‘The position I’ve come to in my own mind is I’m still very much an advocate for ethical adoption.
I want to now channel some of my energy into making sure that adoptions that do happen, are conducted ethically. I guess I’m not as naive as I was previously in just believing that the safeguards that were in place would necessarily protect everybody.’