Karnataka State Government recently notified an order in April 2021 allowing its employees who adopt children to avail maternity leave at par with biological parents. The new provisions will allow mothers who have adopted a child to take 180 days of maternity leave, while granting 15 days of paternity leave for fathers, same as that given to biological parents. The order has been hailed as a game changer – a signal to parents that adoption is being destigmatized. However, there is one catch – the leave is only applicable to children adopted below one year of age.
A few years back, the Central Government too passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that provided for maternity leave of 12 weeks to mothers adopting a child, as well as commissioning mothers. The then Minister, Ms Maneka Gandhi proclaimed that the legislation had made history in helping thousands of women and produce much healthier children. With a small caveat – this leave was available only to children adopted below the age of three months.
Every time there is an announcement related to adoption leave, thousands of parents tune in with a hope to get a relief that would really help them in their journey in adoption. What comes around, every time, is a half-hearted patronizing disguise of maternity leave celebrating “MOTHERS TO GET MATERNITY LEAVE IN ADOPTION” in bold headlines but with a fine print that virtually negates the very provisions. The riders are cleverly pushed under the concluding paras of the press release.
What is worse, the Central Adoption and Resource Authority (CARA) under the Ministry of Women and Child Development remains a mute spectator to such notifications – neither reacting to the limiting provisions, nor initiating any dialogue with the stakeholders. The sporadic, isolated and ill-advised legislations around adoption confirm once again that our lawmakers neither understand adoption nor the needs of families in adoption. Here is why.
Impractical Age Limit
Adoptions in India are governed by two laws – the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 popularly known as HAMA, and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 popularly known as the JJ Act.
As per JJ Act, no child can be given for adoption within two months after being placed in an institution. The two-month period is provided under the law to search for the family, biological parents or guardians of the child who might have been presumed orphan, surrendered or abandoned. So even if a new born child were admitted into a child care institution, the Specialized Adoption Agency (SAA) that is regulated by CARA cannot declare the child legally free for adoption before two months, as per CARA’s own Adoption Guidelines. Add to it the referral cycle, foster care formalities and the time to get Adoption Order from the Court, which itself takes upwards of 3-4 months. It is therefore worth asking how WCD Ministry arrived at a 3 month’s age limit to allow for adoption leave. There is even greater merit in asking why CARA has remained silent against this comic faux pas by its own Ministry. The Government’s grand gesture to award 12 weeks adoption leave for adoption of a child below 3 months was therefore a non-starter. The Karnataka Government’s equally magnanimous announcement in granting adoption leave for children adopted below one year of age falls flat on the same logic. Very few parents would be able to apply for adoption leave for a child below one year of age. We hope WCD Ministry knows that less than 10% of children legally available for adoption are below 2 years of age. So does WCD Ministry really not want to encourage adoption of children above 2 years of age?
As for HAMA, lesser said the better. Firstly, Sec 56(3) of the JJ Act clearly states that nothing in this Act will apply to HAMA. So any rules, guidelines or provisions on adoption laid out by the relevant Authority (i.e. CARA) will not apply to HAMA. Secondly, most parents who adopt under HAMA do so to escape scrutiny, regulations, accountability and transparency. When they do not even report adoptions at their workplace, how can they avail such benefits.
This is a classic example of just how little governments understand the adoption eco-system and related timelines, ironically defined by themselves. There are far more serious considerations.
In the shadow of Maternity Leave
Juxtaposing adoption leave with maternity itself is an aberration. Adoption and maternity are entirely different life events. Often not mutually exclusive. They are quite incomparable and therefore the kind of leave should also be.
Maternity Leave is best required immediately before and after child-birth whereas, Adoption Leave is not required in one go. It is required in tranches. Adoption is a slowly maturing relationship, and requires 200% attention at specific intervals (not confusing it with parenting, either). There are exposures specific to adoption, that need to be provided for, if we really mean to help parents.
Maternity leave is required so that the mother can give attention to the child and recuperate from pre-natal and post natal medical conditions. Most deliveries in urban centers take place in a hospital and each stage is closely monitored with trimester evaluation, medication, nutrition, family involvement and social acceptance. A father’s involvement is limited to providing emotional care over and above plethora of resources available for supporting pregnancy and child birth. Many of these resources are mature and easily available such as doctors, guide books, nutritionists and guidance from experienced family members.
Contrast this with Adoption. The journey often starts with end of an era marked with failed pregnancies, miscarriages, painful IVF cycles, all possible therapies cutting across allopathy, naturopathy, homeopathy, Ayurveda, pilgrimages and babas. (The scornful gaze of in-laws not withstanding.) A minority of couples who are lucky enough to escape this cycle are still subjected to “Why-do-you-want-to-adopt” phase, that itself qualifies for Adoption Leave, to break free from an over intrusive yet rarely helpful community, so that they can not only answer this question, but assure themselves of their choices.
The first time when an aspiring parent needs time off in adoption is when deciding to adopt. Couple of days to cut the noise. Listen to the self. Google about resources in adoption. Find out about a family that has adopted and spend time away from a toxic-stereotyped environment. This could happen months or even years before the child being adopted is born. Therefore, linking Adoption Leave to age of the child is ill conceived and smacks of utter ignorance of what adoption is.
Once the parents receive a referral for a child from CARA, they have to visit the adoption agency a couple of times between the referral and the court order. They will need about two week’s cumulative time to attend to adoption process. They are NOT parenting in this time. No other parent would go through such motions in their life. Hence, it is unfair to expect them to take a casual leave, earned leave or sick leave to attend to adoption matters. It is also not a usual court hearing either.
Parents need guidance and preparation to justify their adoption. Nobody has ever asked a biological parent to plead their case before they can take home their babies from hospital. It also does not happen months after the child is already come home. They do not travel along with their infant child across cities, to make it happen. A part of adoption leave is required at this stage.
Thanks to Bollywood, everybody agrees that parents need to bond with their newly added family member. This is the perception everybody is most comfortable with. Hence the patronizing 15 days, 6 week, 12 week or 26 week of paid leave, as per charity and wisdom of the employer. Funnily, adoption may not require all of 12 weeks or 26 weeks in one go, immediately after the child is home. And the child’s age has nothing to do with the period of leave. In fact, older the child, longer the leave may be required. It is therefore quite dumb of our lawmakers to throw in a generous leave for adoption of infants, but nothing for children adopted over one year of age. Leave aside toddlers or young teens.
Compared to pregnancy, resources in adoption are hard to find. There are several self-styled gurus on social media, but they could cause more harm e.g. by directing parents to adopt through HAMA, then CARA. Certified Adoption Counsellors are a handful. Books on adoption are a rarity in India. Public research in adoption is in its nascent stage. Try if you will, to Google for a Greeting card on Adoption. The mere thought of seeking out such resources can be overwhelming. If only there was adoption leave, some parents could use it to write a book on adoption!
Apart from bonding required when the child comes home, the next crucial phase when parents need time off is during adolescence. Most families in adoption have reported extremely challenging times when the children they adopted turn teens. This is in addition to the challenges that every teenager goes through. Children who are adopted need help in their learning cognitive skills, they need help with their root search, they need help with their identities, they need help to discover themselves – which is over and above, if not different, from usual adolescents. Parents need to spend time with their children, counsellors and therapists to empower them at this stage. If our lawmakers have slightest of research and empirical evidence around challenges faced by families in adoption, they would assign bulk of adoption leave when the child is a teen, not necessarily when the child comes home. For older children, the two phases may actually coincide.
In short, adoption leave is not about absence of work when a child below one year comes home. It is about taking care of the self and the child, when required – across the Adoption Life Cycle.
Living in a pale shadow of Maternity Leave, fathers face a left-over syndrome when it comes to paternity leave in adoption. Maneka Gandhi once said that paternity leave is like holiday for fathers. You were wrong ex-Minister! Definitely in case of Adoption.
Fathers not only have to birth the child in their heart, as much as the mothers do – they also need to pick up cudgels with their own blood, when it comes to adoption. Most families in adoption share experiences how the mother-in-law becomes the first barrier to adoption in the family – voluntary or involuntary. Several fathers quietly resent or face their own parents and next of kith and kin while engaging them in their decision to adopt. It is not easy. It is not supported. It is not expected. When it comes to curating resources in adoption, the father has an equal responsibility in burning midnight oil on paperwork, internet search, adoption counselling, CARA Counselling (yes, several parents end up educating CARA on their processes more than anyone else), Court proceedings, social media therapies and bonding with the child. If at all there is an argument that calls for a standalone Adoption Leave for any parent, it is this. Fathers need it AS MUCH as mothers.
Only if our lawmakers went into details, they would realize that they have got Adoption Leave ALL WRONG – all these years.
Adoption Leave is Unique
Adoption Leave is not Maternity Leave that is required to be extended to adoption.
It is leave required to come out of the trauma of infertility, understand adoption, seek counselling, follow legal adoption process, bond with the child, engage the family members ensure that none of the family members falls through the cracks. It is not required when a child below one year of age comes home. It is required across various stages in the Adoption Life Cycle.
Let us model it along the lines of Child Care Leave – a packaged leave credit that can be availed in tranches, whenever the community presents an opportunity to tend to the beautiful experience called ADOPTION.