THE INDIAN JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK Tata Institute of Volume 75,...
Tata Institute
Volume 75, Issue 2
Social Sciences
April, 2014
research rePOrT
Adoption and Birth Family Issues
Adult Adoptees in India Placed through BSSK in
Victor Groza, HyesHin Park, Meera oke, roxana kalyanVala and
Maina sHetty
This is a study of adult adoptees in India. Data were gathered via interviews from 48
adult adoptees (81 percent of the eligible participants). The participants ranged in age
from 21 to 31 years at the time of the study and were adopted, on an average, at the
age of 10.5 months. There were differences between adoptive parent’s report of adop-
tion disclosure and adoptee report of adoption disclosure. Overall, most adoptees have
thoughts and questions about their birth family. Implications for services for adoptees
are presented.
Victor Groza is a Professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied
Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. Hyeshin Park is a
Doctoral Student, School of Social Work, University of Maryland, Baltimore. Meera Oke
is a Social Scientist and Practitioner, Portobello Institute, Dublin, Ireland and Director,
The Centre For Human Growth and Development, Pune, India. Roxana Kalyanvala is
Director; and Maina Shetty is Assistant Director, Bharatiya Samaj Seva Kendra, Pune,
According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and The
Hague Convention of 29 May 1993 on the Protection of Children and
Co-operation in Respect of Inter country Adoption (henceforth referred
to as The Hague Convention), in situations where a child is permanently
without parental care, domestic solutions are the first intervention. In
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286 Victor Groza, Hyeshin Park, Meera Oke, Roxana Kalyanvala and Maina Shetty
respecting the subsidiarity principle highlighted in Articles 20 and 21 of
the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (
crc/) and Article 4b of The Hague Convention, domestic adoption should
be considered as the first permanent care option only after all efforts for
the child to remain within or return to the family of origin or the extended
family have proven unsuccessful or not in the best interests of the child.
India has a long history of participating in both domestic or national and
inter country adoptions. Over the years domestic adoptions are growing.
From 2006 to 2012 the number of domestic adoptions have increased
fourfold from a little over 1,500 to approximately 6,000 (CARA, 2013). A
nascent body of research is developing about domestic adoptions in India.
This article adds to the growing scholarship in this area.
Relevant Literature on Adult Adoptees
There is no doubt that orphaned and abandoned children fare much better
when raised in a family, particularly if the only alternative is group care
in an orphanage/child institution (Nelson, Zeanah, Fox, Marshall, Smyke
and Guthrie, 2007; Zeanah, 2009). The adoptee enters a family who wants
him or her. The family has to undergo certain processes and fulfill the
requisite formalities before receiving approval for adoption. The adoptive
family offers material and emotional advantages, including positive
childhood experiences with a caring adult or adults (Fergusson, Lynskey
and Horwood, 1995). In India, adoption reduces the stigma of being
orphaned for the child and benefits the family without a child.
Post-adoption follow-up studies provide important insights into the
impact of changed rearing circumstances on adoptees’ development over
the life span. There are mixed results from the studies that have assessed
psychological adjustment in adoptees; there are studies indicating both
more problems and no more difficulties than for those in the general
populations. Bohman and Sigvardsson (1985) found no differences
between adoptees placed as infants and controls with regard to criminal
behaviour or alcohol problems at age 23. Borders, Penny and Portnoy
(2000) studied adult adoptees placed as infants and found no significant
differences for current life view between adoptees and a matched group
of their friends. In contrast to these findings, Sullivan, Wells and Bushnell
(1995) found that adult adoptees placed as infants had increased risks
of antisocial personality and drug use/dependence, especially for males.
Collishaw, Maughan and Pickles (1998) found adopted women showed
very positive adult adjustment across all the domains examined in this
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Adoption and Birth Family Issues 287
study while adopted men had some difficulty in two specific domains—
employment and social support. Passmore, Fogarty, Bourke and Baker-
Evans (2005) reported that adoptees scored lower on self-esteem. Feeney,
Passmore and Peterson (2007) indicated a tendency for adoptees as more
likely to have insecure attachments.
Even with higher incidence of problems as reported in some studies,
the vast majority of adoptees do not have significant problems and the
preponderance of evidence suggests that most adoptees do well across
the life cycle (Juffer and van IJzendoorn, 2007). The great majority of
adoptees fall well within the normal ranges in adjustment (Loehlin, Horn
and Ernst, 2007) even if their adjustment pathways are different than those
not adopted.
Even studies examining the impact of adoption on identity development
do not have uniform results. Benson, Sharma and Roehlkepartain
(1994) reported that more adoptees experienced their family relations as
supportive, cohesive, and as permitting personal growth. Later adoption
predicted higher risk of maladjustment. Lydens and Snarey (1989) in their
longitudinal study of Korean adoptees found that early adoptees (adopted
at age one year or below) had higher self-concept scores at adolescence
(age 12–17) than later adoptees (adopted at age six or older), but the
difference subsided by early adulthood (age 22–27). Levy-Shiff (2001)
found that adoptees had lower self-concept scores, but adoptive status
explained only 4 percent of the variance of self-concept. In other words,
other factors in addition to adoption explained self-concept.
Questions about the birth parents are now considered a normative part
of adult adoptee development (Brodzinsky, Schecter and Hening, 1992;
Rosenberg, 1992; Krueger and Hanna, 2011). According to several studies
(Benson, Sharma, and Roehlkepartain, 1994; Stein and Hoopes, 1985;
Sobol and Cardiff, 1983), between 30–65 percent of adopted persons
expressed a strong desire to search or were actually searching for their
birth parents. Little is known about how domestic Indian adoptees react
compared to other domestically-placed adoptees.
Theory and Adoption
Several theories postulated about why adoptees may have more risk for
psychosocial problems. First, their pre-adoptive experience in either the
birth family or in a group/institutional setting may place them at risk and
also it may be due to an increased prevalence of psychopathology among
relinquishing parents (Bohman and Sigvardsson, 1985; Cadoret, 1990).
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288 Victor Groza, Hyeshin Park, Meera Oke, Roxana Kalyanvala and Maina Shetty
Second, the clinical literature, largely dominated by psychoanalytical
and post-psychoanalytical perspectives, suggests adoption as a loss
that has the potential to create trauma or stress in the adoptee’s
psychological development throughout their lifespan (Brodzinski,
1990; Brodzinsky, Schecter and Hening, 1992; Lifton, 1988). Third, the
ecological-transactional developmental model (Bronfenbrenner, 1979;
Bronfenbrenner and Ceci, 1994; Sameroff, 1993) examines how adoption
functions as an intervention. Development of the adopted individual is
determined by a number of factors and occurs as a result of the interactions
within and between the various levels of the ecological system—the child,
the family and the social environment. The social environment gives the
cultural dimension of the child’s development. Krueger and Hanna (2011)
offer an existential perspective for understanding the unique issues faced
by the adoptees.
Adoption in India: Cultural Considerations
It is estimated that of the 302 million children in India, about 4 percent are
orphaned (over 1,200,000 children). A large percent of these children are
either abandoned, voluntarily relinquished, or surrendered because of the
stigma of being born to a single mother (Baig and Gopinath, 1976).
In India, adoption is as old as Hindu law (Chowdry, 1980) and is a
part of Indian mythology (Stiles, Dhamaraksa, de la Rosa, Goldner
and Kalyanvala, 2001) and recorded in the histories of kings (Baig and
Gopinath, 1976). In 1990, the Central Adoption Resource Authority was
set up to regulate agencies and the adoption process. The Bharatiya Samaj
Seva Kendra (BSSK) is one of the 244 organisations recognised by the
Government of India to place children for adoption and is a leader in
the adoption field in India. In 2001, BSSK conducted their first study of
domestic adoptions (Groza, Kalyanvala and BSSK Research Team, 2003;
Groza, Kalyanvala, Boyer and Nedelcu, 2003). The study stated that the
families evaluated the agency practices positively and adoptions were
quite positive. Most of the children are found to be at the developmentally
appropriate level and have no health problems, sensory difficulties or
behaviour problems. Parents reported good parent-child relations and the
adoptions were very stable. The biggest issue for families was related to
when and how to discuss adoption with their child.
Bhargava (2005) discussed several concepts relevant to adoption in
India. She suggests that self-identity among Indians is heavily influenced
by the Indian kinship system, which consists of caste, class, and religious
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Adoption and Birth Family Issues 289
identity (p. 63). Possessing certain physical features is considered desirable
and representative of a higher caste in India (p. 95).
Depending on when the adopted person was exposed to the notion
of adoption and how the parents dealt with the information, the adoptee
may have different views on adoption, levels of self-esteem, or comfort
levels with his/her adoptive identity. It is within this context that this study
was undertaken. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study of adult
adoptees in India.
The study was organised around the following question: What questions
and feelings do adoptees have about their birth families?
Keeping in mind the sensitive nature of the study that the adoptees may not
know of their adoptive status, contact with the adoptees was established
through the parents. Initially 387 families were identified. This was a
census of all families living in India with adoptees who had turned twenty
by January 1, 2010. The authors had initially decided to approach adoptees
who had completed eighteen years. However, after much discussion
and review, the authors reviewed their plans and approached only those
adoptees who had completed twenty years and above. The reason being
that adoptees of eighteen years would be in college, in the midst of making
choices in education, and may not be mature enough to handle sensitive
issues of adoption. Moreover, as they live with their parents, it would
create misunderstanding in family relationships as parents were neither
consulted nor privy to the questionaire. The adoptive parents received a
letter introducing the research project and a consent form to participate in
the project. The letter and the parent survey sheet were in both English and
Marathi, the language of most inhabitants from Pune (erstwhile Poona).
A prepaid envelope was attached to the mailed questionnaire as well. Six
weeks after the first round of mail to those families who did not respond,
another consent letter and survey form were sent along with a prepaid
Of the 387 families contacted, no correct address was found for 30
percent (n=116) of the adoptive families. Five percent (n=20) had not
disclosed the adoption, 5 percent (n=2) of adoptive parents were deceased,
2.1 percent (n=8) of the adoptees had died, 0.5 percent (n=2) adopted a
child with a disability that prevented participation, and 2.8 percent (n=11)
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290 Victor Groza, Hyeshin Park, Meera Oke, Roxana Kalyanvala and Maina Shetty
refused to allow contact with the adoptee, although all claimed the adoptee
knew about the adoption. This resulted in a potential sample of 227
In Stage 2, only the adoptees who knew that they had been adopted
were to be involved in the study. To operationalise this intent, adoptive
parents had to be verified twice that the adoptee knew about the adoption.
Only those adoptees whose parents had verified twice that their adopted
children knew they were adopted and provided contact information were
contacted. With that contact information, the researchers mailed a consent
form and a letter describing the nature of the study to the adoptees. All
documents sent to the adoptees were in English and Marathi. The preferred
method for participation in the study (mail, survey, Skype, phone, face-
to-face) and place of interview if it were face-to-face (BSSK adoption
agency, neutral location) were also asked.
Collected data were coded to mask the participant’s identity. Only
the interviewers knew adoptee specific information and all results were
aggregated for reporting purposes. The interviewers from India were
trained in basic interviewing skills and in the project protocol, including
confidentiality and the necessary safeguards for the subjects. The project
was approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of the
lead author (IRB#20100422).
The four criteria used to secure measures were: (1) ascertain the measures
that would answer the research questions, (2) the measure would be
easily obtained/publicly available, (3) the measure had to be free or
inexpensive, and (4) had to be evaluated for their face validity and utility
for use with Indian adoptees (this was done by our Indian colleagues). A
parent questionnaire, adoptee questionnaire and friend questionnaire were
developed. The research team developed questions regarding satisfaction
with the academic and professional career of the adoptee, as reported
by both the adoptive parent and adoptee questionnaires. For the adoptee
questionnaire, questions were added about the disclosure of adoption, the
adoptee’s birth family, and the effect of revelation regarding adoption on
the adoptee.
All quantitative data were analysed with SPSS version 20 unless
otherwise noted. Qualitative data were analysed using MaxQDAversion
2k1 R030801-E (Kuckartz, 2001).
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Adoption and Birth Family Issues 291
Response Rate
Adoptive Parents: Of the 387 families identified, only 227 emerged as
the potential sample due to reasons such as non availability of contact
address, non disclosure of adoption to adoptee, death of adoptive parents
or adoptees’ parents refusal to allow contact with their adoptee children,
and adopted children having disabilities. Of the potential 227 potential
adoptive families who could participate, only 76 families responded for
a 34 percent response rate. Hence, while the survey sheet was delivered
to the address on file, the family may not have lived there and the present
occupant at that address would not have reported the same to the present
staff and, therefore, they would still have been counted as delivered.
Second, during this period of adoption there was no age restriction on
adoptive parents; a significant number of these parents were over 50 at the
time of adoption, meaning they would be in their 70’s or 80’s at the time
of the study. As such, a number of them have expired and the BSSK did
not know about it.
Adoptees: The only way the adoptees would be contacted was if the
parent verified twice that the adoptee knew about the adoption. Of the 76
of the adopted families contacted, only 59 adoptees met the criteria and, of
these, 48 participated in the study. This number is 81 percent of the eligible
adoptees and 63 percent of the families who responded. Most adoptees
(77.1 percent, n=37) were interviewed face-to-face. The other methods of
interview used were Skype (6.3 percent, n=3), mail (6.3 percent, n=3) and
over the phone (10.4 percent, n=5). Demographic data were analysed by
the type of response and no difference was found.
A comparison was made between those adoptees who participated
in the study and those who did not participate. Adoptees who
participated were not significantly older (t=1.9, df=57, p=.06, equal
variances not assumed) at the time of the study (mean =24.5, σ =3.7)
than those that did not participate (mean =23.6, σ =2.3). Nor was
age at adoption statistically significant (t=1.8, df=56.4, p=.08, equal
variances not assumed). There was a significant difference for gender
(chi-square=6.6, p=01). Of the 387 adoptive families identified, 59
percent (n=228) were males and 41 percent were females (n=159). If
there was no gender bias, approximately the same percent should have
participated as those who did not participate. More females (n=29, 63
percent) participated than expected and fewer males (n=19, 37 percent)
participated than expected.
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292 Victor Groza, Hyeshin Park, Meera Oke, Roxana Kalyanvala and Maina Shetty
Adopted Family Demographics
As reported earlier, 76 adoptive parents participated in the survey. Only
basic demographic information was collected from adoptive families as
the focus of the study was adult adoptees. Of these, about one-third each of
the surveys were completed by the adoptive mothers (34.2 percent, n=26),
the adoptive fathers (31.6 percent, n=24) and both parents together (34.2
percent, n=26). Parents reported more on female adoptees (57.3 percent,
n=43) than male adoptees (42.7 percent, n=32). Parents reported the age
at adoption as 1.5 months to 84 months; on an average, they were 10.5
months at the time of adoption (σ=14.9). Twenty-five percent were placed
for adoption at 3 months or younger, 50 percent were placed at 5 months
or younger and 75 percent were placed at 8 months or younger. Fourteen
children (18 percent) were placed after 1 year of age, 8 (11 percent)
children were placed at over two years of age, and 5 at (7 percent) over 3
years of age. At the time of the study, adoptees ranged in age from 20 to 31
years; the average age was 24.1 years (σ=3.0).
Adoption Disclosure as Reported by Adoptive Parent
Of the parents who responded, 93.2 percent (n=68) reported the adoptee
knew about the adoption and mostly it was both parents (67.6 percent,
n=46) or the adoptive mothers (19.1 percent, n=13) who had disclosed the
adoption. Also, the following disclosed the adoption: extended family (5.9
percent, n=4), neighbours (2.9 percent, n=2), and a friend, the adoption
social worker or someone else (1.3 percent). Parents reported that the
adoptee was on an average 7.8 years old when the adoption was disclosed
(σ=4.9). Of these, 25 percent were told at 4 years or younger, 50 percent
were told at 7 years or younger and 75 percent were told at 11.5 years or
younger. Parents reported that the adoptee began to understand what it
meant to be adopted around 9.7 years (σ=4.98) and began to accept the
adoption around 11.3 years (σ=6.1). Of these parents, 93.3 percent (n=70)
verified twice that the adoptee knew about the adoption. However, only
79.7 percent (n=59) permitted contact with the adoptee.
Parents were asked about who usually initiated a discussion about
adoption. One-fifth (20.3 percent, n=14) reported that adoption is
forgotten and never discussed, 24.6 percent reported that the parents bring
up adoption topics, 18.8 percent reported the adoptive mother brings up
adoption topics, 5.8 percent reported the adoptee brings up the topic and
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Adoption and Birth Family Issues 293
29 percent (n=20) reported the parents and the adoptees equally bring up
adoption issues/topics. Given the age group of adoptees and Indian culture,
interviewers commented that in the lives of some adoptive families,
adoption happened a long time ago and as a topic, comes up for discussion
only in the context of certain specific events such as the selection of a
suitable partner for the adoptee when it is an arranged marriage.
Adopted Person Demographics
Forty eight adult adoptees participated in the study. As reported earlier,
most of the adoptees who participated (63 percent, n=29) were female.
Age at the time of the study ranged from 20–32 years; average age was
24.2 years. There was no significant difference (t=-1.1, df=43.9, p=.29,
equal variances not assumed) for age at study between males (23.6) and
females (24.5). According to the adoptee, age at the time of adoption
ranged from 2 to 60 months; average age was 12.2 months (25 percent
placed under 6 months, 50 percent under 5 months and 75 percent under
18 months). There was no significant difference for age at adoption (t=.68,
df=18.4, p=.51, equal variances not assumed) between men (14.6) and
women (10.8).
Most adoptees reported that they were college graduates (43 percent) or
had a master’s degree or above (26 percent). Almost one third (31 percent)
did not complete college at the time of the study. Most reported that they
met or exceeded parents’ education expectations of them (84 percent).
Most reported that their parents were extremely or very satisfied with their
career choice (80 percent); only 7 percent reported that their parents were
extremely dissatisfied.
Adoption Disclosure as Reported by Adoptee
Most adoptees were told by their parents about their adoption; 55 percent
reported that both parents told, 34 percent reported that the mother was
the one who told and, and 4 percent said that the father was the one who
told. The remaining adoptees were told by siblings, neighbours, friends
or extended family (7 percent). On an average, adoptees were told about
their adoption during latency age (9.8 years, on an average). Twenty five
percent were told under age 6, 50 percent were told under age 10, and 75
percent were told under age 13. There was no significant difference for
age in relation to adoption disclosure (t=.05, df=41, p=.96, equal variances
assumed) between men (9.8) and women (9.7). From the qualitative data,
adoptees who knew that they were adopted, did not report as being shocked
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294 Victor Groza, Hyeshin Park, Meera Oke, Roxana Kalyanvala and Maina Shetty
or having significant adjustment issues after disclosure. Being older at the
time of disclosure or being told by someone other than the parents resulted
in more adjustment difficulties, at least initially. A number of adoptees
reported that they “did not understand initially” or “were angry and did
not speak” when the adoption was first disclosed, but later understood and
accepted their adoption.
The qualitative data indicate that disclosure does not necessarily lead
to integration of the adoption experience. Adoptees heard parts of their
life stories piecemeal. More than half (26) have unasked, unspoken and
unanswered inquiries about adoption. They “want to know more about the
circumstances in which the birth parents were at the time when they gave
me up” (surrendering for adoption) and questions about “why had they
left me?”
Birth Family Issues
Half (53 percent) of the adoptees reported that they often think about their
birth families. This number may probably be higher, because a number
of the adoptees commented that it would betray or insult their adoptive
parents if they reported thinking about their birth families. A glance at the
written comments of adoptees reveal that most commonly they wanted to
know why they were placed for adoption and the circumstances leading to
such placements. A 31 year old woman, who was very positive about her
adoptive status and would like to adopt herself, wondered “what were their
(birth parents) difficulties that stopped them from keeping me”? Another
major theme included questions about whether the birth parents were alive
and who were they, and what did they look like. Some adoptees had a
sense of almost bewilderment and a desire to know how different their
life course would have been if the event of adoption had not occurred.
A 25 year old adoptee remarked “adoption has given me a different life
altogether”. Another 20 year old said adoption has brought in a world of
good things—knowledge, exposure, family and opportunities. These are
very typical questions reported by other adoption researchers (Howe and
Feast, 2000).
Project Limits
No matter how innovative or social science based a project might be,
there are always a number of weaknesses that must be acknowledged. One
key problem was the small sample size that raises questions both about
generalisability and statistical power. A second problem is the measures
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Adoption and Birth Family Issues 295
used in the study; some have not been used in India, some had to be
modified to fit the situation, and all measures were translated from English
into the local dialect of Marathi, but not back translated for accuracy in
errors. This may have resulted in measurement errors. To score the SF-
36, Quality Metric Software was used and the programme rated the data
quality as poor.
This project allowed the adoptees to have a voice, as this was the first
systematic attempt undertaken in India. While it has some weaknesses,
it offers a glimpse into the lives of the adoptees who participated in the
project. It also broadened the understanding of adoption from a global/
multicultural perspective.
As a result of the data collection from adoptees as well as adoptive
parents along with key informant interviews and community forums
where results were presented, several implications are warranted. First,
adoption is a lifelong process. While the needs of adoptive families may
not be prominent during early adulthood for the adoptee, the adoptees and
their families have unmet service needs. Post-adoption programming must
meet the needs of adult adoptees and families. These needs might include
having a neutral forum to share how adoption continues to shape their life
experiences as well as just having the opportunity to meet other adoptees.
Post-adoption programming means helping adoptees sort through their
feelings about their birth family/adoptive family and it may include an
array of services linked to the birth family—from obtaining non identifying
information to conducting searches and meeting birth family members to
securing genetic testing to confirm maternity or paternity.
Search for biological roots is a fairly new concept in India and will
require extensive community education campaigns, so the adoptees who
want birth family information and contact are not seen as pathological/ or
as a reflection of parenting, but searching is seen as part of normal adoptee
development. India may learn from the experiences of adoptees, adoptive
parents, birth parents and adoption professionals from the USA, Canada
and the UK, since they have many years of experience with these issues.
While search has been more associated with adoptees, it is not unusual for
any adult person to think about their historical and biological roots. An
entire industry has developed to help people explore their genealogy (see including American television programmes (Who Do
You Think You Are). Children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of
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296 Victor Groza, Hyeshin Park, Meera Oke, Roxana Kalyanvala and Maina Shetty
immigrants often explore the family country of origins as part of developing
a greater sense of adult identity. It is, therefore, not unusual for adoptees
to have the same feelings and desires, regardless of their country of origin.
Another implication is related to disclosure, given the response
pattern in the current study. While parents may feel the communication is
complete, it may not be so from the perspective of the adoptee. There are
indications to suggest that although adoptees have a positive self-esteem,
it may not be reflected in the disclosure of their adoptive status; in other
words, adoption is a protected status and not directly related to disclosure,
particularly with their peers. Adoptees are cognizant of their status and
learn to manage it within the context of Indian society.
The ecological-transactional developmental model in adoption
transcends country boundaries and may be a potentially useful model
in countries developing domestic adoption programmes as well as
cross-national studies of adoption. It helps conceptualise transitions in
the adoptee’s life that might influence his/her development. Adoption
research globally benefits when scholars use not only the same methods
and measures, but also the same conceptual and theoretical models for
understanding adoption outcomes.
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