Single parent adoption in India: Mental health and legal perspectives and the way forwardR Ranjan1, S Nath2, S Jha1, VL Narasimha2
1 Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Patna, Bihar, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Deoghar, Jharkhand, India
Correspondence Address: Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None DOI: 10.4103/jpgm.jpgm_718_22
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
Keywords: Adoption, CARA, child psychiatry, Juvenile Justice Act, single parent adoption
The current concept of a family is viewed as a construct wherein members are interrelated to each other by affections, proximity, intimacy, emotional stability, and by the presence of biological and/or adopted children, beyond biological variables. Traditionally, such a family is viewed to be formed out of a heterosexual, monogamous, and procreative marriage, which is given social legitimacy. The definition of family has changed and so is the societal approach to it, which is supplemented with legislation and statutes. While having a biological child often plays the center role in a satisfying conjugal relationship, 'adoption' also has taken a center-stage for those couples who either did not have a biological child or out of individual needs and interests.
The Juvenile Justice Act (Care and Protection of Children), 2015 (JJ Act, 2015) denotes adoption as 'the process through which the adopted child is permanently separated from his biological parents and becomes the legitimate child of his adoptive parents with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that are attached to the relationship.' This has been in vogue through the ages and over time, the legal and societal stance on adoption has seen a significant change that has been both a boon and a difficulty for prospective adoptive parents (PAPs). The difficulty becomes more pronounced when unmarried men/women, either in a heterosexual or homosexual relationship, opt to adopt a child, more so in India. There has been a relatively lesser discussion and literature base on single parent adoption (SPA). Instances of people becoming single parents through adoption are on a steady rise. As per an RTI application to the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) (the nodal body dealing with adoptions under the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India [MWCD, GOI]), till December 2020, 510 single women and 71 single men have already applied for adoption. The numbers escalated significantly for both genders. For single women, while there were 495 applications for SPA in 2017–2018, the number rose to 589 in 2018–2019. For single men, the number rose from 32 in 2017–2018 to 45 in 2018–2019. Thus, its apparent that there has been an increased acceptance among single women and men to don the role of a single parent through adoptions. Adoption agencies, which earlier showed a staunch bias against unmarried men and women, are now more prepared to consider them as prospective parents. Given the fact that SPA is a lesser discussed topic in India and there is a paucity of papers on this topic from a mental health perspective, there remains a need to understand this topic from a mental health professional's (MHP) point of view. The current paper discusses SPA from the perspective of MHPs who will focus on the various legal nuances of SPA as well as the psychological connotations attached to it.
The search strategy employed for the topic included a thorough literature search from two databases (PubMed and Google Scholar), with relevant keywords like 'adoption,' 'single parent adoption,' 'single parent adoption India,' 'adoptee,' 'prospective adoptive parents,' 'single father,' 'single men,' 'single mother,' and 'single women.' We came across few papers on this topic, more so for those which are discussed in context to the Indian subcontinent. While 25 articles were obtained on SPA, only four discusses the context in Indian context. Apart from this, relevant governmental and non-governmental notifications, laws, and statutes were also referred to for drafting this manuscript. The index paper is an attempt to collate these data into a narrative review, that will discuss the various legal issues related to SPA and the psychological domains attached with it.
In India, the CARA, a statutory body of the MWCD, GOI, functions as the nodal body for adoption of Indian children and is mandated to monitor and regulate in-country and inter-country adoptions. For the latter, CARA follows the provisions of the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption, 1993, which was ratified by the GOI in 2003. It promotes these forms of adoption through the Child Adoption Resource Information & Guidance System, an e-governance initiative that provides an online centralized resource for adoption. These functions as designated to CARA are mandated under Section 68 of the JJ Act, 2015, and it works in unison with the State Adoption Resource Agencies (SARAs) and the District Child Protection Units, which are entrusted with various steps in the adoption process, its promotion, and its implementation. Mission Vatsalya, the most recent addition to the child welfare armamentarium in India, also encompasses various aspects of adoption in its purview. While it envisages supporting state- and non-governmental organizations-run specialized adoption agencies, it also mentions assisting SARA in every state and union territory of India in liaison with different stakeholders, apart from forming a digital platform for various adoption-related and child-safety-related issues.
The process of adoption (whether SPA or couple adoption) and the laws governing it in India vary among different religions. The Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956 (HAMA) maintains adoption laws for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. For Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Jews, complete adoption is not recognized; instead, guardianship is allowed under the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890 (GWA). According to HAMA, 1956, any male of the religions denoted within this act who is of sound mind and not a minor is eligible to adopt. If such a male has a living spouse at the time of adoption, he can adopt a child only with the consent of his wife (unless she has been declared incompetent to give her consent by the court). Women under this act can adopt a son or a daughter provided she is unmarried, her husband is not alive, her marriage has been dissolved, or her husband has been declared incompetent by the court. For Muslims, the equivalent term for adoption is 'Kafala,' where a guardian's role is played instead of a parent. Adopting one's adopted child to oneself, as if a biological relationship exists, is unlawful here. In a recent judgement of Shabnam Hashmi v. Union of India and Ors AIR 2014 SC 1281, the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India held that the secular laws of adoption will supersede personal laws related to specific religions and that the JJ Act 2000 can empower them to 'adopt.' This ruling thus empowers any person of any religion residing in India to adopt a child. For Christians and Parsis, adoption again is not allowed, and guardianship can be provided with order and assurance from the court under the GWA, 1890.
The laws and rules for SPA in India fall under the niche of JJ Act, which is slightly different for single men and women. In 2015, the MWCD, GOI, issued the CARA guidelines, which permit a single woman to adopt a kid of any gender, while the JJ Act does not lawfully grant a single male to adopt a girl child.
In July 2017, the law became even more favorable for single women over the age of 40. Their waiting period for adoption is now fast-tracked by six months, when the average waiting period for PAPs is two years. The minimum age after which a single mother can adopt in India has come down from 30 years to 25 years, while it is 25 years for the male counterpart. Prospective single male and female parents up to 45 years of age can adopt a child below four years of age, while those up to the age of 50 are eligible to adopt five to eight years old children. For those up to the age of 55, they may adopt kids between the ages of 9 and 18 years, after which adoption is not allowed. The other gender specific adoption rules are the same as stated above and is notified in the recent MWCD, GOI notification 2017. The MWCD, GOI has also come up with information regarding the adoption principles, and children who are in need of adoption and the detailed procedures related to adoption, which are described in detail in their 2017 notification.
Single parenting has dilemmas and challenges that differ from those in the two-parent model linked to parenting, family and environment, image, messages for their children, and the future. Literature indicates that single parents experience more responsibility and burden, solitude and freedom, exclusivity, and calmness in a way that differs from a parent raising children with a living spouse. The different issues faced by a single parent are functional and economic difficulties, increased responsibility, loneliness, dependence on parents, the need to feel a sense of belonging, to be part of a peer group or community, acceptance of the absence of a traditional family image, fear of the future, etc., Single parents experience more stressors, and this may lead to an apparent decrease in parental warmth and involvement in their child's life and support.
Till date there has been less amount of literature, both worldwide and in India, that systematically explores the social and psychological facets of adoption, SPA to be precise. The majority of this existing literature (on partnered adoption) is in the last three decades of the last century, while apparently there have been no studies till date on SPA. Adoption is not without stigma in India since it indirectly emphasizes infertility in married couples, while in the case of single parents, it signifies a breakdown of the traditional husband-wife-child family model, a deviation from what is apparently deemed 'normal.' SPA is considered a blow to the immutable triad of the mother (egg, womb), father (semen), and child (fetus), which falls in a 'double conceptual bind' with the socially visible modes of reproduction, viz the kinship relations. This societal concept often poses a challenge to single parents who are planning to adopt a child or have already adopted one. The socio-cultural and psychological conundrums of SPA also appear to be related to the gender of the PAP.
There is a relative lack of discussion for males opting for SPA, since, while motherhood is considered central to a woman's sense of self-efficacy, men are thought to prioritize their career over family. Single fathers, as compared to single mothers, generally enjoy higher incomes, more stable employment, better education, and more social support, as obtained from an extensive literature review of nearly 20 years.
Studies, including in-depth interviews, have unraveled the fact that single fathers sensed a sense of duty and responsibility that motivated them to become full-time single parents. They also expressed their desire to be a role model as a father for their adopted child. This motivation has been found to be similar for single fathers irrespective of their sexual orientation. Single fathers also value societal and family ties, and they desire to nurture kids on their own, particularly when they have reached a period of financial stability and social maturity. Studies have also shown that society tends to look single fathers in more positive terms than single mothers.
Some opposing observations are also there. Men have been found to be more perpetrators of child abuse in foster care while many children who later required foster care had in fact lacked a consistent parental figure, which highlights the role of a father in a family dyad.
With regards to parenting skills and behavior, single mothers and single fathers have been found to show some initial differences that progressively become similar over time and that gender differences in parenting gets overridden by the necessities of single parenthood., This is further strengthened by the fact that new fathers have some significant brain changes that facilitate increased vigilance and socio-emotional pursuits as similar that are though not fully identical, with those of mothers. These brain changes in fathers are not hormone-driven but are triggered and shaped by childcare experiences, which provide emotional feedback that progressively shapes and nurtures the paternal brain.,,
Single parenting is not without stress. Single fathers have been found to show more mental health issues than fathers in a marital relationship, a finding from a United States study that is also supported by United Kingdom research on rates of common mental disorders in single parents of both sexes.,
Single mothers are considered to be “less intelligent, less desirable, less secure, less fortunate, less satisfied with life, less moral, less reputable, less of a good parent, and less economically advantaged” in a study that assessed attitudes toward single mothers and fathers. Though the study was done abroad, it provides us an outlook of the general population on single women seeking adoption that is overridden with prejudice and stigma. Indeed, the concept of a single, unmarried woman seeking adoption raises many eyebrows in India. What resonates out of single motherhood is a prejudiced view, deeply enmeshed in history, that they are 'unconventional and at worst as sinful or outside the pale of society.'
Nevertheless, a single mother's wishes and desire for motherhood are no different from those of a mother in a partnered relationship with a procreated child. An online survey of 291 mothers in Cambridge, UK, who either went for SPA or used sperm donation found that these single mothers' main reason to be mothers was because they desired to be one; they considered themselves to be growing older and had felt a sense of financial security and maturity in them. A handful of them also felt the 'now or never' dilemma while they thought of rearing a child themselves. Few of the mothers were concerned about the absence of a father figure in their child's upbringing, while others were unconcerned about this. A study that employed in-depth interviews with four single American mothers who adopted daughters from China revealed four basic themes associated with their decision to adopt and its aftermath. Firstly, they struggled to rear their child without a father. Secondly, these mothers coped with the fear and prejudice in their milieu of friends, relatives, and colleagues. Thirdly, they were able to fulfill their own defined needs and wishes alongside the desire to be a mother, and fourthly, they found support and help from their milieu for the decision they had taken.
The prejudiced societal view on single motherhood is however counteracted hard with findings from various studies in the 1970s and 1990s as reviewed by Paklzegi (2007). Single women seeking adoption have been found to be white women with a successful career who initially considered pregnancy first, and they have a similar motivation like that of a partnered lady in having a child. They have also been aptly described as independent and mature, with a positive self-esteem, having high expectations of themselves, and having a high frustration tolerance. Single mothers were also found to have better self-rated overall health and mental health than single fathers.
There is a paucity of Indian data on single mothers. The obstacles faced by a single mother, right from the time she conceives the thought of adoption and then plays the role of a mother, are manifold, as put forward by Deep (2019) in a recent review. The author stressed upon the hurdles a single mother faces from her family and the society at large, the prejudiced views and unnecessary delays in the procedure by adoption offices, the difficulty she faces while she wants her child (the adoptee) to get admitted in a school, the difficulties in playing the dual role of a mother and one's personal and work life, and the dilemma they face in the event of divulging the adoption status to the adoptee.
The stress a single mother faces is not less. Hilton et al. (2001) found single mothers to experience more stress than dual parents, while an older study by Golombok et al. (1997) found no such differences when compared to partnered parents. A relatively recent New Zealand study with data on 905 single parents and 4860 partnered parents found that 15.7% of single mothers and 9.1% of single fathers endorsed high to very high levels of psychological distress as compared to 6.1% of partnered mothers and 4.1% of partnered fathers. The relatively poorer mental health of single mothers compared to single fathers was attributed to the socioeconomic disadvantage of the former, who, on average, earn lower wages than single men. In a recent large population-based survey assessing mortality in single parents compared to that of partnered parents in Canada, Chiu et al. (2018) found that single mothers (1.74 per 1000 person-years) had one-third lesser mortality than single fathers (5.8 per 1000 person-years). Single fathers had significantly more cardiovascular diseases and monthly binge drinking than single mothers, while the latter had a significantly greater number of hospital visits, more physical inactivity, and a higher chance of remaining unemployed in the past year. The authors proposed that social support might be more readily available for single mothers than single fathers. There are apparently no studies till date in India looking for the psychological aspects of adoption in single mothers as well as that of fathers. SPA being a crucial psychosocial entity, its psychological and social ramifications of SPA need to be studied at length.
Literature on the longitudinal psychological, behavioral, and physical outcomes of children raised by single parents is sparse. A first-hand account of healthcare challenges faced by adoptees was obtained recently in an article by Fleming (2018), who narrated the ordeals he faced as an adoptee. He was 'brought to the International Mission of Hope,' an orphanage in Kolkata, India as a newborn,' and then he was adopted at 8 months of his age in Wisconsin, US. He was detected to be a carrier of thalassemia minor, a trait he inherited from his biological parents of Asian/Indian descent. He went on to write that he made sure to mention this history to all healthcare workers he met, but he always felt 'they aren't getting the whole story.' A conversation of his health history with them often dated to his ethnical origins, based upon which his physicians would make assumptions, which according to Fleming were somewhat biased since he knew that 'the outcome of my health is now influenced mainly by my socioeconomic status, my lifestyle, and how I was raised.' Speaking of this, Fleming asserted that he is an autonomous person with respect to his healthcare preferences.
Children who are adopted have been found to exhibit a higher degree of psychiatric morbidity and suicide., This might be associated with the post-adoption rearing environment, including being raised in a single-parent household. Conversely, there are reports from case series that highlight the absence of any behavioral and emotional problems in adoptees of SPA, where the child was adopted from China. In a recent systematic review on the outcomes of adoptees in SPA versus two-parent adoption by Levene (2021), the author put forward the methodological differences in the pooled studies with moderate and high likelihood of bias due to sampling differences, attrition rates, and outcome assessments in them. Notwithstanding these differences, the author concluded that these studies found 'no differences in adoption success, educational achievement, gender and racial identity, or adjustment in American children adopted by single people or couples.'
The sparce literature discussing adjustments made by adoptees has highlighted the theme that, irrespective of whether they are adopted by single parents and by two-parent families, these adopted children try to adjust in a similar way, and in some cases, SPA might be better than two-parent adoption. An earlier study by Groze and Rosenthal (1991) even found that adoptees of single parents have lesser behavioral and emotional complains than their two-parent counterparts, and there was no difference in the educational outcomes of these children. They even concluded that SPA might be a better and viable option for emotionally disturbed children, though the reason remains unclear.
Biblarz and Stacy (2010) reported that children's educational and psychological (attachment and behavioral) outcomes are essentially indistinct with regards to whether they are reared by a single father or a single mother. The authors also put forward this hypothesis that there occurs an androgynous type of parenting irrespective of what gender their parent is, and this becomes more evident with time. Also, incidents of behavioral problems in adoptees are also indistinguishable in them. A recent study from India that assessed the lived experiences of single-parent children (11 college-going students) using a qualitative approach found that while 82% reported additional “responsibilities,” 54% of adoptees reported careful “decision-making” process. About 91% of the respondents reported a lower “sense of belongingness,” “social stigma,” and higher “resilience,” while 73% mentioned emotional dysregulation.
Longitudinal studies on assessments of emotional, behavioral and physical outcomes in adopted children of single parents are need of the hour. Results obtained from them can have a long way in providing relevant information to appropriate stakeholders with respect to pre-adoption psychological assessments of PAPs and in continuing an ongoing behavioral, emotional as well as physical outcomes of the adoptees.
Raising a child all by oneself can be very challenging, more so when the child is adopted into a single-parent home. We propose that it is necessary to enlist one's family's support and resources before considering adoption, as well as having a frank dialogue with other family members on the matter. The discussion should include financial maturity of the prospective parent too as well as any forthcoming mental and physical morbidity in them that might come in the way of a successful adoption and post-adoption rearing. Adoption agencies need to be professionally trained so that they would be able to educate single PAPs about parenting and offer counseling to them. Adoptive parents should send follow up report of their child to these agencies regularly, which may be a surrogate indicator of the fruitfulness of single parenting. A social network needs to be carved out in which single parents can share their views and get peer help when needed. Much of this is currently done efficiently by CARA, but this does not minimize individual responsibility. There are regulations and guidelines on the CARA website wherein things are mentioned that are considered important before seeking adoption. These are manifold, and as mentioned above, range from whether one has a reliable and adequate support system, one is reasonably well physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially in order to raise a child; and, lastly but importantly, whether one is extremely motivated and committed to adopt and raise a child. The relevant laws and statutes with regards to adoption in India and child abuse should be strictly implemented and followed, which will play a major role in minimizing any foul play in the process. Childcare institutions, agencies handling the adoption process, and other stakeholders in India need to be sensitized to the idea of diverse families like same-sex couples or single-parent households.
There are a few limitations to the studies on SPA. As has been already mentioned, there is a dearth of studies on adoption and SPA in India and abroad that specifically look into their psychosocial aspects, the lived experiences of the adoptees and their single parents, and the longitudinal trajectory their psychosocial development. Also, these papers have not looked into some core aspects of mental health aspects in them in terms of personality profile of prospective parents, adoptees, and psychiatric morbidities in these parents in later life. They have also not assessed the economic and legal burden of adoption, which may be crucial for stakeholders in this matter.
Single-parent families are as nurturing and viable as dual-parent families. The human desire to nurture and have a family is a strong need felt by most people. SPA may provide a wonderful opportunity to fulfill their desire and offer a permanent, loving home to a child who needs it. Agencies should increase their recognition and recruitment of this non-traditional form of the family as a resource for the adoption of children with special needs, as true as the need for longitudinal studies to assess the various aspects of SPA.
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