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Stephanie Joan Becker Vs. State and Ors.

[Civil Appeal No. 1053 of 2013 arising out of SLP (Civil) No. 29505 of 2012]

RANJAN GOGOI, J.

1. Leave granted.

2. The rejection of the applications filed by the appellant under Sections 7 and 26 of the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890 (hereinafter for short the "Guardians Act") by the learned Trial Court vide its order dated17.09.2010 in Guardianship Case No. 2 of 2010 and the affirmation of the said order made by the High Court of Delhi by its order dated 09.07.2012 in FAO No. 425 of 2010 has been put to challenge in the present appeal. By the application filed under Section 7 of the Guardians Act, the appellant had sought for an order of the Court appointing her as the guardian of one female orphan child Tina aged about 10 years whereas by the second application filed under Section 26 of the Guardians Act the appellant had sought permission of the Court to take the child Tina out of the country for the purpose of adoption.

3. The rejection of the aforesaid two applications by the learned Trial Court as well as by the High Court is on a sole and solitary ground, namely, that the appellant, being a single prospective adoptive parent, was aged about 53 years at the relevant point of time whereas for a single adoptive parent the maximum permissible age as prescribed by the Government of India Guidelines in force was 45. Though a no objection, which contained an implicit relaxation of the rigour of the Guidelines with regard to age, has been granted by the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), the High Court did not consider it appropriate to take the said no objection/relaxation into account inasmuch as the reasons for the relaxation granted were not evident on the face of the document i.e. no objection certificate in question.

4. To understand and appreciate the contentious issues that have arisen in the present appeal, particularly, the issues raised by a non-governmental organization that had sought impleadment in the present proceedings (subsequently impleaded as respondent No. 4) it will be necessary to take note of the principles of law governing inter-country adoption, a short resume of which is being made herein below. But before doing that it would be worthwhile to put on record that the objections raised by the Respondent No.4, pertain to the legality of the practice of inter country adoption itself, besides the bonafides of the appellant in seeking to adopt the child involved in the present proceeding and the overzealous role of the different bodies involved in the process in question resulting in side stepping of the laid down norms.

5. The law with regard to inter-country adoption, indeed, was in a state of flux until the principles governing giving of Indian children in adoption to foreign parents and the procedure that should be followed in this regard to ensure absence of any abuse, maltreatment or trafficking of children came to be laid down by this Court in Lakshmi Kant Pandey v. Union of India[1]. The aforesaid proceedings were instituted by this Court on the basis of a letter addressed by one Lakshmi Kant Pandey, a practicing advocate of this Court with regard to alleged malpractices indulged in by social and voluntary organizations engaged in the work of offering Indian children in adoption to foreign parents.

After an elaborate consideration of the various dimensions of the questions that arose/were raised before the Court and the information laid before it by the Indian Council of Social Welfare, Indian Council of Child Welfare, SOS Children's Villages of India (respondent No. 2 herein) and also certain voluntary organizations working in the foreign jurisdictions, this Court, after holding in favour of inter country adoption, offered elaborate suggestions to ensure that the process of such adoption is governed by strict norms, and a well laid down procedure to eliminate the possibility of abuse or misuse in offering Indian children for adoption by foreign parents is in place.

This Court in Lakshmi Kant Pandey (supra) also laid down the approach that is required to be adopted by the courts while dealing with applications under the Guardians and Wards Act seeking orders for appointment of foreign prospective parents as guardians of Indian children for the eventual purpose of adoption. Such directions, it may be noticed, was not only confined to hearing various organizations like the Indian Council for Child Welfare and Indian Council of Social Welfare by issuance of appropriate notices but also the time period within which the proceedings filed before the Court are to stand decided. Above all, it will be necessary for us to notice that in Lakshmi Kant Pandey (supra) this Court had observed that :

"Of course, it would be desirable if a Central Adoption Resource Agency is set up by the Government of India with regional branches at a few centres which are active in inter-country adoptions. Such Central Adoption Resource Agency can act as a clearing house of information in regard to children available for inter-country adoption and all applications by foreigners for taking Indian children in adoption can then be forwarded by the social or child welfare agency in the foreign country to such Central Adoption Resource Agency and the latter can in its turn forward them to one or the other of the recognized social or child welfare agencies in the country.

6. "Pursuant to the decision of this Court in Lakshmi Kant Pandey (supra)surely, though very slowly, the principles governing adoption including the establishment of a central body, i.e., Central Adoption Resource Authority(CARA) took shape and found eventual manifestation in a set of elaborate guidelines laid down by the Government of India commonly referred to as the Guidelines For Adoption from India 2006 (hereinafter referred to as "the Guidelines of 2006"). A reading of the aforesaid Guidelines indicates that elaborate provisions had been made to regulate the pre-adoption procedure which culminates in a declaration by the Child Welfare Committee that the child is free for adoption. Once the child (abandoned or surrendered) is so available for adoption the Guidelines of 2006 envisage distinct and separate steps in the process of adoption which may be usefully noticed below :

1. Enlisted Foreign Adoption Agency (EFAA)

  • The applicants will have to contact or register with an Enlisted Foreign Adoption Agency (EFAA)/Central Authority/Govt. Deptt. in their country, in which they are resident, which will prepare the a Home Study Report (HSR) etc. The validity of "Home Study Report" will be for a period of two years. HSR report prepared before two years will be updated at referral.
  • The applicants should obtain the permission of the competent authority for adopting a child from India. Where such Central Authorities or Government departments are not available, then the applications may be sent by the enlisted agency with requisite documents including documentary proof that the applicant is permitted to adopt from India
  • The adoption application dossier should contain all documents prescribed in Annexure-2. All documents are to be notarized. The signature of the notary is either to be attested by the Indian Embassy/High Commission or the appropriate Govt. Department of the receiving country. If the documents are in any language other than English, then the originals must be accompanied by attested translations
  • A copy of the application of the prospective adoptive parents along with the copies of the HSR and other documents will have to be forwarded to RIPA by the Enlisted Foreign Adoption Agency (EFAA) or Central Authority of that country.

2. Role of Recognized Indian Placement Agency (RIPA)

  • On receipt of the documents, the Indian Agency will make efforts to match a child who is legally free for inter- country adoption with the applicant.
  • In case no suitable match is possible within 3 months, the RIPA will inform the EFAA and CARA with the reasons therefore.

3. Child being declared free for inter-country adoption - Clearance by ACA

  • Before a RIPA proposes to place a child in the Inter country adoption, it must apply to the ACA for assistance for Indian placement.
  • The child should be legally free for adoption. ACA will find a suitable Indian prospective adoptive parent within 30 days, failing which it will issue clearance certificate for inter-country adoption.
  • ACA will issue clearance for inter-country adoption within 10 days in case of older children above 6 years, siblings or twins and Special Needs Children as per the additional guidelines issued in this regard.
  • In case the ACA cannot find suitable Indian parent/parents within 30 days, it will be incumbent upon the ACA to issue a Clearance Certificate on the 31st day.
  • If ACA Clearance is not given on 31st day, the clearance of ACA will be assumed unless ACA has sought clarification within the stipulation period of 30 days.
  • NRI parent(s) (at least one parent) HOLDING Indian Passport will be exempted from ACA Clearance, but they have to follow all other procedures as per the Guidelines.

(4) Matching of the Child Study Report with Home Study Report of FPAP by RIPA

  • After a successful matching, the RIPA will forward the complete dossier as per Annexure 3 to CARA for issuance of "No Objection Certificate".

(5) Issue of No Objection Certificate (NOC) by CARA

  • RIPA shall make application for CARA NOC in case of foreign/PIO parents only after ACA Clearance Certificate is obtained.
  • CARA will issue the 'NOC' within 15 days from the date of receipt of the adoption dossier if complete in all respect.
  • If any query or clarification is sought by CARA, it will be replied to by the RIPA within 10 days.
  • No Indian Placement Agency can file an application in the competent court for inter-country adoption without a "No Objection Certificate" from CARA.

(6) Filing of Petition in the Court

  • On receipt of the NOC from CARA, the RIPA shall file a petition for adoption/guardianship in the competent court within 15 days.
  • The competent court may issue an appropriate order for the placement of the child with FPAP.
  • As per the Hon'ble Supreme Court directions, the concerned Court may dispose the case within 2 months.

(7) Passport and Visa

  • RIPA has to apply in the Regional Passport Office for obtaining an Indian Passport in favour of the child.
  • The concerned Regional Passport Officer may issue the Passport within 10 days.
  • Thereafter the VISA entry permit may be issued by the Consulate/Embassy/High Commission of the concerned country for the child.

(8) Child travels to adoptive country

  • The adoptive parent/parents will have to come to India and accompany the child back to their country.

7. Even after the child leaves the country the Guidelines of 2006contemplate a process of continuous monitoring of the welfare of the child through the foreign placement agency until the process of adoption in the country to which the child has been taken is completed, which process the Guidelines contemplate completion within two years. The monitoring of the welfare of the child after the process of adoption is complete and the steps that are to be taken in cases where the adoption does not materialize is also contemplated under the Guidelines of 2006. As the said aspects are not relevant for the purposes of the present adjudication the details in this regard are not being noticed. What, however, would require emphasis, at this stage, is that by and large the Guidelines of 2006 framed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development are in implementation of the decision of this Court in the case of Lakshmi Kant Pandey (supra).

8. Two significant developments in the law governing adoptions may now be taken note of. Section 41 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 (hereinafter for short the "JJ Act") was amended by Act 33 of 2006 by substituting sub-Sections 2, 3 and 4 by the present provisions contained in the aforesaid sub-Sections of Section 41. The afore said amendment which was made effective from 22.8.2006 is significant in as much as under sub-Section 3 power has been conferred in the Court to give a child in adoption upon satisfaction that the various guidelines issued from time to time, either by the State Government or the CARA and notified by the Central Government have been followed in the given case.

The second significant development in this regard is the enactment of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Rules 2007 by repeal of the 2001 Rules in force. Rule 33 (2) makes it clear that "for all matters relating to adoption, the guidelines issued by the Central Adoption Resource Agency and notified by the Central Government under sub-section(3) of Section 41 of the Act, shall apply." Rule 33 (3) in the various sub-clauses (a) to (g) lays down an elaborate procedure for certifying an abandoned child to be free for adoption.

Similarly, sub-rule (4) of Rule 33deals with the procedure to be adopted for declaring a surrendered child to be legally free for adoption. Once such a declaration is made, the various steps in the process of adoption spelt out by the Guidelines of 2006,details of which have been extracted hereinabove, would apply finally leading to departure of the child from the country to his/her new home for completion of the process of adoption in accordance with the laws of the country to which the child had been taken. In this regard the order of the courts in the country under Section 41(3) of the JJ Act would be a step in facilitating the adoption of the child in the foreign country.

9. It will also be necessary at this stage to take note of the fact that the Guidelines of 2006 stand repealed by a fresh set of Guidelines published by Notification dated 24.6.2011 of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India under Section 41(3) of the JJ Act. The time gap between the coming into effect of the provisions of Section41(3) of the JJ Act i.e. 22.08.2006 and the publication of the 2011Guidelines by the Notification dated 24.6.2011 is on account of what appears to be various procedural steps that were undertaken including consultation with various bodies and the different State Governments.

A reading of the Guidelines of 2011 squarely indicate that the procedural norms spelt out by the 2006 Guidelines have been more elaborately reiterated and the requirements of the pre-adoption process under Rules33(3) and (4) have been incorporated in the said Guidelines of 2011. As a matter of fact, by virtue of the provisions of Rule 33(2) it is the Guidelines of 2011 notified under Section 41(3) of the JJ Act which will now govern all matters pertaining to inter-country adoptions virtually conferring on the said Guidelines a statutory flavour and sanction. Though the above may not have been the position on the date of the order of the learned trial court i.e. 17.9.2010, the full vigour of Section 41(3) of the JJ Act read with Rule 33 (2) of the Rules and the Guidelines of 2011 were in operation on the date of the High Court order i.e. 9.7.2012.

The Notification dated 24.06.2011 promulgating the Guidelines of 2011 would apply to all situations except such things done or actions completed before the date of the Notification in question, i.e., 24.06.2011. The said significant fact apparently escaped the notice of the High Court. Hence the claim of the appellant along with consequential relief, if any, will have to be necessarily considered on the basis of the law as in force today, namely, the provisions of the JJ Act and the Rules framed there under and the Guidelines of 2011 notified on 24.6.2011. In other words, if the appellant is found to be so entitled, apart from declaring her to be natural guardian and grant of permission to take the child away from India a further order permitting the proposed adoption would also be called for. Whether the order relating to adoption of the child should be passed by this Court as the same was not dealt with in the erstwhile jurisdictions (trial court and the High Court) is an incidental aspect of the matter which would require consideration.

10. The facts of the present case, as evident from the pleadings of the parties and the documents brought on record, would go to show that the appellant's case for adoption has been sponsored by an agency (Journeys of the Heart, USA) rendering service in USA which is recognized by CARA. The Home Study Report of the family of the appellant indicates that the appellant apart from being gainfully employed and financially solvent is a person of amicable disposition who has developed affinity for Indian culture and Indian children. The appellant, though unmarried, has the support of her brother and other family members who have promised to look after the child in the event such a situation becomes necessary for any reason whatsoever.

The Child Study Report along with medical examination Report prepared by the recognized agency in India has been read and considered by the appellant and it is only thereafter that she had indicated her willingness to adopt the child in question. Before permitting the present process of inter country adoption to commence, all possibilities of adoption of the child by an Indian parent were explored which however did not prove successful. The matter was considered by the No Objection Committee of the CARA and as stated in the affidavit of the said agency filed before this Court, the No Objection Certificate dated03.02.2010 has been issued keeping in mind the various circumstances peculiar to the present case, details of which are as hereunder :

  • "Child Tina was an older female child (aged 7 years when the NOC was issued) and thus relaxation was permissible as per the guidelines.
  • The Prospective parent was 54 years of age, which is within the age up to which adoption by foreign prospective parent is permissible after relaxation i.e. 55 years.
  • The Prospective Adoptive Parent is otherwise also suitable as she is financially stable and there are three reference letters supporting adoption of the child by her. The Home study report of the prospective parent (Ms. Stephanie Becker) shows the child as kind, welcoming, caring and responsible individual with physical, mental emotional and financial capability to parent a female child up to age of seven years from India.
  • Procedures such as declaration of the child as legally free for adoption by CWC Child Welfare Committee (CWC); ensuring efforts for domestic adoption and clearance of Adoption Coordinating Agency; and taking consent of older child had been followed.
  • Follow-up of the welfare of the child was to be properly done through Journeys of the Hearts, USA, the authorized agency which had also given an undertaking to ensure the adoption of child Tina according to the laws in USA within a period not exceeding two years from the date of arrival of the child in her new home. The agency has also committed to send follow-up reports as required.
  • The Biological brother of the prospective parent, Mr. Philip Becker Jr. and his wife Ms. Linda Becker have given an undertaking on behalf of the single female applicant to act as legal guardian of the child in case of any unforeseen event to the adoptive parent. This is another important safeguard.
  • Article 5 from the Office of Children's Issues, US Department of State allowing child Tina to enter and reside permanently in the United States and declaring suitability of the prospective adoptive parent, was available.

11. "In view of the facts as stated above which would go to show that each and every norm of the adoption process spelt out under the Guidelines of2006, as well as the Guidelines of 2011, has been adhered to, we find that the apprehension raised by the intervener, though may have been founded on good reasons, have proved themselves wholly unsubstantiated in the present case. If the foreign adoptive parent is otherwise suitable and willing, and consent of the child had also been taken (as in the present case) and the expert bodies engaged in the field are of the view that in the present case the adoption process would end in a successful blending of the child in the family of the appellant in USA, we do not see as to how the appellant could be understood to be disqualified or disentitled to the relief(s) sought by her in the proceedings in question.

It is our considered view that having regard to the totality of the facts of the case the proposed adoption would be beneficial to the child apart from being consistent with the legal entitlement of the foreign adoptive parent. If the above is the net result of the discussions that have proceeded, the Court must lean in favour of the proposed adoption. We, therefore, set aside the orders dated 17.09.2010 in Guardianship Case No. 2 of 2010 passed by the learned Trial Court and the order dated 09.07.2012 in FAO No. 425 of2010 passed by the High Court of Delhi and appoint the appellant as the legal guardian of the minor female child Tina and grant permission to the appellant to take the child to USA.

In view of the provisions of Section 41(3) of the JJ Act and to avoid any further delay in the matter which would be caused if we were to remand the aforesaid aspect of the case to the learned Trial Court, only on the ground that the same did not receive consideration of the learned Court, we deem it appropriate to pass necessary orders giving the child Tina in adoption to the appellant. The CARA will now issue the necessary conformity certificate as contemplated under clause 34(4) of the Guidelines of 2011. The appeal consequently shall stand allowed in the above terms.

........................J. [P. SATHASIVAM]

........................J. [RANJAN GOGOI]

........................J. [V. GOPALA GOWDA]

New Delhi,

February 08, 2013.

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