CHANDIGARH — On May 11 last year, 10-year-old Pratigya Tepri went missing while playing outside her house in Ludhiana’s Jugiana village. The child was found by the police two days later. But she wasn’t sent back home. Instead, she was put up for adoption and four months later, she became Veeva, the adopted daughter of a couple from Gujarat.
This was despite her father, factory worker Gopal Tepri, having filed a missing person’s complaint in a police station just 11 km away from where she was found.
Gopal and his wife Hema Devi fought a desperate legal battle for the annulment of Pratigya’s adoption at the Ludhiana district court which finally annulled the adoption and restoration of Pratigya to her biological parents on October 19.
Despite a week has gone by, Pratigya is still waiting anxiously at Ludhiana’s Swami Ganga Nand Bhuri Wale International Foundation—the NGO that put her up for adoption—with no hope to spend Diwali with her family.
Due to the delay in receiving the court’s order, she will be celebrating this Diwali inside the SGB Foundation home along with other missing and abandoned children as the SGB trust has turned down her parent’s request to get the custody of their biological daughter.
The case has exposed the gaping holes in the workings of various district-level agencies involved in the protection and adoption of children. While the Punjab government implemented the Centre’s Integrated Child Protection Scheme in 2011, it has failed to streamline the adoption process.
A glaring lapse in Pratigya’s case is the lack of coordination between the police, Child Care Institution and Child Welfare Committee. Set up under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, Child Care Institutions—like the SGB International Foundation—house children who are orphaned, abandoned or victims of sexual abuse, trafficking, disaster and conflict.
Child Welfare Committees, governed by the same law, deal with their care, protection, treatment, development and rehabilitation.
This is reportedly not the first time such a lack of coordination has resulted in missing children being falsely declared ‘abandoned’ and put up for adoption.
Pratigya’s ordeal may also be a fallout of the state clipping the wings of District Child Protection Officers, who are tasked with restoring children to their homes or rehabilitating them through programmes such as foster care, adoption and placement in Child Care Institutions.
Under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, these officers were initially responsible for children up to the age of 18. But last year, the Punjab government brought them under the jurisdiction of District Programme Officers, who were only looking after children up to the age of five.
What the law says
This brings us back to the question of how Pratigya was put up for adoption despite her family having filed a first information report at a police station in the same district.
A child study report by Arvind Kumar Singh, the SGB International Foundation’s adoption coordinator, says “Baby Pratigya” was found “abandoned” in Ludhiana’s Sherpur, that she was seven years old and that she had no recollection of her past. HuffPost India has a copy of the report.
However, the FIR filed at Sahnewal Police Station states the child’s age to be 10.
The Juvenile Justice Act states that the Child Welfare Committee must check the government’s designated national portal for tracking lost and found children to ascertain if any abandoned or orphaned child is a missing child. It is not clear if the committee in Ludhiana did this. Its members said they were not part of the committee at the time the case was decided.
The same Act also says the Specialised Adoption Agency – SGB International Foundation, in this case – must upload the child’s photograph and details online in the Central Adoption Resource Information Guidance System within three working days of receiving the child. It must update the photograph every six months.
Jasbir Kaur, president of SGB International Foundation, said they had uploaded Pratigya’s photograph on the portal but wasn’t sure when. “I will have to check the documents to ascertain if we uploaded her photograph before or after the FIR lodged by her parents,” Kaur said.
HuffPost India will update this report when it receives a response from the foundation in this regard.
Ludhiana’s District Child Protection Officer Rashmi said her office had made several efforts to find out if Pratigya had family. “We released advertisements in national newspapers but no one turned up [to claim her],” she explained, but further added that she was not sure whether the advertisement was published in the city page of a regional paper or on national pages. “We tried to speak to the child but she was reluctant to talk about her family. Since we have a time period (up to four months) to put children in adoption, we went ahead after getting an NTR [non-traceability report] from the Ludhiana Police.”
In the case of missing children, the police usually issue a non-traceability report within four months.
Though there is a detailed System of Procedures to be followed in the case of missing children, this seems to have been overlooked in Pratigya’s case.
“I will have to check to see where the lapse, if any, happened,” Ludhiana Police Commissioner Rakesh Aggarwal told HuffPost India. “We take utmost care before giving an NTR to any of the specialised adoption agencies.”
The Station House Officer Inderjeet Singh of Sahnewal Police Station told HuffPost India that the report pertaining to Pratigya’s case was sent to district headquarters.
Despite this, the District Child Protection Unit of Ludhiana could not trace back Pratigya from its police records.
Despite these lapses, it didn’t take too long for the truth about Pratigya to be revealed and the process to reunite her with her family to begin. But this threw up another challenge for her biological and adoptive parents.
In their FIR, Gopal and Hema had stated that their daughter was mentally challenged and tended to run away from home. Gopal told HuffPost India Pratigya had run away from home four times before as well.
“It started in May last year,” he said. “While playing with her brothers when her mother was at work, she started running away from home every second day. We even took her to a ‘sadhu baba’ as we thought she was possessed by an evil spirit.”
However, Pratigya’s adoptive parents refuted Gopal’s claim. “She is a bright child. She knew about her family and even her home address from the very first day,” said Sheeba Mahendiratta, a legal consultant in Ahmedabad who adopted Pratigya after her only daughter left home for higher education. “She learned swimming in a few weeks. I think she was never asked about her family and that’s how she ended up as our foster daughter.”
Gopal later admitted to having lied about Pratigya’s mental health. “When the police brought my daughter back the second time, they threatened to jail me if I did not take good care of her,” he said. “I was scared, so I lied to them that she is mentally challenged.”
The long journey back
Pratigya was with her adoptive parents for eight months before she tried to run away in April this year. It was then that Mahendiratta and her husband, Kamaljit Singh, realised the girl they had adopted was not an abandoned child as the Punjab Police, the adoption agency and the Child Welfare Committee in Ludhiana had told them.
I will have to check to see where the lapse, if any, happened,” Ludhiana Police Commissioner Rakesh Aggarwal told HuffPost India. “We take utmost care before giving an NTR to any of the specialised adoption agencies.”Rakesh Aggarwal, Police Commissioner, Ludhiana
“She remembered everything,” Mahendiratta said. “While she remained aloof for a month, she soon started talking about her three brothers and parents. We were shocked. She even told us the name of the company where her father worked.”
Mahendiratta said they looked up the details of the company online and spoke to Pratigya’s father to verify her claim, “which to our shock we found to be correct”. They then took her back to Ludhiana to be reunited with her parents, but were met with resistance.
“We took her back to the CCI [Child Care Institution], which refused to take her back,” said Singh. “We contacted the CWC [Child Welfare Committee] in Ludhiana but they asked us to accept it as God’s will as adoption once made through proper procedure cannot be reversed. It was a nightmare.”
All this while, Mahendiratta and Singh were in touch with Pratigya’s real family. Finally, when they refused to keep her any longer, the Child Welfare Committee gave in and sent her back to the SGB International Foundation. There she waits for a happily-ever-after end to her story.