March 18, 2017
Some 60 young women who grew up believing they were orphans discover the world and the families they were taken away from
Deep in a village outlined by fragrant jasmine fields in Usilampatti block of Madurai, 50-year-old Vellaiammal sits on a rock near her just-milked cows. Wiping her hands on her sari, she removes a handmade greeting card from a plastic bag. She holds it by the edges, careful not to let her wet fingers smudge the English words emblazoned in red felt pen across the page: “I miss you. MISS you. Miss YOU. With love, Nicola.”
The bag has more cards and letters, some packed with little cut-out hearts and paper roses that spill out when she opens the envelope. Her favourite, though, is the pencil drawing of a small house, next to which stand a mother and father, three girls and a boy in order of decreasing height, and finally, a tall girl in a T-shirt. An arrow pointing to it says, “Me and my family.”
When Vellaiammal was 30, she delivered her fourth child in the Usilampatti general hospital. It was a girl again, and the family was in mourning. On the third day, Vellaiammal went back to the fields. When she returned for lunch, the infant was gone. “My mother simply said the baby had died,” says Vellaiammal. “This was common in our parts—girls were unwanted, and someone in the family poisoned or drowned the child. Or maybe she died naturally, I didn’t know. I hadn’t even named her. I cried for a month, but what could I do?” There was land to till, young children to feed, elderly parents to care for. In a year, she had a son, and the family moved on.
Two decades later, in mid-2016, a social worker named K. Devendran told Vellaiammal that their fourth daughter was not only alive, but living in a children’s home only an hour and a half away. Her husband Palani threw Devendran out, insisting their child was dead. Vellaiammal, however, could not sleep that night. She cursed her dead mother for the horrifying deception. In a few weeks, Devendran returned. This time, he had a name and a photograph. “Her face…” Palani says, as he recalls looking at Nicola’s picture for the first time. “It was the face of all my children.”
More than 80 sets of parents like Velaiammal and Palani, from six villages in Usilampatti, received similarly staggering news last year. They learnt that their daughters—thought dead, abandoned, or killed—were alive in the neighbouring town of Tiruchi, and that they had been illegally raised in a Christian evangelist home called Mose Ministries. Illegal, because neither the institution nor its 89 residents were registered anywhere. The girls were admitted without due procedure, believing for 20 years that they had been abandoned or orphaned. Mose Ministries fed, clothed and schooled them, but in a restrictive environment—CCTVs in the dormitory, severe punishments, limited mobility, enforced religious rituals.
Of the 89 girls, the parentage of 61 is now known. For over a year, most of these parents—poor farmers, flower-sellers or day labourers—have been in the middle of an emotionally harrowing, legally complex effort to bring their girls home. “Why do I want her back?” asks Vellaiammal, repeating my reluctant question. “Because she is mine. Because she shouldn’t have been given away in the first place.”
The 89 girls were discovered when two interns from Chennai-based NGO CHANGEindia visited a few unregistered children’s homes in 2015 to gather evidence for a High Court petition on illegal childcare institutions. The interns, Vikas Christy and Babi Christina, had simply walked into Mose Ministries in Tiruchi—the gate was unlocked—and spoken to the inmates for three hours. “It was surprising; they were all around the same age,” says Christy. “All the girls said they had been rescued from female infanticide.” As the interns investigated in Tiruchi, social worker Devendran went in search of the parents in Usilampatti—his employer, Society for Integrated Rural Development (SIRD), had worked in the area for two decades to prevent sex selective abortion and infanticide. Using a list given by a whistleblower from the Home, Devendran knocked on doors until he had personally identified 61 parents across six villages. His conversations with them also revealed the state’s disturbing role in separating the girls from their birth homes.
Pastor Gideon Jacob and his German-origin wife started Mose Ministries in Usilampatti in 1994. Female infanticide was rampant in the region, and the Tamil Nadu government introduced the Cradle Baby Scheme, which invited parents to give away unwanted infants instead of killing them. “But people were still killing girls, until 1996. Then the case of a mother jailed for infanticide made the news,” says Devendran. “People finally realised infanticide was a crime. Killings dropped, but more infants began to be abandoned.” A senior official in the Usilampatti government hospital told me, “If any girl baby was left with us, we had to inform the police, and if no one claimed the child, we would hand them over to recognised adoption centres.”
A nexus involving many
None of the 89 Usilampatti girls were admitted this way—neither was Mose Ministries an authorised centre nor was the police informed. Over four years, village nurses, a panchayat president and his daughter (a senior nurse at the government hospital) reportedly brought over 125 girls to Mose: toddlers, a couple of six-year-olds, but most of them day-old infants. “Parents told me that when a girl was born and the family was depressed, at that moment, the nurse would say, just leave the kid,” says Devendran.
The former panchayat president had passed away a week before I visited Usilampatti, and the accused nurses had “been transferred”—no one knew where to. Devendran, who met them several times last year with the police, says, “They weren’t forthcoming about whether Mose Ministries paid them, but justified their action as ‘saving the girls’ or ‘giving them a better future’.”
In 1998, Mose Ministries moved the children to Tiruchi overnight, without informing local authorities or the police. For 16 years, the girls grew up in the two shabby dormitories where they were found in 2015, tucked away in a narrow, constricted street in Tiruchi’s Subramaniapuram. “They were brought up in an unhygienic, isolated environment, without counsellors, or mentors,” says Christy. “The older girls took care of the younger ones; they cooked, cleaned and did domestic chores. No local person, except the Pastor’s friends, ever visited. They were forcibly involved in prayer and groomed for evangelist work.” Residents told the interns and later, the police, that they were taken abroad in batches often once a year to meet donors and perform songs or dances. Screenshots of the Mose Ministries website, which has now been taken down, had cheerful pictures of 87 girls—each holding a guitar, basketball or badminton racket. The Home used these to solicit donations, largely from Germany.
A teacher from St. Philomena’s High School, which the girls attended for some years, tells me the Mose girls did not mingle with their classmates, had learning difficulties, and were entirely unexposed “to the outside world”. A Madurai Additional District Judge in her report to the High Court wrote that though over 17 now, if the girls were stranded somewhere, they wouldn’t be able to find their way back home. They had never handled money. “I asked one of the children, what you will do if you want a pencil,” the judge notes. “She immediately told me that she would pray to Jesus and Jesus would in turn send the pencil.”
A. Narayanan, director of CHANGEindia, filed a petition in Madras High Court in 2015 demanding that Mose Ministries be investigated for violation of children’s rights, trafficking, and exploitation. In its affidavit, Mose Ministries denied all allegations, claiming that the 89 residents had been “left at our doorsteps without any clue about their parentage”. They said the girls were well cared for and should remain in the Home. Narayanan, however, requested that, as per the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, which calls institutional care “the last resort”, the girls be reunited with their biological parents.
Soon, the Pastor and his wife left the country (when I called, their numbers were unreachable). The High Court barred entry into the Home for all Mose Ministries staff and put the girls under the state’s care. As the case progressed, the Home’s defence—that they didn’t know about the girls’ parents—began to fall apart. When the Pastor’s office was searched, a locked cupboard yielded a register with the parents’ identities and the children’s dates of birth. A Child Welfare Committee member took pictures of it with her phone. Within a day, the register disappeared, prompting an enraged court to order the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe allegations of trafficking. It identified eight violations, including obtaining passports by questionable means, illegally taking the children on foreign tours, illegal procurement and emotional abuse of children. Based on the register’s pictures, the court also ordered DNA tests on parents willing to take the girls back. Paying Rs. 5,000 each, 48 families tested their DNA, and 34 matches have been confirmed till now.
When I visited 20 of these families, they had already spent a year and half in the hope of a reunion. For Thangavelu Kannan, 38, from Mettupatti village, it would be a chance to “finally care for” the child that had been snatched away before she even saw her face. She had been unconscious in the hospital after a complicated delivery and a near-fatal respiratory disorder when her mother-in-law gave the child away to the head nurse. Thangavelu was only 18 then, and this was her third daughter. “I had no say,” she says. Still, eight months later, when she recovered, she had returned to the hospital, demanding her child back. “The head nurse told me that she’d given her to a German-run shelter,” she says. They told her it was too late and that “some foreign family” had probably adopted the child. “I asked myself—what could I offer the child?” says Thangavelu. “A drunk father, an ailing mother, a single meal a day, probably half an education.” She told herself her daughter would have a better future with a loving, affluent family abroad. She stopped looking.
Yearning for a another chance
Crouching near her paddy field, Thangavelu squeezes her eyes shut. “I should never have given up,” she says, wracked with guilt. “All these years, my daughter has been in an institution, with no affection, no one to call her own. I’m never letting her go again.” Thangavelu mentions the two daughters and son she did raise—the first now a veterinarian, the second married to a military man who’s paying for her teaching degree, and the boy in school. “Things are different from 20 years ago,” she says. “I am not helpless anymore. I’m physically strong, my farm and cows are doing well. I will make sure my daughter is happy.”
The first thing Thangavelu did was to learn how to say her daughter’s name. “Sum-maandha,” she mangles the name, smiling. “Correct?” When Thangavelu visited Samantha at Mose Ministries, the 20-year-old did not meet her or accept her gifts of a salwar kameez and bangles. The third time, they ate lunch together but Samantha did not say a word. The fourth time, when Thangavelu went with her other daughter, Samantha flung a plate down. “Why me?” Samantha yelled. “Why did you throw me away?”
“It wasn’t me, not me,” Thangavelu said. “It was my mother-in-law!”
“Where is the old lady now?”
“Dead,” Thangavelu said.
“Tholanjupovattum,” good riddance, Samantha cursed.
Most of the girls in Mose Ministries are second or third daughters. Sitting on the half-built steps of her house, labourer Vasanthi says she had given her third girl away out of fear that her alcoholic husband Sadayan would beat her. Now, it is he who dreams of his daughter’s return. “She said she’ll come home if I stopped drinking,” he says. “I have been sober for six months.” Another father, Karuputhevar, had given his third daughter—now Catherine—to the panchayat president because the family was to migrate to Delhi for work in the 1990s. His sister, 50-year-old Dhanalaxmi, who runs a roadside eatery, had given Glory away after her husband left her—“we fought all the time because I wasn’t having a boy”. Some girls were born out of wedlock. Some others were born in poverty-stricken times or the mother passed away in childbirth.
Different circumstances, different social and economic pressures, but one thing was common: how dispensable their girls seemed to be.
“The parents were poor, vulnerable, and were probably relieved to be divested of their responsibility when someone offered to take the girl away,” says former National Child Rights Committee chairperson Nina Naik, who has followed the case closely. “This is a cruel reality in many parts of India. I blame the state government and police, who let such an outfit run under its nose for so long, and Mose Ministries, which took advantage of the parents first, and then kept the girls for years to take donations in their name.” Even if it might seem like some parents “don’t deserve” to get their children back, she explains, the girls cannot be left in a home that exploits them.
When the case began, all except eleven of the 89 girls were over 18. Today, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court said that only seven are minors. In its final verdict in November 2016, the court declared that since 82 girls were now adults, they had “the freedom to decide about their future”—whether to remain with Mose or go to their parents. The Tiruchi Collector is to form a committee—with counsellors and state officials—to ascertain each girl’s preference.
Bonds for life
This will not be easy. Tiruchi’s Social Welfare Officer S. Usha, now in charge of the girls, says they were eager to live with their biological parents but “also reluctant to betray the people who raised them”. Moreover, the young women are afraid to be separated from the group. “They are strongly bonded, it’s the only family they know,” says Usha. A counsellor from the Chennai-based humanitarian non-profit Indian Council of Child Welfare told the court that all the girls had been “systematically subjected to indoctrination or a sort of brainwash to surrender their entire life to control by the so-called ‘father’.”
“There is no easy solution for such complicated cases, except to prioritise the welfare of the child,” says Naik. “They need help and long-term counselling to be psychologically and emotionally mainstreamed. Having ruined their childhood, Mose Ministries should fund their rehabilitation.” Narayan from CHANGEindia says he’s appealing the verdict in the Supreme Court, asking why Mose Ministries and Pastor Gideon Jacob have not been held accountable in any way.
When I ask the parents why their daughters don’t seem like a burden today, most answers display a strong protectiveness. “Young women cannot stay with male staff in a Home when they have come of age,” Karuputhevar says. Dhanalaxmi is excited about the wedding she’ll plan for Glory. “I prefer she marries within our caste. So many people are already asking for her hand—but if she wants to marry a Christian, I will think about it.”
Devendran explains that the sex ratio in these parts has plummeted so low that young women are now much sought after. “More than any awareness campaigns, it’s this tangible loss that’s raising the value of a girl child today,” he says.
The parents’ commitment was tested in January, when Mose Ministries staff invited about 50 parents for a clandestine meeting under the guise of a press conference. In a wedding hall, they fed them a mutton curry meal, and screened a video of Pastor Jacob insisting the girls would be better off in the Home - the parents could visit any time. “They were trying to influence us to stop pursuing the case,” says Perumayi, 32, who has been dreaming of bringing her sister Evelyn home. “It was humiliating, I was so angry!” Mose Ministries’ attempt was counterproductive. The parents have now re-energised their efforts to get their daughters back. Most of them visit the Home every month now, forging a relationship with their long-lost daughters.
In March, I accompanied some families on this monthly visit to Tiruchi. All the way, Panchavarnam, 22, another of Evelyn’s sisters, receives calls on her mobile. “Evelyn is so impatient!” she says indulgently. She stops on the way to buy sesame balls and butter murukku— “her favourite”. She had spent the previous night braiding jasmine for all the girls at Mose Ministries. Next to her, Pandian, 26, is quieter. “When I first saw Michelle, I couldn’t help bursting into tears—we looked so alike,” he says. He has brought his wedding album, “to show her our relatives”. Thangavelu has brought her oldest daughter.
As we near the Home, a few young women climb on a rusted black gate and wave at us. A few others are sitting on the low wall, hunched over a borrowed smart phone, singing along to the latest Tamil hits. As soon as Panchavarnam enters, a dozen girls run towards her. She hugs everyone, they complain playfully about her not coming sooner. The flowers mollify them. An ice-cream cart passes and Pandian buys everyone kulfis. Two plainclothes policewomen sit on a ledge, looking bored. “They’re quite sweet,” says Zipporah, 22, laying straw mats on the floor for us. “We use their phones to call our families.” She is one of three girls who grew up together in Mose Ministries not knowing they were sisters.
Michelle, Evelyn and Samantha are brought out like brides—still smelling of soap, in their best clothes, relieved from their daily chores by friends. “I was supposed to make the rasam today, but I wanted to spend time with my sister,” says Evelyn, lacing arms with a thrilled Panchavarnam.
Nearby, Pandian’s wife kisses Michelle’s cheeks. She squirms. “Please, I don’t know how to be like this,” she says, pushing her away, looking at her brother pleadingly. The wife asks Michelle why she’s wearing jeans. Pandian laughs, “Because my sister is stylish.” The photo album is lost among the other girls. They pore over it, asking questions—“This is how people get married?” “Who are these kids to Michelle?” “Is this real silk?”
Away from the happy cacophony, some of the older girls are cooking lunch. There, Samantha introduces her mother to her “best friend” Quela. When she shyly tells Thangavelu her father’s name, the older woman claps her hands. “Balu! He is my neighbour!” She beckons me over, grinning. “Tell Quela what happened when you met him,” she says.
Balu Pandian is famously the hardest working farmer in Mettupatti village. He likes to say his hearing disability deepens his focus on the field. His family, though, sees no silver lining. Balu’s first two daughters were born with hearing and speech disabilities and when he had a third girl, his mother gave her away within three hours. “I was afraid she too would be deaf and dumb,” the old woman said. When Devendran told Balu about Quela, the farmer had only one question: “Can she talk?” Since then, Balu has met his daughter eight times. “She is so eloquent,” he said, beaming.
As we spoke, about 25 villagers gathered around the house. They were all staring at me, warm smiles all around. One of them kissed my forehead. Another gave me a glass of tea and introduced herself as “a cousin”. Afterwards, an elderly woman walked me out of the village. She held my hand and touched my face. “Until you took out your notebook, we thought you were her,” she said —the once-unwanted daughter, now finally returned. “When will she come home?”
The writer is author of The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.