Abandoned as a toddler on the streets of Calcutta, Irani's future was bleak until an Australian couple decided to adopt her. Jordan Baker charts the bureaucratic nightmare that almost destroyed a little girl's chance of a new life.
Irani Bate's first years on earth will forever remain a mystery. No one knows anything of her parents, her siblings, or even the year of her birth.
The time Irani officially appeared was when the little girl, then aged around three, arrived at a halfway house in Calcutta on February 7, 2008, caked with dirt, wheezing from bronchitis and riddled with scabies.
"Her past could have been anything," says Jacqui Bate, the woman who would later volunteer to be Irani's mother. "Her parents could have died. All we know is that no one ever claimed her."
When Darren and Jacqui Bate, a childless couple from the Brisbane Valley, heard the story of the little orphan with the "sad, sad eyes", they knew she was the child they wanted to adopt.
They felt they could give her the love and security she had never known, and had the support of family, friends and adoption agencies in Queensland and India.
The only hurdle was the Australian government's inexplicable refusal to allow Irani into the country.
The Bates knew the process of adopting a child from overseas would be slow and frustrating, as it has been for so many Australian couples.
Yet they lived a new kind of nightmare — one caused by bureaucratic insistence that even though Australia accepts the poor, the sick and the elderly, it did not want this little girl.
At the best of times, overseas adoption is daunting. Welcoming a child from another country and culture, especially an older one, means taking on challenges and responsibilities beyond those of other parents.
Then there is the gruelling application process itself; after the introductory seminar, the couple must compile a dossier that describes their whole lives, detailing their most intimate thoughts and feelings — their religious beliefs, how they met, their employment histories and family relationships.
They are assessed in a series of interviews. Then the case worker's report, coupled with bank statements, police checks and marriage certificates, plus signed statements from appointed guardians in the event of their death, are sent to one of eight approved agencies in India.
The Bates did all this and then they waited. And waited. And waited.
When they did not hear back, the case worker suggested they consider a "special needs" child, a category covering everyone from children with HIV to sibling groups.
Given Darren's experience as a teacher's aide at a school for troubled children and his many colleagues willing to support them, the Bates felt best able to handle a child with emotional or behavioural needs.
Less than a month later, they were invited to read a file on a little girl. She was a pretty thing, with big, beguiling eyes, but her details were confusing.
There was nothing known of her life before she arrived at the orphanage three years ago. Orphanage workers didn't even know how old she was and guessed between three and six.
The main concern for the Bates was an IQ test that put Irani's score at a low 53. Yet when Darren consulted the child psychiatrists he worked with, they said the test was obsolete; it was designed for older people and was incapable of assessing a child like Irani. Moreover, traumatised children are often wrongly diagnosed as having lower intelligence.
Darren and Jacqui decided to proceed. With the support of Queensland and Indian authorities, they sent off their final application. The adoption was approved.
The Bates booked their flights to Calcutta for May 15 last year. At the end of April, the phone rang. While the adoption was approved, the Immigration Department had refused Irani an entry visa.
Using the assessments of Irani when she had first arrived at the orphanage, the Medical Officer of the Commonwealth deemed she might one day struggle to hold a job, rely too heavily on community services, or perhaps need 24-hour care. She had the potential to cost taxpayers $1.2 million, he ruled.
The Bates were left in the painful situation of having the adoption legally recognised by India, but being unable to bring their daughter into the country.
Yet adoption workers quietly alerted the Bates to another option, a loophole just opened by the Indian High Court. India can now issue a so-called certificate certifying that the adoption is fully recognised under the Hague Convention, which confers on a child the same rights as a biological child, including citizenship of the parents' country of birth.
The Bates applied for and received the certificate, the first non-Hindu Australian couple to do so. Australia is a Hague Convention signatory and therefore could not quibble. The Bates were able to apply for a visa without having to get clearance from the Commonwealth Medical Officer.
The Bates flew to India just before Christmas. Irani bonded with them almost immediately and photographs from their meeting show joy on all their faces. In January, they brought Irani home.
While they were away, the Migration Review Tribunal handed down its decision. It had found in favour of the Bates, saying specialists had found Irani to be intelligent, attentive and co-operative, and that there was "compelling evidence" that the little girl would not be a burden on Australian taxpayers.
This story has had a happy ending. Safe in the knowledge she is now welcome in Australia, Darren and Jacqui are embracing parenthood and Irani is settling into her new home.
"She's definitely a bright girl," says Darren. "She takes on new environments and challenges easily. She's running through the paddocks with her gumboots and little denim shorts on. She's a wonderful part of our life."
For more information or to join the campaign to change adoption laws, visit National Adoption Awareness Week or email [email@example.com](/mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org).
Read more of this story in the October issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.
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