Dhruvita Bhatnagar was separated from her adoptive parents during a five-year battle to bring her to Australia, in which her visa application was allegedly mishandled multiple times by the Department of Home Affairs.
Only two months ago, six-year-old Dhruvita Bhatnagar was being raised by her grandmother in the small town of Nagina, near Haridwar, in northern India.
Now, she is beginning her new life in Perth’s northern suburbs – the final chapter in a several years-long battle to bring her to Australia.
“Every child has a right to be with their parents from day one,” her adoptive father Vineet Sharma tells SBS News.
In February 2014, when Dhruvita was just one-year-old, her biological mother died suddenly.
The little girl lived with her grandmother and was soon adopted by her biological aunty Madhvi Bhatnagar and uncle Vineet, who have lived in Western Australia since 2008.
Since 2014, the couple have travelled regularly to India to see Dhruvita, as the Department of Home Affairs purportedly mishandled the visa application.
“She was only one-year-old when my sister passed away. She has always called me ‘mum’,” Madhvi says.
“If this [visa situation] had been rectified we could have been living a normal life all along.”
Vineet and Madhvi formally adopted Dhruvita under Indian law shortly after her mother’s death, and then began the process of bringing her to Australia.
“When we initially started to apply for the adoption visa, I consulted a few migration agents to get some guidance,” Vineet says.
“But I couldn’t find help because adoption cases are rare in Australia, so I decided to go through what is available online on the Department of Home Affairs website.”
After looking at the Department of Home Affairs website, Vineet filed an application for a Subclass 102 Adoption Visa in May 2015.
He says in September 2015, he was then advised by an immigration officer from the department to instead apply for a Subclass 117 Orphan Relative Visa.
“So, we did that. But a few months later they started asking for documents that I couldn’t provide, like one was a missing report of [Dhruvita's] biological father,” Vineet says.
“We couldn’t because he basically abandoned my daughter. I tried asking police in India for a missing persons report, but they couldn’t provide."
After a two-year process of collecting and submitting documentation, their application for a Subclass 117 Orphan Relative Visa was rejected.
“They simply say, ‘these are the requirements, if you can do it, good, if not, your file is rejected'.”
In September 2017, Vineet and Madhvi began the process, again after speaking to an immigration officer from the department, this time under the Subclass 102 Adoption Visa.
“One of the requirements for that visa is one of the adoptive parents must be outside of Australia for at least 12 months,” Vineet says.
“My wife literally spent 15 months in India to meet that requirement. I’ve been married for six years, and half the time my wife was living in India, I am living in Australia. My son here has been without his mother".
The couple have another child, Dhruv, who is four years old.
The Department of Home Affairs previously told SBS News that while it would not comment on individual cases, the requirement of a 12-month overseas stay exists to ensure people don’t circumvent the rules.
“The 12-month residence requirement aims to prevent individuals temporarily moving offshore to adopt a child and avoiding the stringent requirements, including suitability assessment, cost and processing times, involved in adopting through an intercountry adoption process,” a spokesperson for the department said.
Madhvi returned to Australia in January 2019.
The couple approached the department again after she returned. But in July, the application was again rejected.
“They said that there was a discrepancy between the date they [the department] lodged the file in their system and when my wife was away,” Vineet says.
“[But] it clearly says on the website that before you apply, make sure one of the adoptive parents has to be outside Australia for 12 months. That's all, and we did that.
“So based on a technicality, on the wording on the website, our life was turned upside down.”
The long months apart took a toll on the family.
“Coming back to Australia and leaving [Dhruvita] behind in India was the hardest part,” Madhvi says.
“She always asked me, why are you going to Australia? Take me with you. And I’m like, ‘I’m sorry baby, I can’t take you’.
"We were feeling really helpless at that time”.
Sunny Chandra is a migration agent based in Melbourne and says the difficulty the family faced in receiving advice is not uncommon.
“The Department of Home Affairs online service for prospective visa applicants is not professional enough, in my opinion, or competent enough to provide the right advice,” Mr Chanda says.
“I have several examples of complicated cases where people have been misinformed or simply put aside.”
By July 2019, Vineet and Madhvi were no closer to bringing Dhruvita to Australia.
“I said, 'this time, I’m not going to give it up'. We had no options left,” Vineet says.
“Last time, they rejected our file under 117, because the document was missing. We had no control over it. But this time we had done everything and they said we haven’t fulfilled the requirement.”
After SBS Punjabi first told the family’s story in July 2019, Vineet says an immigration agent from the department contacted him.
“One day I got a call, saying they would look into my case again under Subsection 102, which is child visa and they requested more documents,” he says.
Then, on 29 August 2019, he says he received an email to say that the visa had been approved, under a Subclass 101 Child Visa.
“Finally, they approved the visa under 101, and under that visa, there is no requirement to be outside Australia for 12 months,” Vineet says.
“So basically, all the time we lived apart was worthless.”
The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to questions from SBS News about why the family were not advised to apply under Subclass 101 when they first made contact in 2014, or why they were incorrectly advised to apply for other visa subclasses, or why these applications were rejected, saying it does not comment on individual cases.
In its Adoptions Australia 2016-17 report, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare noted that for new families formed through intercountry adoption that year, the median length of time to complete an adoption was two years and nine months.
With the visa approved, Madhvi flew to India and returned in September with Dhruvita, finally able to begin her new life in Australia.
“We’re happy, now I can say my family is complete,” Vineet says.
“Sometimes kids don’t want to go to school, she’s always excited in the morning, ‘let me get ready, I want to go and play with my friends’.
But they want their story to serve as a cautionary tale for others.
“Don’t rely on [government] websites, because there is not much information about the visas and subclasses. You don’t know if what you’re doing is correct,” Madhvi says.
“It could be wrong, it could be right.”
A spokesperson for the department said: "The information on the department’s website enables visa applicants to apply for the visa most suitable to their needs by outlining the eligibility criteria required for a visa grant to be considered".