January 29, 2014

Foster parenting in Rajasthan

Children – they are more than a third of India’s population. Happily, India’s Constitution guarantees special attention to children through necessary and special laws and policies that safeguard their rights. For instance, the right to equality, protection of life and personal liberty and the right against exploitation is enshrined in Articles 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 23, and 24. But what happens on the ground today when children and their parents are separated from one another, whether through disease, death, mental illness, migration or neglect? Is there a foster care system? Are the people who run it making strong efforts to help vulnerable girl children?

Poster at FCI To better understand the answer in one Indian state,  Rajasthan, I traveled to Udaipur to learn more about an  exciting new organization called Foster Care India and to interview its founder, Ian Anand Forber-Pratt. What made  Foster Care India’s website stand out was its insistence on building new options in the most culturally welcomed and organic way possible. The clear emphasis on helping insiders and listening carefully to grassroots concerns strengthened my desire to meet this man in person. Since he did not grow up in India, I wondered how Ian was avoiding “outsider imposition syndrome.”

It turned out Ian was adopted from a Calcutta orphanage in  and grew up in Massachusetts, USA, returning to India on a college trip. On that trip, he fell in love – with a place. He told me Udaipur chose him rather than the other way around, and he just “knew it was home.” After gaining a master’s degree in Social Work at Washington University (St. Louis), leading therapeutic trips to India for adoptive families (which he continues to do) and studying intensive Hindi, Ian set up home in Udaipur, hoping to nurture already existing alternative care arrangements for children in need. One of the positive aspects of Rajasthan is that it already was aware of the impact of institutionalization on children and was receptive to alternative family construction. In fact, it has a scheme that specifically aids non-parental adults to provide care for children in crisis. He discovered a number of challenges as he explained.

Ian: When I arrived, it was great to see that a number of informal childcare situations and that there is financial support for them FCI Director Ian Anand under the Palanhar Yojana conditional cash transfer scheme. However, some caregivers do not even know about this scheme and thus don’t have official rights or access to financial funds that are available – and that they desperately need – to support the children. Another problem is that applications for the scheme get lost or buried: there are lots of bureaucratic pieces, tasks are often duplicated or fall by the wayside, and unfortunately there is insufficient communication between groups trying to serve the caregivers. Furthermore, there’s a lack of accountability. Any good system monitors the caregivers – we need case management, household safety checks and counseling for children who have been through trauma.

Bonnie: And would it be right to think that foster care might not mean the same thing to different stakeholders and government officers?

Ian: Right. There are various people tasked with starting foster care; yet not only are they not even given, say, a computer to do the job well, they are not told precisely what the job is or what steps to take.  Thus people aren’t given thorough information and just know they are supposed to carry out some top down international thing. They may care a lot but after no instruction they either disconnect for their own survival or feel a sense of mounting hopelessness. After all, wouldn’t you feel that way, in that position?

Bonnie: Yes, definitely. So Foster Care India has been formed to provide a foundation for the adults caring for kids to ensure kids’ long-term safety and stability. I understand you are focusing on advocacy and policy right now as well as supporting a group of families. Why did you have to prioritize policy?

 Ian: Social work is from the heart. But no amount of caring will be effective if there are no guarantees. The most sustainable social work has to be based on social change. Under the law I could technically license foster homes. But if a child or parent in that home has an accident or is accused of a crime, whether proven guilty or not, the government could break up the situation overnight. The Juvenile Justice Act has so many gray areas; unless we clarify it the foster care system will be arbitrary, and depend on which judge you get and whether he liked his chai this morning or not. You can’t run a system like that.

Bonnie: Do you support feminism? How is the care of children a feminist issue to you?

Ian: Yes, of course, because I support a balanced society. A lot of work has to be done to help women attain equal voice and thus there needs to be disproportionate or extra focus on women’s rights to achieve that. The current scenario still has more girl children that are abandoned, for instance. I feel that the extent of women’s rights and women’s empowerment has to be built into the curriculum – people have to hear this message over and over so that the balance begins to be righted. I want to envision an equal world here in Rajasthan, but at this moment I have a tough time doing it. The imagination falters. But I have to take one step at a time: there just has to be forward step after forward step.

Bonnie: I know that someday you plan to write a guide to starting an NGO in a developing country. What three qualities would you emphasize?

Ian: It takes patience, a support network and continually concentrating on the big picture. You have to be assertive and confident but without ego. Don’t be surprised if you go through a depressive period. Mine lasted three months, and one day I was able to use a business management technique (SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats analysis) to climb out. One will get constant criticism but you have to know at the end of the day that you are doing the right thing and, if so, success will manifest itself.

Bonnie: Congratulations on the recent steps that Foster Care India has been taking – drawing up an action plan for the Chief Minister and pairing with Unicef to circulate your plans. It has been a privilege to get an early glimpse of an endeavor that is sure to help generations of children.
As a final note, Ian welcomes visitors and well wishers to Foster Care India. Learn more about how to help here or listen to what a family means to a child who has not always had one. My Family, My Dream is a 5 minute film made by FCI that will soon compete at the International Women’s Film Festival – Herat.


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