‘Sanadha Balyam’, the Vacation Foster Care project by the Social Justice Department under the Government of Kerala, is all set to bring cheer to more than 140 children in care homes across the state. The first of its kind initiative in India provides kids, who are unable to visit their parents or relatives during vacation, a chance to enjoy the love and care of volunteering families during the summer vacations. Following the course charted by Kerala, the Government of the Andhra Pradesh recently adopted a similar programme in its child care system.
Two Years and Counting
What started out as a pilot project in the Malappuram and Kollam districts of the state in 2015, with just two children has now gained momentum in most parts of the state with a considerable number of couples applying for the scheme and a handful of children getting legally adopted. The project was launched with the objective of nurturing children between the ages of six and 18, residing in registered care institutions in the state.
As part of the project, children who are not legally orphaned, i.e., at least one of their parents is still alive, and those who are unable to visit their families during the vacation are handed over for foster care to interested families during the two-month summer vacation in April and May. This year, hundreds of couples from across the state are part of the movement, of which more than 140 families have been selected. Applications are still pouring in and officials expect the project to be a massive success over the course of the coming years.
“These kids do not get the warmth of a family as their parents have either abandoned them or are unable to take them home even during the holidays. Vacation foster care gives them a chance to know how a family functions, how to behave while attending a family function and how to adjust to strangers and new situations. The aim is to give a child maximum non-institutional care,” said Subair K K, the District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) of Thiruvananthapuram.
For Aswathy (name changed on request), a high school teacher residing in Ponnani, taking home a six-year-old girl for vacation foster care in its pilot phase, was a turning point in her life. After spending two months with the child, Aswathy found it distressing to part with the child and requested the Malappuram District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) authorities to extend her period of stay. The girl has now been living with her foster mother for over two years.
“I have become quite active and involved with her activities. I have shifted her to a different school near our house and she is quite excited living with me and my family. It’s great to have her around and she is fitting right in,” said Aswathy. Aswathy’s story is one among those of hundreds of large-hearted parents, who have been part of the ambitious project.
The Ground Realities
As per the guidelines of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2015, children are required to stay with their foster parents for at least five years before they can be legally adopted. However, in certain unique cases, the courts have granted the parents the right to legally adopt the child. There are several families that have requested extension for the two-month stay period of the child. This extension of the stay period is granted only with the consent of the child, that of the original parents if whereabouts are known, and if the couples are found to be able to bring a positive impact on the child.
“We usually receive applications from both childless couples as well as couples with children. The child is being taken away from his friends and playmates at the care institution. Hence, he or she should not feel bored and lonely at the foster homes. Having kids of almost the same age at the foster homes will give them a memorable summer vacation. However, the outcome of the project has not been so rosy everywhere. The vast majority of parents are willing to consider adoption, but foster care is a relatively an alien topic. As far as siblings residing in care institutions are concerned, the ‘Sanadha Balyam’ project guidelines mandate that they are not to be separated when sent for foster care. Though there have been cases of parents willingly taking home two to three children, more families in the state are yet to consider fostering siblings,” said Asish Joseph, the DCPO of Kottayam.
The parents and children for the project are shortlisted on the basis of several guidelines. Upon submission of application for the Vacation Foster Care programme, the DCPU authorities and Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) review the applicant families and their financial and social situations. This is followed by a field study to understand the details of the foster parents, their backgrounds, behaviour and so on. “They should have a good attitude and must be cordial and should be financially capable of taking care of the child. They should have a proper house and a good societal status. Once the children are sent to the foster homes, they are constantly monitored by the DCPU and CWC authorities,” said Subeesh Theyyambady, the DCPO of Kozhikode.
The Foster Care System in India
India has a history of family-based care through the joint-family system. Families take care of families and communities take care of communities. However, the care is often informal and based on the economic ability and is mostly determined through cultural biases and stigma.
The Family Service Centre in Mumbai has the earliest record of placing children in foster homes in India when, in 1971, the organization selected Jenny Talwalkar as its first foster parent. Between 2000 and 2014 many states mooted legislations for foster care but a well-rounded programme did not take root. It was only in 2015 that India began to create more programme specific guidelines and rules for foster care.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development passed the 2015 MODEL Foster Care Guidelines, the first in the history of India, which legitimized and outlined the system of foster care at the national level. These guidelines, along with Regulations for Adoption 2016, which looks into pre-adoption foster care under the Juvenile Justice Act, hoped to encourage more people to opt for foster care in India. However, the impact is largely compartmentalized as evident from a survey conducted by BOSCO, a Bangalore-based NGO, which found only 30 organisations that place kids in foster care in all of India, of which 14 are based out of Kerala.
“The new guidelines has helped the CWC in several states understand how to go about foster care. Until now, only some forward thinking CWC were able to permit foster care” said Ian Anand Forber-Pratt, who set up the Center of Excellence in Alternative Care of Children in New Delhi in 2015. An adopted child himself, he was abandoned in Kolkata as a newborn and later adopted by a US-based couple.
“I returned to give back something to the country in which I was born. Fostering is a brand new concept in India. There is a big difference between how Western and Indian families work in foster care. In the West, foster parents are licensed. Today, what we need is systematisation of licensing, foster care procedures and counseling of parents and children,” Ian said. Today, he is the executive director of Foster Care India, an organization based out of Udaipur in Rajasthan that works for the care and protection of children.
The Impact on Children
Foster parents and District Child Protection Officers in Kerala believe that the project has succeeded in bringing about a positive impact both on the families as well as the foster children. Fathima (name changed), who is currently living with her husband and three children, talks about how her kids have evolved after they took in an eight-year-old boy for foster care.
“Initially, my kids were apprehensive about having a stranger living in the house and having to share their books and toys with him. However, within two months they managed to develop a brotherly bond with him,” she said, adding they take the child whenever they go for outings, parties and family functions. According to Child Protection Unit Officials in Kerala, the vacation foster care programme has had marked positive impact on the child’s development and rehabilitation, almost all the foster children shedding several of their vices after staying with families for two months.
“Habits such as bed-wetting in smaller kids and a tendency to steal items amongst older children were quite common when they were at the care institutions. But after the two-month stay, most of them changed their habits. It is quite heart-warming to see them return to the care institutions with gifts, books, new school bags and a set of interesting tales to share with their friends,” said an official.
The success of the project in the state has inspired a similar venture in Andhra Pradesh. The Andhra Pradesh Government has adopted a scheme similar to ‘Sanadha Balyam’ in Kerala as part of which prospective parents will be given the custody of children living in orphanages and NGO homes. According to the officials, apart from childless couples, more elderly people are showing interest in offering foster care to children. With many people living in distant places for their jobs, their parents are missing out on the fun with their grandchildren.
“The concept of foster care for a period varying from a few weeks to a month during summer vacation will act as an impetus for adoption of rescued children. The children will also get a feel of home,” said H. Arun Kumar, Special Commissioner of Women Development and Child Welfare. More than 1,000 prospective parents seeking custody of children are on the waiting list in the state, he said, adding that only 136 children are available in state-run children’s homes. “We are uploading the details of more children living in the government-run childcare centres in the state on the internet. There is a strong preference from prospective parents for children below the age of five years,” he added.
Reporting by Aravind R Menon Special Correspondent, Kochi
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