It is a viable, acceptable alternative to adoption and institutional care, especially now, given the plight of Covid orphans.
Rani, who runs a tea stall, has six children to raise. Three of them are her own. The other three are children of her friend Sujita, who succumbed to Covid-19 six months ago. Bound by an unspoken commitment, Rani took Sujita’s children under her wing.
With children orphaned in the second wave of Covid-19 gaining national attention, Sujita’s children appeared on the radar of the district authorities. Rani was directed to produce them before the district’s child welfare committee (CWC). To her horror, the children were sent to the local shelter home on the grounds that Rani is unable to provide for them. Since then, she has been knocking on every door she can in the hope of getting them back. Rani’s agony brings into focus the issue of foster care versus institutional care. Fostering has yet to gain currency as an established form of child protection in India. It is a temporary arrangement in which the foster parents have only guardianship rights and are responsible for nurturing the child in a secure and personalised family set-up. The foster family exercises no control over the child’s assets, nor is it bound to extend inheritance rights over its own assets to the foster child. By contrast, in the system of adoption, the adopted child becomes a legal member of the family, entitled to property rights.
There is currently a global push for non-institutionalised care solutions for orphaned children, in acknowledgment of every child’s right to be raised in a family. A growing corpus of research highlights delayed physical and mental development in the often overcrowded and under-resourced shelter homes, and increased likelihood of social and behavioural problems.
India is home to nearly 30 million orphaned and abandoned children. The legal adoption of these children presents a two-fold challenge. Long-winding adoption procedures result in just a fraction of them finding a home. The annual adoptions facilitated by the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) are as low as 3,000-4,000. Secondly, there is a reluctance to adopt because of the onerous life-long commitment and enforceable legal rights of the adopted children. Foster care, by comparison, offers a more flexible ecosystem. It has the added security of regular follow-ups on the well-being of the child, compared to legal adoption where there is little or no follow-up. Denying foster care to parents below a certain economic threshold, as in Rani’s case, is not only ethically revolting but also legally untenable. In most countries, foster parents are financially supported by the state for the child’s care. There is great merit in extending state support to foster parents of modest means, especially when they can provide a socio-cultural environment similar to the one the child comes from. In India, too, district agencies receive annual funds to support fostering, which largely languish unutilised.
A legal framework to promote foster care in India was introduced by the central government through the enactment of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act. However, the Act left it to the states “to make rules for purposes of carrying out the scheme of foster care of children,” resulting in a sporadic and uneven implementation. Even today, several CWCs are not aware of the relevant legal provisions. Many avoid the responsibility of selecting foster families, approving childcare plans, and conducting mandatory monthly inspections to help check misuse of the foster system for abuse and exploitation.
In view of the much-deserved attention accorded to Covid orphans, state governments can seize the moment to promote foster care where kinship care is unavailable. States should go beyond the announcement of aid packages and ensure that the district child protection machinery is upgraded to chart the promising territory of foster care. With clear, concise rules and transparently administered budgets for fostering, committed and sensitive citizens can be expected to come forward to open their homes and hearts to children in need.
May no Rani be torn away from her children. Families are not bound by blood or law alone. They can also be bound by love.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 8, 2021 under the title ‘Not by blood or law alone’. The writer is an IPS officer serving as DCP, Women & Child Safety, Noida. She is leading the initiative ‘Aasra’ to help identify, mentor and rehabilitate Covid orphans. Names have been changed to protect identity.
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