Foster care: It’s time to think out of the box

Date: 2012-10-29

Being blind followers of the West, even in matters of child care, may lead us down a dark alley, writes Suranya Aiyar

In sharp contrast to Western conventions for reportage of children, the pictures and names of Abhigyan and Aishwarya were freely used in our media in articles about their escapade with foster care in Norway. But that was not necessarily a bad thing for the ill-starred Bhattacharyas.

The images of little Aishwarya driving away from New Delhi airport showing her unmistakeable resemblance to her mother Sagarika, made an eloquent proclamation of where she came from and whom she ought to be with. The footage of the radiant smiles of the mother and grandmother, when they were finally able to meet the children in India were a testament, if any was needed, to their great joy at their return. Watching them, we smiled with them and felt their happiness. Admittedly, some of us did not smile, and rather felt our impatience at the media over-kill. Nevertheless, such public empathy for the family as was generated by the free media access to them was of no small value to the Bhattacharyas. In the situation in which the Bhattacharyas found themselves, cornered by a widely respected and powerful bureaucracy that was deeply invested in justifying its drastic action, the impersonality of faceless and nameless reporting was perhaps the opposite of what they needed. The mother certainly gained something in having out there the images of her holding Aishwarya in her lap and pushing Abhigyan’s hair off his forehead in an everyday mom-like gesture, belying the extreme allegations about her mental and parenting competence.

As with journalistic convention, so with child care: the West doesn’t have all the answers and racism is not its only failing. It was interesting how much public support in India for the Bhattacharyas thinned out when the Norwegian Child Welfare Service (CWS) produced reasons other than their racist evaluation (and it was racist) of Sagarika Bhattacharya and her child rearing practices to justify their actions. It is almost as if the Indian imagination cannot go beyond racism when opposing the West. It is the obverse of the standard Western response to objections from our part of the world to its actions: “these are people of immense pride”.

In the debate that has sparked off in India on the back of the Bhattacharya case about what we should be doing about child welfare, we Indians should show some real confidence by acknowledging the problem, but look for solutions by thinking out of the ‘Western’ box.

We must reject the ideology of the Western child welfare services that makes a split between the interest of the child on the one hand and the presence of parents and extended family in its life on the other. The two are inextricably bound for the simple reason that raising children is no less about love than it is about care. Therefore, intervention in the family in the name of child care has to be of a nature that preserves the family and enables care of the child within the family. In even the worst cases of neglect, parents and children must not be permanently separated—they must have the right to have access to each other, and to heal and re-unite.

Sexual abuse and child battery are criminal offences and their redress should remain in the domain of criminal law. Splitting families should never be within the remit of a child care worker who is not subject to the checks of the criminal justice system. This brings us to another fallacy in the thinking behind Western child welfare services. There is a naive assumption that welfare institutions can prevent child abuse. When cases of sexual abuse or murder of children by parents make the news, there is a chorus of protest at the perceived failure of care services to protect the child. This famously happened in the United Kingdom in 2008 in the case of Baby P who was reportedly killed by his parents and uncle. Similar incidents, the sexual abuse or death of a child by a family member followed by public outcry against the failure of social services to prevent it, have occurred in Norway and other countries.

But we have to be realistic about what public welfare institutions can achieve in preventing such tragic cases. A telling statement from the mother of baby Afreen who died after reportedly being battered by her father, was that she never believed that he would go so far as to attack their baby. This was a case where the man had reportedly been warned by the police for being violent with his wife and she had the support of her family to leave him. There is a lesson here for those who see public welfare institutions as the answer to this kind of child abuse—the mother did not know what her husband would do and, perhaps before he struck, even he did not know.

If care officers are going to be made responsible for not being prescient, then what happens in Norway, England and countries with similar child care systems will inevitably follow: a defensive bureaucracy will draw up a laundry list of factors of questionable evidentiary value justifying a finding of abuse and swoop down to separate children from parents based on such incredible findings.

When care workers are empowered to remove children where there is no apparent emergency, it is but a short step from confiscating children based on “assessments” that abuse has occurred, to confiscating them based on predictions that abuse might potentially occur. Statistics from the UK show that this step has already been taken there. It is reported that in the last few years the number of applications from care workers for taking children into care has sharply increased. But the number of times sexual or physical abuse is cited as the reason has declined, while the number of times other reasons, such as “emotional abuse” or the “risk of emotional harm” are cited has increased.