BY SAVIE KARNEL
A fledgling system of foster care is offering new hope for homeless children
Raja is in the sixth standard, but he looks about 11. As we enter the small house, in a bylane in Chamarajpet, he greets us excitedly. He then helps his foster father Nagesh, a tempo driver, arrange plastic chairs in the small living room, and his foster mother serve payasam.
Raja lived in an NGO institution for street children for six years before he was placed in foster care. Has he ever wanted to go back? “No, I want to stay at home,” he says, clinging to his “appa.”
When a social worker had asked him a couple of months ago what kind of a home he would like to go into, he replied: “The house should be grand and should have a swimming pool.” The very idea of a home was fantastical to him.
“These kids have never seen a home. It is something imaginary to them and they have unrealistic ideas,” says Ann Mary, a counsellor with BOSCO, the NGO that rescues street children and places some in foster care.
Raja is among 19 lucky children from there who have found foster homes. BOSCO started the foster care project last year, after getting the necessary clearances.
Radha Srinivasamurthy, Chairperson, Child Welfare Committee, Bangalore (Boys), of the Government of Karnataka, is all for the foster care programme.
“It definitely helps children,” she told Talk. “In India, we have traditionally had a kinship system, where relatives take care of a child. Foster care is similar to that. It wasn’t successful earlier, but now more people are coming forward as foster parents. When adoption was introduced in India, people were reluctant. But now adoption is widely accepted. We hope foster care will also become successful in a similar way.”
According to Milan Mandanna, co-ordinator of BOSCO’s Foster Care Project, “These kids are older than they look. Some may be 14 or 15 and look like 10 year olds.” She quotes from a study which says that it’s not just malnourishment but also lack of love and emotional attachment that has made them physically underdeveloped.
Some of the children are orphans, some abandoned by their families, and some others about whom nobody knows anything. Many have been rescued either begging, rag picking or working as child labourers.
Unlike in adoption, children do not become legal heirs when placed in foster care. Foster homes could take in children for a short duration, even just a few months, or till the child is 18 years old. Parents can choose to foster them even after that. There have been cases in other parts of the country where foster parents have even arranged marriages, and stayed in touch. After short term care, foster parents continue to be mentors and meet them regularly. In a way, they remain foster parents forever.
“We provide foster homes for a short duration, so that children can know what a family is, and then decide if they want to move into a family,” says Milan. Families can also provide vacation foster homes, for a couple of days. “But here the condition is that the family agrees to be a mentor for the child. Even after the vacation they should regularly visit the child,” she adds.
When BOSCO started with the foster care project last year, it had to face several bureaucratic hurdles. Many mistook it for adoption. Government departments asked them what it was all about.
“We later found that Karnataka had made guidelines for foster care in 1995, but everyone had forgotten about them. These guidelines helped us start off,” says Milan.
The foster care system also helps couples who seek to adopt children. People prefer to adopt children who are very small. BOSCO Mane has children above six years. “Families which haven’t been lucky to find a child can foster a child. If the family and child continue to be interested, we can later help the families become legal guardians,” she says.
BOSCO first tries to find their families, then they ask the relatives. When nothing works out, they look for foster homes.
One of their first children to be placed in a foster home was eight-year-old Vishnu (name changed.) Vishnu was a rag picker in Tirupati when he was rescued, and was brought to Bangalore since he said that he had lived here. At BOSCO Mane he said that his family lived in Tirupati. BOSCO Foster Care’s social mobiliser Raju KN went to Tirupati with him.
After searching in several localities they found his mother. She had married again and had children from her new husband. “When we reached there, her husband asked who the child was. He was not even aware that Vishnu existed,” says Raju. His mother refused to take him. After her first husband’s death, Vishnu’s mother had abandoned all her six children, their whereabouts unknown.
BOSCO traced Vishnu’s father’s distant relatives in Bangalore. One of them, Velumurugan, a security guard, is now fostering Vishnu. His biological son, who is studying in PUC, and his daughter, who is in the ninth standard, have accepted him as their kid brother.
“When I told them about Vishnu, they were glad to have him home,” says Velumurugan. Since Vishnu had lived on the streets, he would sometimes crave for the “freedom” of street life and bunk school. “We warned him that we would send him back to the ashram, and he mended his ways,” says the foster father.
If the foster families are not well off, BOSCO also offers financial help for the upbringing of the child. “We ensure the language and cultural backgrounds match. We also secure a no-objection letter from the biological children in the foster families who are older than six years,” says Shaffiq Jalalpasha, a social mobiliser with BOSCO.
In the case of eight-year old Suhail (name changed), the family wanted another son. “We have one son and two daughters. We wanted another son, so we fostered Suhail,” says Shabana Banu, a homemaker whose husband works in an agarbatti factory.
Her biological children too were happy to have a new brother. The family initially faced adjustment problems, but all seems to be fine after three months. “He wouldn’t listen to me and would answer back to the older kids. Now, he has settled in well,” she says. He regularly attends school as well as Arabic classes.
The greatest moment for Suhail was when the school results were out recently. It was not because he scored well, but because, for the first time, he had a mother who came with him to receive his report card.
“He took me to all his friends and introduced me as his Ammi,” says Shabana. She too felt appreciated when the teachers told her that Suhail had improved a lot when compared to the time he was in the institution. “A teacher said that he studies well and comes neatly dressed,” she says beaming.
Being accompanied by a parent on the day of the results means a lot to these children. “When we go on results day from BOSCO Mane, there is one aunty with 10 of us behind her. She goes from class to class collecting report cards. Now Amma comes only with me,” says 13-year-old Austin (name changed).
“They crave personal attention, which isn’t available in an institution with about 90 children,” explains T Bhagyalakshmi, a counsellor with BOSCO. The foster home has brought visible changes in Austin’s life. When his school teacher complained that his notes were incomplete, Austin’s foster mother Shobha stayed up till 1 am and made him complete his school work.
Shobha and her husband Nagesh, a driver, have volunteered to provide a group foster home. They have opened their home to four children, who will live with them till they find a long term home. Like in all families, there were initial skirmishes, including arguments over which TV programmes to watch. They have now settled down.
Earlier, the children would simply pour water on their heads and say that they had bathed. Now, Shobha ensures that they actually bathe daily and wear fresh clothes. Right from cooking for them to washing their clothes, Shobha does everything with a smile. “They are my sons,” she says. She has a biological son and a daughter.
Ajit can’t stop raving about Shobha’s cooking. “In BOSCO Mane we got the same kind of food. Here, Amma cooks new dishes and makes whatever we like,” he says.
Three children in Shobha’s house have already found long-term homes and will be going away soon. One of them, who hasn’t yet found a home, asked his counsellor, “Aunty, how long will you take to find me a home?”
Ann says she faces these questions regularly from children in institutional care. “They all want to see what a home is,” she says.
People think foster care is a Western concept. Milan refutes this. “Traditionally in India, if a child lost his parent, the extended family, neighbours or friends would look after the child. With nuclear families, this concept is lost,” she says.
Most of the families coming forward to foster children belong to lower social backgrounds. “We have a scientist and a bank manager who have now come forward. We hope more people open their homes to these children,” she says.
Dr Meena Jain, psychotherapist and chairperson, Child Welfare Committee, Bangalore (Girls), says foster care works very well, and helps enhance the psychological well-being of a child.
“In my 27 years of working with children, I have often heard children with no parents ask me when they will go home. I hate that,” she told Talk.
She says NGOs should do a thorough background check of the families, as sometimes there is a risk of the kids being used for work. Proper counselling and mental preparation of both foster parents and children is required. “For example, the child could suddenly feel that he or she is being corrected for his mistakes and being disciplined, and resist that,” she said.
Sheila Devaraj, Director, Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA), who has placed nine children in group foster care and has plans to place children in individual foster homes soon, says there are no clear rules in India yet, but the system is gaining more acceptance.
Sr Dulcine Crasta, Coordinator, Child Protection Committee (UNICEF), Department of Women and Child Development, says some guidelines are being drawn up, and efforts are on to bring in a government scheme for foster care.
“With legalisation, we hope more people will come forward to foster children. It will need a lot of motivation for families to come forward. For adoptions, we have a long waiting list of parents. But for foster care, we have a long list of children but not many parents. We need a strong will from the government, involvement of NGOs and awareness among people,” she told Talk.
We asked 12-year-old Sanjay (name changed) another boy in foster care, what the main difference was between his new home and his old institution. He said, “If I fell there, aunty would take me to the medical room and apply medicines on my wound. Here, if I fall, Amma hugs me first.”