It is perhaps human nature that we gravitate toward stories with inspiring plots and resolved endings. Those of us tirelessly advocating for vulnerable children love stories of children placed in families happily ever after. In reality, care for orphaned and vulnerable children is typically much more complex than a singular solution. As the Faith to Action Initiative explains in the document A Continuum of Care for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, “Preventing unnecessary separation, strengthening family care, and reducing placement in orphanages requires the existence of a ‘continuum’ of approaches and support services. Family-based alternatives range from reunification with the child’s birth family, to kinship care by a relative or member of the extended family, to foster care and adoption” (page 1).
What happens, then, when one of these services is not available?
In a nation where the idea of foster care is just beginning to emerge, Foster Care India actively advocates for its role in meeting the varied needs of children who have been separated from parental care. It was the story of Foster Care India’s founder, Ian Anand Forber-Pratt, that initially prompted the development of the organization.
Ian was born in Kolkata, India, in 1980. Abandoned by his mother, he was placed in an orphanage for several months before being adopted by an American-Canadian family. While Ian was growing up in a middle-class family on the outskirts of Boston, his internal identity struggle remained hidden for many years. This struggle shaped his studies as he pursued a master’s degree in social work with a focus on child trauma and therapy. Ian’s passion for giving back to India, specifically in the field of foster care and adoption, was burgeoning. Upon finding out that India did not yet have a legal foster care system, Ian knew his life calling would be to help provide caring foster homes for children. After he traveled to India for several years, connecting with like-minded organizations, Foster Care India was officially registered in 2012 as a nonprofit organization (without religious or political affiliation) in Udaipur, Rajasthan.
Foster Care India found its niche in “redefining the continuum of care” in Udaipur by offering a spectrum of non-institutional alternative care services. Initially, the organization focused solely on foster care. While headway had been made in India’s legislature around adoption, and informal kinship networks have long existed, non-kinship foster care was largely missing from India’s options within the continuum of care. As The Faith to Action Initiative describes in A Continuum of Care, “In situations where family members cannot be identified or are not able to care for children, full-time foster care with a nonrelative is another form of alternative family care” (page 9). Foster Care India has now worked alongside the government to place several children in short-term foster care, and recently paved the way for India’s Women and Children’s Development Ministry to pass its first piece of foster care legislation and guidelines on October 19, 2015!
Ian explains that soon after starting the organization, he realized a comprehensive foster care system is inherently connected to family preservation, kinship care, and adoption. Thus, in addition to foster care, Foster Care India’s services now include a Family Connection Center to ensure family preservation in a low-income area of Udaipur, advising services and resources for families considering kinship care or adoption, and an aftercare program for youth.
Just as Foster Care India’s understanding of alternative family-based options within the continuum of care has evolved, so too has the organization’s desire for prospective foster families to understand the range of options for children who have been separated from parental care. In India, as in much of the world, there is little knowledge about the critical role of foster care in caring for children on a short-term basis. Foster Care India has implemented several campaigns aimed at recruiting foster families and educating them about every child’s right to a family. Tactics have ranged from an SMS (text message) campaign, to community meetings, to a cycling billboard.
The story of foster parents Neha and Dilip demonstrates the transformation that can happen when families identify foster care as a caring and helpful option within the continuum of care. Like many Indian families, the couple wanted to care for a child in need, but only if it eventually led to adoption. After an initial foster care placement fell through, Neha and Dilip were approached about caring for a four-year-old boy, Rohit,* who had been found begging on the streets. Due to complications in the diligence process of tracing Rohit’s family members, he was recommended for emergency short-term foster care while officials continued to search his rural village for any signs of his mother (who community members claim was often negligent and absent). The Foster Care India team discussed the situation with Neha and Dilip, explaining that Rohit’s stay could be as short as 15 days, but met a critical need. To everyone’s joy and surprise, the couple readily agreed to bring Rohit into their home, no matter the length of his stay with them. Rohit’s life is being transformed as he has been welcomed into a family, albeit temporarily, while a safe long-term option is found. The hearts and minds of Indian families, too, are being transformed as they recognize the need for fostering the vulnerable children in their midst.
Foster Care India is encouraged by the steps that have already been taken to care for children in need of foster placements, yet they recognize that so much work remains to be done. Additional research and legislation are necessary for foster families to receive compensation from the government, and to create a conduit between India’s foster care and adoption systems (which are currently totally separate) through foster-to-adopt legislation.
A functional foster care system for India is one critical aspect of forging a robust family care option on the continuum of care for children who have been separated from parental care. Each child’s story is unique; each child has the right to be cared for in a family.
*Child’s name has been changed.