India Interior

Back to the warmth of family

Swapna Majumdar | Updated on July 26, 2019 Published on July 26, 2019

Avani with mother Deepa and younger brother Swapna Majumdar

An innovative programme in Kerala’s childcare institutions reunites minors with their parents

Sandra was just eight when her father passed away. Her mother took up a job as a resident domestic help but was devastated when she was told that she could not keep her daughter with her.

Left with no option, she took Sandra to the nearest child care institution in her district in Kerala.

Although the institution was far from her place of work, Sandra’s mother undertook a two-hour journey every month, for the last six years, to visit her daughter. In February this year, this forced separation ended on a happy note when Sandra returned home to live with her mother.

Sandra was lucky to be reunited with her family. But the majority of the two-and-a-half million children living in child care institutions (CCIs) in India are not so fortunate. Although about 80 per cent of them have, like Sandra, a living parent or relative, many of these children continue to languish in children’s homes without sufficient food, education, and loving care. However, a novel initiative is now giving many children like Sandra a second chance at childhood. This programme pushes for not just higher standards of care at CCIs registered under the Juvenile Justice Act but works to create an enabling environment for children to return to their own homes.

Run by Miracle Foundation India, a not for profit, in partnership with 106 CCIs in seven States in India, the intervention is working to boost the survival chances of 7,100 children in difficult circumstances. These include children of marginalised and rural families, especially single mothers who are unable to take care of their children because of economic challenges.

Most of the children in need of care and protection are admitted in the CCIs through the government’s district Child Welfare Committees. So far, 25 per cent of the children in CCIs associated with the Foundation have returned to their own homes.

Girls at the Hindu Mahila Mandiram (HMM) are given life skills education

 

Five months ago, when Sandra finally left the Hindu Mahila Mandiram (HMM), the CCI that partners the Foundation to foster children in Thiruvananthapuram, she was initially a little sad. But the joy in returning home made up in some measure for the sorrow of leaving the friends she had made during her six-year stay at HMM. It was not just the thought of reuniting with her mother that made the 14-year-old happy, it was also because she now had a complete family, including a doting stepfather.

Her mother, who remarried Sukumar last year, wasn’t sure her daughter would accept someone else as her father. But it was Sukumar who insisted Sandra return home to be with her family. The shy Sandra, who had never received any attention from her biological and often violent father, has bloomed in Sukumar’s company.

All together Sandra with her parents Swapna Majumdar

 

“I never knew what it was like to have a father. He really looks after me and has bought me a cycle. I ride it to school. He says I am the daughter he always longed for. Although HMM had become like my family, I cannot describe what it is to be back home,” said Sandra.

A chance remark about fish curry

It is this feeling of sheer joy when children get reunified with their family that has been the most rewarding, said Nivedita Dasgupta, head, Miracle Foundation India. “The first right any child has is to be with her family, irrespective of how poor they are. Separation of a child from the family leads to several issues. Research shows children who grow up in CCIs face a higher risk of poor cognitive development. The Foundation provides funds for regular coaching support to supplement their learning in school and ensures each child participates in life skills education every month to help them plan their future. However, our belief is that a child’s stay in a CCI should only be temporary and the child should be reunited with the family,” said Dasgupta.

But Sandra may have still have been at the HMM shelter home had it not been for the concerted efforts by its house mothers and the Miracle Foundation team. What helped them bring the family together was a unique Thrive Scale, a quarterly progress tracking tool developed by the Foundation to measure 191 physical, mental and emotional wellness milestones of the children staying at the CCIs. These are based on the 12 rights of children prescribed under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It was Sandra’s innocent remark that she was missing her mother’s fish curry during one such monthly assessment late last year that triggered the process of reunification.

“Our resident social worker and trained warden and HMM house mothers realised Sandra was pining to go home although she did not say it in so many words. Although we give them individual care as best as we can, we can’t be the same as their biological mothers. Immediately, we began the process of assessing if her mother would be able to support her daughter. HMM was taking care of her food, health, clothing and education costs with the help of the Foundation. After we assessed their financial conditions and the bonding between Sandra and her new father, we knew Sandra would be loved and looked after. We still visit her to make sure she is happy and safe,” informed M Sreekumari, HMM Board member and its former head.

She drove an autorickshaw

For 35-year-old Deepa, driving an autorickshaw to augment her income as an ASHA (accredited social health activist) in her village in Thiruvananthapuram’s Annakulam panchayat hasn’t been easy. But the hard work bore fruit when she was able to bring her daughter Avani back home in March this year after a four-year stay at HMM.

“I became more determined to bring her home after counselling sessions revealed that Avani was stumbling in her exams because of dysgraphia, a writing disability. It was also making her insecure. It was suggested by the psychiatrist that her condition could improve if I brought her home and continued therapy for the disability. People laughed when I started driving the autorickshaw as I was the first woman in the village to do so. But I didn’t bother. The Foundation and HMM also helped me. Since Avani came home, she has shown good progress. For me, this is no less than a miracle,” said Deepa.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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Published on July 26, 2019
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