In 2020, in a settlement in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, residents noticed that Pushpa’s children had been asking the neighbours for food. Their clothes were dirty and they were not attending school. Pushpa did not seem ill, but was disinterested in the children.

When her neighbours asked a social worker from a local organisation for help, he realised that Pushpa was struggling with a mental illness and would be unable to take care of her children for a while. Is it time to consider state care for the children? Should Pushpa’s children be taken away from her?

The Hindi film Mrs. Chatterjee versus Norway, released in March, reopens an important conversation about child protection services, how governments should intervene and what India could learn from such systems in other countries.

Based on a true incident from 2011, the film is about Indian immigrant parents in Norway whose young children were taken away and placed in state care for almost two years. Media reports have highlighted overreach by the Nordic country’s child protection services with cases reaching the European Court of Human Rights.

Research has made it clear that separating children from families and placing them in institutional state care does not ensure their safety. In fact, the trauma of forced separation and institutional life can cause delays in their growth and development, chronic health problems and psychological scars that last a lifetime.

There are eight million such children in state-run residential institutions around the world. Most of these children have parents and family that are alive. In the United States, one child is separated from their parents every three minutes.

More recently, international child rights agencies such as the Unicef, Lumos Foundation and Save the Children, have been investing significantly in promoting the child’s right to a family, hoping to reverse this global trend.

Credit: Reuters.

‘Best interest of the child’

But what does this mean in the Indian context? Currently, the country’s complaint-based police response system is activated only after a child is harmed.

India has yet to run a national prevention programme to actively find and identify children in danger, including those who seem to be safe at home. In this regard, India has much to learn from Europe and the United States about a structured and efficient system.

But it is equally important to identify aspects of systems in the West that might be a cultural mismatch for India, or simply in need of reform. Activists in the United States have criticised child services for over-policing. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, 53% of black or brown Americans have been visited by investigative child services, a process that has been intimidating and humiliating.

Similarly Europe’s child maltreatment prevention plan emphasises the surveillance of “high risk” groups, a definition that includes immigrant, low-income, single-parent, vulnerable families, who find themselves targeted for home visits and interviewed and assessed for their caregiving ability, instead of being assisted.

Mobilising kinships, community

India’s cultural context centres children and the family jointly, requiring child protection officials and organisations to take a broader view of care planning, which is a process used by welfare officials to plan and set goals for a child’s safety. Decisions are based on the “best interest of the child” – the guiding principle of the United Nations Child Rights Convention.

But in India, where the extended multi-generational family is closely linked to economic and social life, as well as the security of family members, the best interests of the child must also be balanced by thinking about the human rights of parents.

This includes the parents’ right to a family life and also to social protections and basic services such as food or health. Work to strengthen the family by improving access to healthcare, secure living wages, food security, or even access to microfinance loans is closely linked to ensuring safe childhoods.

This kind of broader social support has always been the domain of informal community groups in India. Self-help groups that work on savings and credit, rural health, or, more recently, Covid-19 response, have consistently demonstrated that investment in such initiatives works.

For instance, in the case of Pushpa, the social worker who worked on her case said, “It was friends and neighbours who ensured her children ate, went to school, and stayed safe, even before a longer term decision was taken.” With more recognition, formal roles and investment by state governments, community groups can be effective first responders and at the forefront of work to prevent children from harm.

Locally adapting ‘universal’ norms

In terms of how risk is assessed and options are considered for children who might be in difficult conditions, it is crucial to localise the methodology instead of replicating standardised assessment criteria prescribed in international guidelines.

The United Nations Child Rights Convention has been criticised for “universal” definitions in the international law that are Eurocentric – or based on a white, Western worldview. One of the most-quoted examples is the emphasis by the United Nations Child Rights Convention on individualistic aspects of the child, completely separate from family or community.

This accompanies the notion that caregiving is restricted to nuclear families. When nuclear families fall short, it is up to the government to step in and take over care. This is not the case in African and Asian countries that are made up of typically more collectivist societies, likely to activate the larger community as a protective factor for children.

A well-documented example is South Africa’s community care model for millions of children who have lost parents to the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. With too many to accommodate in state facilities, it was residents of settlements and villages across the country who were mobilised as caregivers for child-headed households, based on traditional kinship care practices.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters.

In India, too, when a parent is not able to care for their child, welfare workers can draw on the deep-rooted informal networks across villages and towns. In the case of women like Pushpa, whose caregiving might be temporarily restricted because of mental illness, relatives and family can be prioritised. If suitable, they can be helped to access the state’s kinship foster care programmes.

Grandparents are usually the first choice to care for children in the absence of their parents, but are often vulnerable themselves, unable to take on further financial responsibility. Kerala, for instance, has introduced a kinship foster care scheme to strengthen the caregiving capacities of such relatives.

In the case of the children of seasonal migrant workers who stay behind while their parents move for work, social isolation, and dropping out from school are known risks. Yet, there are few options for parents who need such work. Government-funded temporary residential schools, with safety measures in place, can ensure children stay in school and in the care of the community till their parents return. However, it requires state investment in the source districts of seasonal migration.

Shankar Jadhav, a child welfare official for over three decades in Mumbai Maharashtra, recounts the process of making a decision about a mother with a mental illness: “We wanted the children to be safe, but we didn’t want their mother to suffer, or break the family apart. That is a last resort,” he said. Jadhav said social workers identified family, friends and relatives who could help. “The children’s maternal grandmother moved in so that children could stay in a familiar and family environment,” he said.

There are times when violent or abusive family members must be physically separated from children. But plucking a child out of the family home and separating them from their siblings to place them in impersonal, prison-like childcare institutions is detrimental to their welfare.

It is preferable to start by identifying the non-offending parent or relatives, and plan on separating the abusive adult and assess what is best for the child while being part of the community. Unfortunately, there can be legal, economic or social fall-outs for the family. Assisting non-offending parents by ensuring options, local services and community support can greatly help reduce distress for children as well as other family members.

By letting go of the notion that children and childhood are exclusively the work of experts and “professionals”, it will become easier to identify first responders to prevent harm even in the most remote and far-flung districts of the country. This work starts by examining where “universal” principles originated from, and by interrogating how India’s child protection system supports families in caring for their children.

Suparna Gupta is a Mumbai-based child protection practitioner and founder of Aangan, and Edward S Mason Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School.