Two-and-a-half-month-old Ashvidh is in foster care in the United States. Last month, he had spent a week in the ICU after suffering internal injuries in the head. While his parents, Ashish and Vidisha Pareek, claim he accidentally fell to the floor in their home in New Jersey, US government agencies said he has shaken baby syndrome, which indicated abuse. Now the child has been removed from his parents’ custody and the matter has been taken to the courts. The couple have also asked the prime minister’s office, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and Governor Kalyan Singh to intercede.
The US authorities were probably just following standard procedure, says child rights specialist Prakash Fernandes. If the cause of the injuries could not be ascertained, it was the duty of the relevant agencies to launch a medical investigation. It is possible that the symptoms displayed by the baby was not caused by abuse. In the United Kingdom, Fernandes says, “shaken baby syndrome” has been replaced by the more neutral term, “non-accidental head injury”. The idea behind state action is not necessarily to criminalise parents but to help them cope better with the pressures of child-rearing.
This is not the first time Indian parents living overseas have been locked in custody battles with the courts or the social welfare apparatus. And each time such a case hits the headlines, it becomes a diplomatic incident. Reams are written about cultural relativism and about the healthy institution of the Indian family, where relationships are warmer and more nurturing than in the formal, over-regulated West. There is a suspicion of the social welfare institutions of Europe and the US, which “snatch” children away from their rightful place, the parents’ home. While such institutions are not without their faults and paranoias, it is not clear why these individual battles should become a test of national character.
Indian perceptions of social welfare services in the West have been shaped by one particular hard case. In 2011, Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya had their two children, aged one and three, “confiscated” by the Norwegian Child Protection Services. The reason given by the Norwegian authorities was the apparent “emotional disconnect” between the children and their mother, which had allegedly led to signs of autism in the three-year-old boy. Both the children were reportedly spirited away to “emergency foster care” and the parents informed afterwards.
A family court ordered that the children be kept in foster care till they were 18 and refused to hand them over to other family members.
The Bhattacharyas entered a long legal battle, and the Indian foreign ministry got involved. In India, a very public campaign started for the children’s release. Demonstrations were held in Delhi and Kolkata, politicians like Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declared their support for the family. A year later, the children were released from foster care and allowed to return to India, where Sagarika Bhattacharya now lived. Their uncle was appointed the primary caregiver. Then Foreign Minister SM Krishna welcomed the news because “They belong to India. They are Indian nationals.”
In the course of the custody row, it emerged that the Norwegian authorities objected to the parents feeding the children with their hands and sharing a bed with them, practices that are common in Indian households. The case against the Bhattacharyas seemed increasingly flimsy and inflected by racist undertones. Foster care, moreover, did not turn out to be the better option for the children: it was reported that they had stopped speaking after being separated from their parents.
Other factors further distorted the picture. Articles spoke of the Scandinavian “industry” in child protection services. A lot of parties made money out of putting children in foster care. Psychologists got paid for churning out “reports” and foster parents made a small fortune from looking after their charges, not to mention paid time off from them. The judiciary which handed the children over to social welfare was described as a collection of “kangaroo courts”. The Norwegian child protection system was a cold, acquisitive machine, according to this view, which preyed on poor people, Norwegians as well as hapless foreigners.
One of the most dramatic excesses of the Scandinavian childcare system was the case of seven-year-old Domenic Johanssen, of Indian and Swedish descent. The boy was whisked away by the state as he boarded a flight to India in 2009 and still remains custody. The reason given by the authorities was that he was being homeschooled.
But 2012 brought a case with charges that were harder to dismiss, unless they were proved to be untrue. A couple from Andhra Pradesh were convicted by a Norwegian court for “gross or repeated maltreatment of their children by threats, violence”. Reports from that time speak of the couple’s genteel background and quote the grandparents, who testify that their daughter was a loving mother. They suggest that the couple had tried to get help for their son but were denied access to childcare services since they were not permanent residents.
Where does cultural difference end and the need to protect children from damaging environments begin? Where, more importantly, can the state step in and take away your right to be a parent? Physical abuse may be a vital red line.
In Britain, childcare services went into shock after the death of Peter Connelly, or Baby P, as he came to be known in the British press. Before he died in 2007, the one-year-old was taken to hospital several times, each time with severe injuries that suggested abuse. Doctors failed to act on the symptoms and while a social worker did report it to the local childcare services, it was deemed that the “threshold for initiating Care Proceedings… was not met”.
Both doctors and the social services were indicted in the press for negligence. The incident prompted the resignation of local Labour councillors and the dismissal of the region’s head of childcare services. The British government announced extensive reforms to children’s services and the system was reshaped by an obsessive pursuit of accountability in social welfare. Seven years later, the anxieties generated by the Baby P case still remain, scaring away potential social workers and putting a strain on those employed in the sector. It gave rise to more referrals to social workers, a greater number of care proceedings and children in the custody of local councils, all at a time when there were large cuts to public sector spending.
Whatever the paranoias, there was at least an institutional response to the tragedy. Each time there is an incident in the UK, says Fernandes, there is a serious case review to examine the gaps that could be plugged, the processes that need to be changed. Unless there are grave charges, foster care is often a temporary measure, and state action is directed more at making parents aware of the support they are entitled to, giving them tips in ante-natal care.
A similar incident in India created a stir in the press but then faded from the news without a trace. In 2012, a two-year-old baby was admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Science in Delhi, badly battered. For weeks, the media followed the story of Baby Falak, which revealed a life of poverty and abuse. Separated from her mother by human traffickers, Falak and her siblings had been parcelled out to various adults. Falak finally ended up with a teenager who lived in Delhi with a man who was frequently violent. After the media attention, a rash of arrests were made.
The toddler did not survive, but beyond the spectacle of her life and death, there was no lasting institutional impact, no attempt to make sure that thousands of others like her did not meet the same fate. India is home to harrowing stories of child abuse and neglect but there are few mechanisms to protect children from such environments. The public social welfare system lacks the capacities to take care of these most vulnerable members of society and so it just does not recognise the problem, leaving children to the mercies of the Great Indian Family. Perhaps that is why an outraged public in India has trouble recognising child abuse when it is identified by systems other than ours.