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Six-month-old Anjali’s cry pierces through the usually quiet Rohokole flat in Mumbai’s upscale western suburb Vile Parle. Gitanjali Rohokole, 42, rushes to check on the baby as does her 11-year-old daughter Tarada. Her husband, Sunil, is heating milk in the kitchen for the baby. Anjali, they say, has brought the family together — weaned away Sunil from his business news channels, and the children from their rooms to the drawing room where she lies kicking her tiny feet in the air.
But Anjali is only their guest for a few months. Her profile is up on Central Adoption Resource Agency’s website, one click way from adoption. She was a destitute, found by the police and cared for two months in a hospital until NGO Family Service Centre found a prospective foster carer in Gitanjali. It took one year for her to convince her husband, a private equity investor, 18-year-old son Shivraj, and Tarada to become a foster family. “They said let’s just adopt a puppy. But I wanted to give these homeless kids love and a family atmosphere,” says Gitanjali.
The Rohokoles are among very few well-off Indians opting to do foster care. “Foster? Is that like adoption?… It’s the usual response I get,” Gitanjali says.
In 1971, the Family Service Centre in Mumbai became the first to place children in foster homes in India. Current employees are not sure but they claim Jenny Talwalkar, a trustee with the organisation, was perhaps the first woman to become a foster mother in the country.
Forty-five years later, on June 7, the Ministry of Women and Child Development drafted its Model Guidelines for Foster Care, 2016, to lay down a revised procedure for group foster care. These guidelines, along with Regulations for Adoption 2016, which looks into pre-adoption foster care under the Juvenile Justice Act, hopes to encourage more people to opt for foster care in India.
Explains Amol Shinde, programme manager for Maharashtra’s State Adoption Resource Agency (SARA), “There are two kinds of foster care, one where children are placed in pre-adoptive care before they get legally adopted. And the second category is of children who cannot get adopted due to physical or mental disability and need to be looked after until they turn 18.”
Programme officer with the NGO, Avanti More, says that more clarity is still needed on foster care. Surprisingly, even today several Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) are not aware about foster care and its provisions. Central government’s guidelines and training sessions will help equip Child Welfare officers about procedure of foster care, help them bring in more NGOs into the process.
A survey by Bangalore-based NGO Bosco found only 30 organisations that place kids in foster care in all of India. Kerala has 14, Maharashtra has eight. “Awareness is low. In Bangalore, we visited anganwadis to take help from ASHA workers to find prospective parents and counsel them. It is still the middle and lower income group that is willing to become a foster family,” says counselor Bakya Lakshmi T.
“The new guidelines will help the CWC in several states understand how to go about foster care. Until now, only some forward thinking CWC were able to permit foster care,” says Ian Anand, who set up Center of Excellence in Alternative Care of Children in New Delhi in 2015. An adopted child himself, he was abandoned in Kolkata as a newborn and later adopted by a US-based couple. “I returned to give back something to the country in which I was born,” he says.
“According to him, only Delhi, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Rajasthan have succeeded in drafting some basic guidelines for foster care for their respective states. “Fostering is a brand new concept in India. There is a big difference between how Western and Indian families work in foster care. In the West, foster parents are licensed,” he says. In India, SOME NGOs shortlist and register foster families after through assessment But cannot legally make any decision for fostering. The CWC does play a role but it needs to be strengthened and supported. “What we need is systematisation of licensing, foster care procedures and counseling of parents and children,” says Anand.
Sunita Dalvi, 47, lives in a cluttered colony in Vakola, Mumbai. Since the last five years, she has depended on foster care to run her home. Her husband abandoned her a decade ago. Now, her daughter and son help her run the house through a sales job. In her one room-kitchen enclosure, two-year-old Diya runs around, chased by one-year-old Sanskar. Her house has one cupboard — one half is used by Dalvi, her son and daughter, while the other half is utilised to keep toys and clothes for the foster children.
“I was previously a domestic help. One day, I fell and injured my thigh. After that accident, I was home-bound for several months and my neighbour suggested I could do foster care to earn. I started doing this for money, but now I don’t want to work at anything else. It is god’s service to look after homeless children,” Dalvi says. She has looked after 25 foster babies, changing her sleeping pattern every few months when a new baby comes. She earns Rs 4,000 for one baby per month.
Diya has been living with her the longest — two years. “When she gets adopted, I will be heartbroken. It is not easy to forget children once they consume all your time,” Dalvi says, her eyes welling up.
With limited resources, she arranges for the best for the children in her care, although the NGO reimburses all expenses for the children. The tiny room is cluttered with a bicycle and toys and neighbouring children are always pouring in to play.
Dalvi’s house stands in contrast to the opulent Lodha towers, 10 km away, where corporate interior designer Anisha Johari lives. Johari has looked after five foster children in the last two years with help from two full-time maids. “I came to know about foster care when I adopted my daughter Shivika. She had lived with a family before adoption for three months,”says Johari.
Two years ago, she brought in the first child, a month-old, who had been in institutional care. In the next four months, with better hygiene, medical care and personal touch, the baby grew perceptively. “When she was adopted, her weight had increased. She was a happier child,” she recollects.
Husband Rahul Johari, a banker, and her two children, specially Shivika, now 7-year-old, are in love with babies and eager to continue this practice. The Joharis are soon shifting to Kolkata and have already started research on foster care in the city.
There is a crater left behind every time a baby is adopted. “It is difficult to let go of our selfish need to keep the baby. When the first baby was adopted, our entire family was sad for days,” Johari says. Last year, a baby, who had a dusky complexion, was rejected by an adopting couple. “I felt as if they have declined a marriage proposal for my daughter. I could not sleep for days,” she says.
The handful of NGOs working to place children under foster care is looking for couples like the Joharis to counsel. “Emotional needs of children cannot be sustained by institutional caretakers where 10 children are looked after by one person. Foster parents can provide a home to children and make the transition into an adoptive home easier,” says Najma Goriawala, consultant with Indian Association for Promotion of Adoption (IAPA). IAPA has 12 registered foster parents.
Likewise, the Udaipur-based Foster Care India has currently four families registered who will take care of children until they are 18. “We have multiple awareness strategies. We put out advertisements in papers and radio, sent out mass messages and counselled families through references. But we mostly have only middle income groups willing to opt for foster care. We are trying to bring in well-off people as well,” said counselor Bhagyashri Bhandakar.
In the last year, Johari has been able to convince another resident in her building to become a foster carer. Shalini Gupta, 43, looked after nine-week-old Aarohi for two months before her adoption in March this year. Previously, a teacher, Shalini is now a housewife. While her elder son studies abroad, the second one lives in a boarding school. “I could never stop being a mother. My husband and my parents were dead against adoption. Having no kids around made me sad,” she says. For the prosperous Guptas, foster care gave them a chance to have a child around once more, even if it was for a brief period.
Aarohi had come with a bottle of milk and the pair of clothes that she was in. Shalini went shopping, getting her clothes, toys and blankets. “Everyone in my tower started recognising me as Aarohi’s mother. The maids and watchmen always came out to help,” she says. While Aarohi’s departure depressed her briefly, the 43-year-old has decided to continue foster care, a symbiotic relationship where she will give a child a home, and the child will bring her happiness.