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A HOME FOR EVERY CHILD

The Roy Barmans of south Calcutta are a picture perfect family with an eight-year-old son and five dogs. The only wish they have is to adopt a girl child and give her a home. But the long waiting list and the legal complications of adoption have deterred them.

The Roy Barmans may have their wish fulfilled yet. The women and child development (WCD) ministry recently decided to modify the foster care laws in the Juvenile Justice Act to make things easier for prospective foster parents. “I am eagerly waiting for the new law to come into effect. I will rush to enlist myself for foster parenting,” says 40-year-old Arindam Roy Barman.

Unlike adoption, foster care does not require formal or legal adoption of the child and so entails no implications of property division in future. The prospective parents should be responsible for the welfare of the child till he/she turns an adult. Fostering can be either temporary or permanent. Children in conflict with the law would also be eligible for foster care services.

“This step is a good beginning. In the existing law, there were provisions for foster care, but no mechanism was in place to make them functional. A lot of details that were missing have been addressed now. Now it remains to be seen how the state governments and the child welfare committees (CWCs) utilise it,” says Anant Asthana, a veteran child rights advocate at the Supreme Court.

Section 39 of the Juvenile Justice Act provides for foster care but it suffers from a lack of proper definition and regulatory framework. Though quite common in the US and Europe, foster care in India is mostly confined to pre-adoptive procedures. “We are going to make it mandatory for prospective foster parents to register themselves with the district child protection unit (DCPU) and their profiles would be in the public domain for scrutiny or objections,” says a senior WCD ministry official.

It’s only after a thorough investigation by the CWC and DCPU officials that an individual would be eligible to become a foster parent. A licence would be issued which needs to be renewed annually and not more than two children would be placed in a foster family at any given time. Significantly, anyone can become a foster parent — whether married, single or divorced.

The Centre has also done away with the financial eligibility part of foster parenting. “We are only going to see a person in totality, whether he or she is mentally sound and physically fit to raise a child with the right values,” the official explains.

To fund the education and other expenses of the child, the Centre also plans to give an allowance of Rs 2,000 a month to the family. “We are planning to give Rs 10 lakh per annum to each district which would ensure that about 40 children get foster care in that district,” says the WCD ministry official. Besides, the provision of sponsorship exists for those children whose parents are too poor to afford their education.

Though the move has been widely lauded by child rights activists, some advise caution. “It’s a very welcome move. But extreme caution needs to be exercised and a strong follow-up mechanism should be in place to ensure that the child doesn’t end up being a domestic servant,” says Bharti Ali, founder and director of Haq, Centre for Child Rights, New Delhi.

Calcutta High Court lawyer Debashish Banerjee, who heads the Human Rights Law Network chapter in Calcutta, shares the same fear. “I am a bit sceptical about the allowance. In a country like ours, many will come forward to just get the money. There should be a strict monitoring system to ensure that no child is abused physically, sexually or otherwise,” Banerjee stresses.

Others say that this is really a Catch-22 situation. “If the financial status of a foster parent is checked, you end up depriving many who are otherwise worthy. If you don’t, you have to be really cautious about the intentions. I support the allowance part since a certain section of society should not be deprived of foster parenting because they are financially weak,” says Vikram Srivastava, a lawyer and founder of the NGO, Independent Thought, New Delhi.

Most child rights activists feel that the basic obstacle to the smooth implementation of the new law is the lack of adequate funds and manpower. “You have to pump in enough money to employ social workers. Regular follow-ups and counselling of foster parents too are a must to make the scheme a success. A special foster care wing should be set up,” says Ali.

Adds Aparna Dwivedi, a member of CWC, Mayur Vihar, New Delhi, “To ensure proper implementation, the selection of parents must be made fool-proof and regular follow-ups should be done. It’s not like a year has passed by happily and so the child is safe. We can’t afford to leave anything to assumption.”

Others point out that proper implementation will also depend on the intention of the people involved in the process. Since foster care involves a lot of procedural requirements, most CWCs across the country find it easier to simply send orphans to shelter homes. Again, many are not even aware of the power and scope of the Juvenile Justice Act and thus cannot work in the best interests of the children, feels Srivastava.

But would-be foster parents like Roy Barman aren’t complaining. For them the new rules mean that they will soon welcome a daughter into their home.