The Desolation Wrought by the Unicef Model of Child Rights

by Suranya Aiyar

This article was first published in the Sunday Guardian on September 29, 2018 under the title ‘Why are we adopting failed Western childcare policies?’.

Last week’s article in this series looked at possible reasons why the West has adopted a confiscatory model of child protection, where intervention is in the form of taking children into foster care rather than helping them in their families. The question became relevant as we saw that the number of cases involving sexual or physical abuse was relatively small. Rather than simply targeting abuse, the child protection systems in these countries target the children of the underclass, using the pretext of “emotional abuse”, or labelling poverty-related home conditions as “neglect” or “parental inability to cope”. Those targeted mostly belong to the perceived “dregs of society”, so-called “welfare bums” or poor single mothers and impoverished, poorly educated, isolated and otherwise marginalized parents.

This is where the whole operation starts to look more and more like a eugenics exercise. Short of sterilization, this is the best way to cull a society – take the children of the perceived “unfit” parents and send them to be raised in foster care or forced adoption with state-approved “fit” parents.

Not only is this unethical and unspeakably cruel, the system has not succeeded in making things better for most of the children it takes away. The child protection and foster care model of our Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 (“JJ Act”) is failing in the advanced Western countries that have it. Even its most vocal advocates will admit that children in foster care do very badly compared with children in the general population. Most of them age-out of the care system as school drop-outs and enter into a life of homelessness, prostitution, substance abuse or crime.

The breakup of filial ties through foster care sets in motion the cycle of isolation both for the parents and the children. Photo: Pixabay

In the USA, surveys show that only 2-9% of foster youth obtain a bachelor’s degree and half of them drop out of school (National Working Group on Foster Care and Education in the USA, 2014). The channel between foster care and being trafficked into sex work is an accepted fact in England and the USA; it is called the “Foster Care to Trafficking Pipeline”. Experts also speak of a “Foster Care to Prison Pipeline” because of the high rates of criminal offenders found among former foster youth.

According to statistics from England, “looked after” children (i.e. those in state care) are five times more likely than all children to commit a crime (Department for Education, Children looked after in England, Additional Tables, SFR 50/2017). The data also shows that 11% of 16 to 17-year-olds and 5% of 13 to 15-year-olds have substance misuse problems.

Educational outcomes for England’s “looked after” children are much lower than for children not looked after (Department for Education, Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England, SFR 20/2018).

Data for children in state care/foster care for a year or more continuously (“children looked after continuously for atleast 12 months”) show that only half (49%) are considered to have normal emotional and behavioral health. 12% have “borderline scores” and 38% have scores which were a “cause for concern”.

So the evidence is in that foster care has failed to improve things for children from families assessed negatively by the state.

The breakup of filial ties through foster care has also meant that as adults many of those ageing out of the care system have no one in the world to go to. Children may have no recollection of their parents’ whereabouts, and many have been told from a very young age that their parents were no good. This also generates a stream of now aged parents without any children to care for them in their old age.

The cycle of isolation continues with a high number of teenage pregnancies being observed in girls ageing out of the care system, driven by the very human need to have someone to love. The children of these young women are often targeted by the child protection system as their experience of having been in foster care is seen as retarding their ability to be “fit parents”.

Do we want to set this tragic cycle into motion in India?

The question arises why we are looking at foster care at all. Foster care is described in child protection jargon as “de-institutionalisation”, which the prevailing wisdom holds is better than institutionalization, i.e., being in orphanages. But, in practice, foster care operates very much like a small-scale institution. The JJ Act has the concept of “group” foster care, which is basically a small institution with a limit on the number of children to 8.

Foster care is said to be preferable to life in an orphanage because it gives children a domestic environment and a sense of belonging. But the relatively closed environment of a foster family leaves children vulnerable to other types of abuse and exploitation. There is any amount of testimony in Western countries from people who have been in foster care saying that they suffered far worse abuse in foster care, like rape and thrashings, than anything they faced in their less-than-perfect biological families.

A large number of children run away from state care. In England, statistics show that 33% percent of children in foster care went “missing” (Department for Education, Children looked after in England, SFR 50/2017). Of all the children placed in institutions or foster care, an average of 4.2 incidents of being “away from their placement without authorisation” were reported. This is official jargon for a child whose whereabouts away from the place of state care are known. In other words, this refers to runaways. This means many children in foster care are running away more than 4 times a year from their supposedly “wonderful” foster carers. Does this look like a child friendly system?

Many former foster children, even if they were not abused or exploited in foster care, will say that they never felt loved or got the sense of belonging they craved. Many say that they were acutely aware of the fact that the foster parents had taken them in for the fostering “paycheck” that came with them.

In India, the Model Foster Care Guidelines, 2016 say that preference is to be given to fosterers who do not ask for state financial assistance to foster the child, but there is nothing to stop them taking funds from the child rights NGOs that have mushroomed in India since we adopted the Western child protection model. There is also no provision for foster parents to account for monies received towards the care of the foster child. Group foster homes in India are allowed Rs. 2000 per child from the government. This sum is bound to grow and grow, if the experience in Western countries is anything to go by. Once you have this system in place, it keeps asking for more funds and politicians look good allocating monies to child protection. Given economic conditions in India, a payment of Rs 2000 per month is already a hefty amount.

Why are we allowing the Ministry of Women and Child Development to get away with importing failed Western systems for Indian children? Who is lobbying the Ministry with ideas of mass foster care programmes? Are parents even aware of how stubbornly committed child rights groups in India are to the dysfunctional Western model of child protection?

Has the Ministry taken the public into confidence about its agenda for Indian children? Where is the public debate and discussion before allowing state agencies such long arms to reach children who have not been abused or abandoned, but are living in ordinary families – families like yours and mine?

Much is said these days about child abuse awareness. But the most universal form of child abuse in India today is the public apathy about the dangerous child-related policies and laws being quietly passed here. Parents cannot afford to be ignorant any longer. It is high time for us to hold our government and the child rights community to account for what is being planned in the name of child protection. This is our last chance to push back. Once the child rights industry takes root here, once the economy of interests invested in it is breathed to life, it will be too late.

This is Part 5, the final, in  a series of essays by Suranya Aiyar on child protection laws in India and abroad. The series was published in the Sunday Guardian in September 18. The remaining essays in this series are here. 

India Should not have Adopted the Western Model of Child Protection    

The Dangers of the Unicef-Advocated Child Laws in India

India’s Foster Care Laws Wrongly See the Family as the Child’s Adversary

The Surreal Nightmare of Western Child Protection