14 February 2013 / 17 October 2015

Suranya Aiyar:
Family must come first

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This article was published in a slightly different form by Hindustan Times in February 2013, but has since disappeared from the paper's website. It is published here with the kind consent of the author.

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One-year-old Indrashish Saha, an Indian citizen, has been in foster care in the United States since September last year. Indrashish’s parents are contesting his confiscation from them by New Jersey child protection authorities, but want him sent to his grandparents in India instead of being kept in foster care.

At the family’s request, the Government of India has demanded that Indrashish be repatriated. Since then an extraordinary investigation has been conducted by US authorities into the Saha family in India.

The US questionnaire for evaluating relatives requesting custody of children removed from their parents is revealing of what their child protection system thinks relevant in such cases. The questionnaire asks for descriptions of the relative’s “physical appearance” and “salient personality traits”. It requires relatives to state their annual income and level of education. It asks whether household amenities include air-conditioning. There are fourteen pages of questions in this vein.

The worst thing about this inspection on the Sahas is not the type of questions asked but the fact that there has to be an investigation at all. It should be enough to decide the matter that these are Indrashish’s grandparents and they want him back. But in the philosophy of the child protection systems of the West it is not self-evident that children belong with their families. Though the rules in some countries allow for such children to be placed with members of the extended family, the claimant relatives are subjected to evaluations as if they are potential hostel wardens for the children, with little worth being given to their relationship to the child.

This casual approach to family ties is also apparent in the manner in which children are taken away from their parents in the first place. The system allows children to be taken away before any trial, and in some countries, such as Norway, without any judicial inquiry. Parents are allowed virtually no access to their children while they await trial, which can take months, even years. The Sahas have been separated from their baby since September 2012 without trial. In allowing this easy and indefinite confiscation of children, the system seems to have no sense of the enormity of what it is doing in preventing mothers and fathers from being with their own children before any proper determination as to whether the separation is justified.

We also have to question the brutality of child protection systems that punish parents by taking away their children for good. Even assuming the worst allegations of child protection authorities against them, the suffering of parents asking for their children to be returned is undeniable unless you believe they all want their children back only to abuse them. Do the feelings that prompt parents to clamour for the return of their children not demand that we think about allowing for second chances instead of this reckless ripping up of parenthood by the State? Is this system protecting children or doing something unutterably horrible when it acts, as in England, to take babies away at birth when their mothers are assessed by care workers - while still pregnant - to be unfit for parenting.

There are some parents who are so dangerous that they must be separated from their children. But the proper response in such cases is to remove the offending parent instead of snatching away the child as if the solution to such a child’s troubles is just a matter of re-location from one custodian to another.

The child protection model adopted in the West has been a terrible mistake. A gentler and more discerning response needs to be devised for helping children in troubled families and one that does not involve wading into families, devastating all its relationships, and engaging in the absurd conceit of remaking so-called “good” families for the children through foster homes and forced adoption.


Other articles about the Saha case:

Child custody case: India asks US to address parents' concerns
rediff news, 11 September 2012

Kid in US foster care, grandpa waits
The Telegraph, Calcutta, 18 January 2013

India takes up case of child in foster care in US
ndtv, 11 September 2012