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Child care reform in India, one sixth of world population, has regional and global significance

Lumos voices

Child care reform in India, one sixth of world population, has regional and global significance

A blog from Ian Anand Forber-Pratt, Leading campaigner for childcare reform in India.

India commits to counting children outside homes and families as it shifts away from institutions
Over the last decade, Ian Anand Forber-Pratt has been at the forefront of campaigning in India for reform of child care systems to ensure children can live in families, not institutions. Ian works for Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI), who partner with a number of organisations to support India on its journey to deinstitutionalisation – including the Centre of Excellence in Alternative Care of Children, one of 250 NGOs calling on the UN to count children living outside families under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Here, he welcomes an important recent Indian Supreme Court ruling.

I am passionate and unapologetic in my campaigning for reform of child protection care systems and the need for mindset change on a global scale in governmental and non-governmental sectors. The aim is to strengthen, celebrate and preserve families in safe and appropriate ways, always in the best interest of the child.

I have worked at policy and practical and demonstration levels in India to achieve this goal – as part of the drafting committees at Central and State levels in India for foster care, sponsorship and aftercare legislation, and on-the-ground in the state of Rajasthan, leading pilot foster care and family strengthening programmes.

The new directives by the Supreme Court Bench in India, announced earlier this month, represent a policy development that will have potentially huge, beneficial practical impact for children in adversity.

The Supreme Court of India issued directives to the Indian states and union territories (UTs) to shift their focus to family-based care, stating: “It is imperative that the Union Government and the governments of states and UTs must concentrate on rehabilitation and social re-integration of children in need of care and protection,” and adding: “It is time that the governments of the States and Union Territories consider deinstitutionalisation as a viable alternative”1 – to the use of institutions.

The implications for children, both in-country and globally, are significant. India has the second largest population of children in the world and is an increasing influence in child protection in South-Asia2 3 With more than a third of its population below the age of 18, India has a child population of over 400 million children4. Estimates suggest that of these 400 million at least 40% fall under some form of vulnerability with an increasing amount of sexual abuse and exploitation.5

These figures give an idea of the huge scale of India’s problems but they are estimates because India still lacks a “denominator” to quantify the number of children in out-of-home care or in institutional care. The 2016 National Plan of Action for Children included the first national mapping of child vulnerability6 but there is still much work to be done to properly assess the needs of children outside of parental care. (This data gap is not, as we know, just a problem in India, which is why organisations I’ve been involved with were among 250 NGOs globally to sign the letter to the UN drafted by Lumos and SOS Children’s Villages.)

Those of us working to achieve child protection system reform will now work to build on the Supreme Court directives – which effectively shift the approach from institutions as a first resort to that of a last resort. But great sensitivity is needed.

Child Protection is still a relatively new concept in India and we know from research elsewhere – including Lumos’ own history - that mind-set change is difficult to achieve. We are changing a vast and complex system and on the road to reform India will mostly likely experience successes and failures, will learn lessons and benefit from innovative approaches, as well as influential top-down directives such as the Supreme Court directives.

The Supreme Court directives are particularly welcome to those of us campaigning for effective foster care – a vital element of deinstitutionalisation. Provisions on foster care have been included in legislation since, at least, the year 2000, but in practice foster care has still not been turned into an effective system at national or state levels; family strengthening/ preservation and post-institution aftercare are still in their infancy.

But the infrastructure is there, with Child Welfare Committees, District Child Protection units and Juvenile Justice Boards in most of the 700 districts across India. The directives of the Supreme Court, we hope, will provide the impetus to galvanise that network of professionals to make the system work in the interests of children who need and deserve the love and security of family life.

As in many other countries, the challenges and risks will be formidable – not least the risk that, through insufficient resourcing, mistakes may be made and children may be placed with families without proper monitoring, evaluation or training. But to its credit, India is making strong efforts, in collaboration with non-governmental organisations, to mitigate the risks from gaps between the new policies and the implementation on the ground.

We all work to overcome the challenges in India because social change research indicates that a ‘tipping point’ – the point at which deinstutionalisation becomes irreversible - is near.

And the potential positive results for children are so great.

The main implication of the Supreme Court-influenced shift from institutions as a first to a last resort is that a country which has one sixth of the world’s population can stand up and say that children belong in families and we are well on the way to making that a reality for hundreds of millions of children.