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Family must come first

Western systems lose sight of familial ties when dealing with children. Suranya Aiyar writes.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2013 22:28 IST

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 by the New Jersey child protection authorities. They want him sent to his grandparents in India instead. 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 the country's child protection system finds relevant. 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 of 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 these Western child protection systems it is not self-evident that children belong with their families.

This casual approach to family ties is also apparent in the manner in which children are taken away from their parents. The system allows children to be taken away before any trial, and in some countries, like 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 before any proper determination, the system ignores the enormity of the wrong that results from an unjustified separation of parents and children.

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 all such parents 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 - at pregnancy - to be unfit for parenting.

There are some dangerous parents who 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. The solution to such a child's troubles is not just a matter of relocation from one custodian to another in a foster home or adoptive family.

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. A response that does not involve wading into families, devastating all its relationships, and engaging in the absurd conceit of remaking so-called "good" families for children through foster homes and forced adoption.

Suranya Aiyar is a lawyer and a mother who has been campaigning to reunite families separated abroad by child protection authorities

The views expressed by the author are personal