American Foster Care versus India’s ‘Rakhi’ Care

In the Indian scenario, deep-seated malaise, a sense of Karmic justice, divisions based on caste, race, sex, creed, and religion – all of these factors amalgamate to create a massive confusion over how parentless children should be cared for and who is responsible. Yes, the country has laws, yes it has signed the United Nations Charter on the Rights of Children, and yes, children are loved as they are anywhere else in the world.  So why are there so many orphans?

In addressing the care of children in India, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting several wonderful and passionate child advocates.    Articulate, bright, and possessing high ideals these individuals live their lives surrounded by the voices of children.  During my recent trip this month, I visited India’s capital, New Delhi, and UP which is one of India’s largest and most backward states.  Within the hustle bustle of village life, lies a home for orphaned and displaced infants, children and youth.  

The Sai Kripa Model of Care for homeless children:

Sai Kripa (God’s kindness or grace) Home is run by a highly dedicated “Mummy-ji” who is the sole caretaker of 30 girls and infants and 16 boys.  The boys live in a separate residence than the girls but they all come together to eat under the same roof.  A large dormitory style kitchen has three cooks, they have a Laundromat within the facility and two large dogs protect the children and the grounds.  Very gentle with the children but fiercely protective, these dogs bared their teeth at us when we walked in, while a small child wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck. We noticed that the infants and toddlers lay across the floor fast asleep on the cool floor under the fan. There were none of the usual pillows, mattresses or cribs. The babies were just stretched out on the floor, under the cool breeze of the large fans, their legs spread out; all were in diapers.  The older girls slept on the cots above. It was quiet. The mother, Ms. Rajgopal invited us inside and shared her vision that came into fruition in 1988.   Her “first child” is now 30 years old with significant speech and hearing loss.  He works everyday making jewelry boxes at a nearby factory and had just come home for a late lunch.  He sat nearby and ate his meal.   

One would think that perhaps their foster care model is almost too simple to work – but it does and extremely well!  Each of the older girls is given the responsibility to care for an infant.  She has to ensure that the child is fed, bathed, clothed, nurtured and educated.  No other adult non-orphan caretakers are allowed.  The older girls are taught the responsibility that comes with taking care of a child. When I asked about their own desire to become mothers, they shook their heads quite vehemently.  It is not surprising that teen pregnancy is unattractive to them, given their caretaking responsibilities when they come home from school and complete their homework.  Those who fail in school are not allowed to take part in activities and festivals until they complete their school work.  It is only after completing 10th grade, at the age of 16 that they are allowed to go out of the home by themselves and socialize independently.  Until then, they are required to inform their “mummy” where they are and have a strict curfew.  The boys and girls in the home become each other’s brothers and sisters.  This is effectively done by an ancient custom in India called “Rakhi”or “Raksha Bandhan” which literally translates as “the bond of protection”.  In this ancient custom a girl ties a colorful thread on a boy’s wrist claiming him as her brother.   In return, the brother promises to keep her safe from harm.  This custom was born centuries ago when young Hindu girls were being forcefully taken from their homes by foreign invaders.  The boys had then to fight for their sisters’ honor.  In keeping with the traditions, the orphan boys in the Sai Kripa home are “Rakhi brothers” to their orphan sisters.  This is truly a brilliant and effective family model.  They eat together, have a choice of one of three schools that the home runs: one for regular education, one for special education, and a non-formal education center for slum children.  The girls dormitory has a steel door that is locked at all times for protection, and a bathing rooms that the girls maintain, and rotate chores.  The guards are female and local organizations volunteer food days.  Sai Kripa has had international funding. Donors include: Concern India Foundation, Give Foundation, Cadence Design Systems, U.N. Women’s Guild, Chirag Foundation, USA, Maveric Systems, ADOBE, ASHA, Project and Development India, Ltd., amongst others.

In a state where education of girls was unheard of, these young women and men are entering the workforce and changing attitudes towards women and girls. Orphaned girls are leading the way in women’s rights and families from this highly traditional village are now sending their daughters to school.  Inspiring?  Foster youth are more educated than the girls being raised by their biological parents – there are no educational delays or limitations that these young orphaned women and men experience.  To date, 120 children have made their way into this home and have been brought by the police, grandparents unable to afford the care of grandchildren, and concerned citizens.  I met one young girl who was studying her BA in commerce, another who was completing her undergraduate studies in Economics and another who had got a job in a bank.  In a village where girls could not venture out without their heads covered, their success is nothing short of phenomenal. Their founder in response to my comments gave me her huge smile and said, “The children are good.”  

I will be collaborating with her on some of her future projects and dreams.  The Union Ministry for Child Welfare is also supportive of efforts to work on a feasible foster care system in India.

Sai Kripa and other orphan homes do not take in children who have families that want them.  She also willingly gives back children when the state locates parents or family members. Children do come in crisis situations for short placements. There are no courts, no custody battles, no broken hearts, and no case managers.  Religion is a choice of each child based on name and family of origin.

Perhaps the simple but profound lesson that Sai Kripa provides is that a mother’s love may not be biological, but when unconditional and pure in form – it envelopes each child within its folds and we see the joy and pride that blossoms into young women and men.  Love is a universal phenomenon and this incredible mother has proven that love is truly transformational.