10 lessons learned in care system reform in India
By: Ian Anand Forber-Pratt
In 2011, my only goal in India was to be a part of the foster care field in India. As I worked on the ground my goal quickly expanded. My work in communities and with families taught me that foster care is not the only way of care and protection of children but rather one of many options that form a continuum of care. This continuum must start with family strengthening in order to value the founding block of any society, family. Now in 2017, my thinking evolves every day.
Here we go…
1. Nothing is an island, care is in the continuum. Every child is different with changing needs throughout their lives. How can one option be enough? The problem is that systems think often in silos. I’ve learned that on the biggest barriers to care reform in India is the lack of systemically valued and provided interactions between care options.
2. Institutions must shift from a first resort to a last but should not all close. Institutions provide the high majority of care and protection of children. “De-institutionalising” them would be a disaster as other care options are only forming and are not at scale. We should concentrate on the shift from institutions going from a first resort to a last and reducing the size and increasing the quality in institutions. India’s population and cultural contexts dictate our options and we must work within the country’s capacities, values and milieu or we’ll fail.
3. The child protection system must shift from a child placement paradigm to a family success paradigm. Almost every child protection system in the world is built on the need to ‘place’ children somewhere. We have the opportunity, now, to change the thinking behind the system to focus on family success as the denominator and other care options as the variables.
4. Family strengthening is the fundamental foundation for a child protection system. A shocking little amount is being done in India to strengthen families. However, family is the foundation stone of Indian culture and value structure. Stronger families equal stronger communities equal strong society.
5. The system should be designed as preventative and not reactive as children’s best interests are examined on a case-by-case basis. Shhhh, please don’t tell anyone I am trying to sneak two concepts into one point… Our child protection system reacts to crisis instead of aiming to anticipate, defuse and prevent it; gatekeeping must be a valued part of every aspect of child protection. Systems are macro by nature, however, can be designed to account for individual user’s needs. Oddly, our child protection systems don’t seem to have this design feature. In this age of rapid care system reform, we have the opportunity to design, model and test practices that allow district level social workers to have the capacity, resources and authority to make decisions based on the best interest of the child within an established framework.
6. Capacity, capacity, capacity. Our district and field level implementers have very little capacity both in technical understanding of child care and protection and also of critical thinking. This is NOT their fault. We need to invest in their capacity so they can be proud, every day, that they are changing lives.
7. Resources, resources, resources Our child budget is at 4% for the almost 472 million children living in India. A fraction of that 4% goes to child care and protection. Care reform does not happen systemically without investment, especially on the front end of social change.
8. Public debate is a must. We often scare away from criticism or debate. In a country where individual rights are sparse, it is the safe thing to do. However, without public debate surrounding how child care and protection systems should be reformed, we’ll do it wrong. Public debate sheds light, gives accountability and pressures at all levels for excellence.
9. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Data, promising practice models and facts are few and far between in child protection in India. Without baseline information we have a difficult time measuring our success. Yes, maybe we helped 100 girls escape from child marriage; but was that out of 1000 girls? 10,000 girls? Social changes happen not only in the heart but in the mind.
10. Ego must fall away for progress to occur, especially in the non-governmental sectors. Children and families lose every day because we can’t get along.
This is my humble offering to you as only a window into my lessons learned. Thousands more mistakes and learning are on my horizon. I’ll keep sharing.
Ian Anand Forber Pratt with Masters in Social Work (MSW) is the National Program Director of the Centre of Excellence in Alternative Care of Children in India and Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI). Ian is also a member of the RISE South and Central Asia’s Regional Working Group.