A Lifetime Home for Women and Girls: Cause for Celebration

The Government wanted to empty Shishur Sevay and fill it with new children. That was their plan. We simply would not allow that to happen and it didn’t. In the life of every orphan child there is a time when suddenly every person, every place, every landmark they have known is gone! No thing and no one is familiar, and the orphan is powerless. That simply would not happen to the Daughters of Shishur Sevay. By the government’s intent, our older girls would be out on their own, living elsewhere. Our disabled girls over 18 would be housed in institutions. Our under 18 would be put up for adoption, ignoring that three girls are already 17 years and disabled. The fourth is 13 and the most severely impaired. But to these government officials who were under pressure to place children, our children were just inventory that needed to be moved to make room for new inventory. Gone would be everything that had allowed our girls to thrive within a family/community of sisters, care-takers, aunts, “mummy”, the people they loved and who loved them. The tagline of our Shishur Sevay logo is, “To not Feel Alone in the Universe.” The orphan child, particularly the severely disabled child is certainly alone in the universe.

I’d known for a few years there would be a challenge as the new Juvenile Justice Act had removed the category of Small Group Homes from its hierarchy of care. Previously the small group home was the last stop before institutioalization. Under the Juvenile Justice Act, the insitutions are formed with groups of minimum 25 children, while the disabled children are in separate units of ten children each. There is no inclusion. Under the JJ Act, children are also segregated by age. Children under six years are the youngest, then 7-11 years, 12-18 years and after 18 they are released or moved to aftercare until 21, or at most 23 years. The JJ Act is/was developed to address the large numbers of children living on the streets, and the abuses that took place within the existing institutions at the time. My understanding is that small group homes were omitted because of expense.

Our problem with the JJ Act was that it didn’t apply to us. When we were founded in 2006 we made the choice not to take government aid because that would require us to “discharge” our girls at 18. We have never taken government funds. We promised the girls permanence. The moment we took in the children with disabilities we understood we were committed to lifetime care.Beginning in 2019 we met with government officials to argue we should not be licensed under the JJ Act because we did not meet the criteria. We lacked the required space. We even lacked beds because we were so small. We sleep on mats in the big room, myself included. Our census was 12 while the minimum was 25. Our ages range from 9 to 25 years, and we are inclusive — abled and disabled, younger and older, all living together in a family style. We were threatened with being closed down if we did not apply and receive JJ Act Registration. When we went to the people who could approve a women’s home they said we had to wait for all the girls to pass 18 years but we still could not be inclusive. To quote them, “You cannot have the handicaps and normals under the same roof.”

Threatened with closure we applied for JJ Act Registration on 11 April 2019. Then we had to submit a second application 8 January 2020 because the earlier one could not be found even though we had a receipt proving our submission. There was a final inspection of Shishur Sevay in May 2022. I was told by the inspector that our children with CP would be moved, but I ignored him. We finally received JJ Act Registration on 14 July 2022, three years and three months after submission.

Then the nightmare began. On 13th September 2022 we were asked to appear at a meeting of superintendents. We were told that our 4 girls without disabilities over 18 would have to leave. The girls over 18 with disabilities would be moved to an institution, and those under 18 would be listed for adoption. I said no. Their lawyer insisted, “Maam, it’s the law.” Repeatedly I said no. I stood up so I might be listened to and explained this was India and 18 year old girls are not sent from their homes. They brought in the foster care/adoption officer who talked about how to convince children to agree to adoption. I said no again. We have become a family. Our girls cannot be separated from eachother. The girls they wanted to be listed for adoption, “cannot walk, talk, feed, or toilet themselves” ages 17,17, and 13 years. They require 24/7 care to prevent choking, infection, and pressure sores.

Until very recently our girls had no idea of the threat. Only the Board knew. But that meant I could not look for public support because then the girls would find out. But I did immediately seek legal protection for the girls. Having in my previous life been expert witness in child custody cases I knew how quickly and mercilessly children could be moved/removed. In truth I was terrified. I remained terrified until we received the License. We were able to keep the girls from knowing anything about these threats until a government official here for inspection asked one of the older girls why she hadn’t moved out yet. Then he checked out our refrigerator and left.

Now we had to share the problem and our strategy including our legal resources. We told them what were their rights under the UN. We brought out our most recent Annual Report in which we had listed rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (in India) and the National Trust Act, 1999 which states:

The objects of the Trust shall be: (a) to enable and empower persons with disability to live as independently and as fully as possible within and as close to the community to which they belong…”

We never had to resort to legal action, but slowly the sea began to change. I was asked in one meeting with a senior official how I thought this would be resolved. “Well,” I said. “You will wiggle a little and I will wiggle and then we will wiggle some more, and then it will be resolved.” Meetings became easier. We presented an interpretation of The Women’s and Children’s Institutions (Licensing) Act,1956 that would allow the government to adjust to the realities of Shishur Sevay with regard to ages not requiring separate facilities, and agreed we would seek guardianship of the girls with disabilities through the National Trust. This had already been our plan.

On Wednesday, 14th June our Foundation Day, we called about the license after festivities , and were told the license had been approved and we should pick it up. It was too late that day so we planned to go the next day. I called Thursday morning to be sure this officer would be in and he told me he was out of the office on election duty and was no longer in that job. He advised us to come Monday to talk with his replacement.

Monday we arrived to see the same officer, not a replacement and within the next hour we were able to obtain the License. Slightly anticlimactic was my seeing that it had already expired on 31/3/2023, the end of the last fiscal year. We were told to file for renewal which we will do but in Kolkata just having receipt for a submission usually qualifies for having the license.

Receiving the License has changed things for us, for both the girls and for me. For all these years there has been a frightening “what if?” in the back of my mind. Every time I had refused to take more children the government threatened to close Shishur Sevay. And for the girls, there was also a more general, “what if?” They lived with the fear that one day they would wake up and Shishur Sevay would have all been a dream. We are all feeling more secure. The dream morphed into reality.

I recently came across a poem I’d written to my daughter in 1976. It bears an uncanny resemblance to my life today.

July 2023
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