Fourteen Minus One Equals Fifteen, Remainder One and a Half

Monday we went to the CWC, the West Bengal Child Welfare Committee where I expected them to start the approval process for one of our girls to return to her family. https://shishursevay.com/2012/09/11/shes-going-home-to-her-family/  We have 14 girls at Shishur Sevay and I and was expecting to walk out with 14-1, at least on paper until we took her to her family.  But before we even got to why we were there, the Chairwoman, remembering me from when I’d taken Aunty’s starving children there, wanted to know more about Shishur Sevay.

She wanted me to take more.  I resisted, saying I didn’t have the resources.   I told her I wanted to work with the government to make their homes better, not take more children.  She asked, “What else am I supposed to do with these children?”  Then she brought in a crying girl, and  stood her next to me.  I’d seen her in the waiting room, and had told my (home to her family) girl I thought she was there for relinquishment. The child looked to be about eight years, dark-skinned, hair up in braids tied with shiny red, green, and gold ribbon, dressed in a frayed light green velveteen tunic and black pants.  But now she was standing on one side of me and our Shishur Sevay girl in a chair on the other side and the Chairwoman was pleading with me to take her as she had been living on the pavement under plastic.

The child was looking at me teary-eyed pleading, and the woman with her who turned out not to be her mother also pleading with me…   Two sisters from Missionary of Charity were also huddled over and around me.  This was the best of  Bengali Drama!  Would I or would I not save this child who neither Missionaries of Charity nor the Government of West Bengal could care for.  I glanced around to Gibi, Maggie, and Purba, and then I put my arm around the teary-eyed girl and pulled her close.  The curtain fell, but it was only Act I.

Act II was brief.  One of the Sisters  recognized us from when Maggie and I had visited Aloo and Eisha, the babies they had taken from Aunty’s.  I saw her look over at the Chairwoman quickly.  Their eyes met and another plan was hatched.  “Maybe she could take Anu,” the Sister asked the Chairwoman, both of them also looking at me.  Then the Sister explained that Anu was a young woman who had come to Mother Teresa’s pregnant, expecting to give up her child.  But after the baby was born she insisted she wanted to keep her baby. She could not go home to her village.  She had been staying at another of Mother Teresa’s homes, working and caring for her six-month old daughter, but they could not keep her.   They didn’t have the facilities.  I was/am interested but said we had to meet the mother first.  That will happen next week when we visit the home.  The mother and baby are the  “Remainder one and a half” and still to be resolved.  This could be very good, or not, but something I hope will work out.  She could live with us, work, and take care of her baby.  So Act II brought the story along, but we still had the matter for which we had come, our girl who wanted to return to her family in the village, subject of the post just before the last one.

Act III

FINALLY… The curtain rises and the group has only slightly shifted.  The new child is gripping my hand.  To my right is our girl who wants to go back to her village.  To her right is Gibi, and in back of us Purba and Maggie.  More people are in the room now.  Nothing there is ever private, and we are the show of the day.   I offer the Chairwoman a two page report about the contacts with her family, and her desire to return to them, which I support.  I included some pictures from the visit.   The Chairwoman leaned forward, glaring at me, “She wants to do WHAT???”  She went on, saying the family would sell her, or send her to work, or marry her off.  She was adamant, and asked,  ‘You would let her do this?”  I said she was not a prisoner.  I don’t have the authority to keep her against her will.  “Well, we won’t let her go because we will not be responsible for what would happen.”

Our girl cringed.  Then the Chairwoman looked at me and asked, “Well, what to you want me to do?”  I requested she look at the second page of my report and the three things I suggested.  The first was that the CWC interview her.  The second was that we ask her family, the sister and brother in law who would keep her to come and meet with the CWC.  The third was that we would take her to the village if they agreed.   The stage was momentarily quiet and then in a rush, another CWC member entered and the Chairwoman got up to rush off to a meeting (I did get her to stop and give me her card).   We had started to agree that her family would come a week later to meet with them, but suddenly we seemed to be starting over.

This committee member had been present for previous contentious and confrontational meetings with the family.  The CWC had warned us to watch our girl closely as she was in danger of being kidnapped.  Her safety became prime in the choice of school.  The CWC woman asked for another copy of the report, and then “went ballistic”.  “I’ve met your family!  No, this is too dangerous.  I don’t have to meet them again!  Once you are 18 we can’t stop you but not now!”  Ice cold air radiated from our girl who wanted to go home to the village.  The woman went on to ask her what she was doing and what she wanted to do to achieve independence.  Our girl was testy. She had been read the riot act!  She made a commitment to finish school.  She was told she would be given a government job if she passed the Class X exam.   We agreed, though it is not realistic in the next eight months, but Shishur Sevay doesn’t have an age limit.    CWC drew up papers that she would continue to be at Shishur Sevay and that we would enroll her in the NIOS, National Institute for Open Schooling, a process we had already begun.  The CWC agreed to change her records to reflect her true name and age.  We will enroll her with her real age as soon as we get an original of the birth certificate.  It took a while to get all the papers stamped and signed.

We straggled out, our sad and angry teenager, the new child holding my hand, Maggie and Purba ahead of us going to the car, Gibi giving our phone number and card to the woman who had brought the child as she wanted to see her again…..We took a picture of her and the child together.   I was happy she knew how to reach us and where we are.   She waved as we drove off.

We decided to surprise everyone at home.  The others went ahead. Then I came along with our new girl.  She was greeted with warmth, smiles, and some jealousy — so normal.  Kalpana was the most put off and refused to look at her.  It was really cute.  All the girls were relieved that their big sister wasn’t leaving for the village.

The curtain came down but there was no applause and the audience did not want to leave.  The drama felt unfinished, so an Act IV was added.

Act IV

The curtain rises on the “office” at Shishur Sevay.  This is a room about 10’x12′ and forms part of the entrance way to the rest of the house.  It’s where we work, talk, and hang out.  It’s also where kids put stuff they don’t want to lose.  It’s clutter center and often we sit on the floor because all other surfaces are covered with stuff.

Scene 1

It’s evening  of the next day and I am sitting on the couch with our very confused and angry girl.  It’s time to talk.  She has been avoiding eye contact.  She is silent so I speak and say we should get her enrolled in classes that would get her out of school as soon as possible, as I assumed she no longer wanted to be a doctor.  Tears streamed…. “No, I still want to be a doctor.”  I tell her I’m thrilled.  I said, “You do the work and I’ll back you all the way!”   She asked, “I’m not too old?”   She hugged me, and then tears and more tears and she dozed off in my arms.

Scene 2

The following night, we are back in the office, this time with Gibi here to call the family and tell them she will not be coming.  Our girl is a bit on the icy side.  I place the call, say hello to her eldest sister, her Didi, who doesn’t sound well, and I pass the phone to Gibi who speaks in Bengali.  Didi is indeed sick, and has been in the hospital with fever.  She is home now but may need surgery.  She told Gibi that this was better, that her youngest sister stay with us, that they barely had money for food, that the neighborhood was bad.  The impulse had been there, the wish to care for her, but the reality was not so easy.  Didi was relieved.  We ended by talking about Didi coming to visit here.  She joked about staying a night and I said that would be wonderful.  I said I would pay her transport and we would meet her at the train station the first time so she could get here easily.  Didi and her sister talked, tears and smiles.  After the phone conversation I got more hugs.

Over the next half hour, more girls joined us on the floor, including our newest.  They are mostly happy she is here, one confessing she was jealous at first. They wanted to know if they had been her size when they came.    They asked her a lot about her past, and also explained to her that they were translating for me, not talking about her.  She had been living on the footpath (sidewalk) and begging.   She is full of contradictions.   She has extremely good table manners and can tell us the  knife is used for spreading butter, but her hair shows the color and texture of starvation.  Something terrible had happened but we don’t know what.  One day she will tell her sisters and then share with me.  She is calmer than they ever were.  I’ve been thinking about that, and wondering how much of their wildness came from living in the government institution where they were frequently punished and tortured.

One of our girls whose family we had found a few years ago asked me if she could show our new girl a picture of  where she had lived. In the past she had asked me to hide them all pictures. Now she wanted this new girl to know that she too came from a bad place, and not to be ashamed.

I noticed the clock, long past bedtime.  The girls got up and headed off, some holding hands, all thoughtful and peaceful  I came to my computer to write.

Curtain Falls, but life goes on.

Play Discussion:  In my previous post: https://shishursevay.com/2012/09/24/beggars-for-life/ I addressed begging by children, and  begging by government dependent on the soft hearts of foreigners who don’t like to see children hungry or crying.  I posted that blog Monday morning just before we left for CWC.  And then it played out, as it had been written.  By the end of the day I had one more mouth to feed and the government had one less.

This morning I came across a new Kolkata story: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/pavement-dweller-baby-raped-kolkata-crime-mamata-banerjee/1/222350.html  An 18 month old baby living on the pavement with her mother had been raped.

NO END

The Case of Kairi Shepherd — Orders for Exile

Kairi Shepherd, pictured below at about five years, is scheduled for deportation.  Gibi, who founded Shishur Sevay with me and serves as our Vice President, was to have been Kairi’s older sister.  I had been trying for several years to locate the people Gibi had known in the US, and particularly the Shepherd family.  So when I saw the original article May 9th about Kairi’s deportation, I immediately recognized her name.  I read some of the posts written in the comments of that article, Googled a bit, found someone close to Kairi, and then reached Kairi, who also put me in touch with her lawyer.  At the same time a group ACT, against child trafficking, had started pressurizing the Indian government to deny travel papers, so Kairi could not be deported.  The current state is that the US and Indian Governments are looking for solutions.  There has been a groundswell of support for Kairi among the community of parents who have adopted children.  A team of lawyers is working pro bono in her support.  Kairi suffers from progressive multiple sclerosis.  If not for that, exile would be just a disaster in so many ways.  But with her ms, this could be a fatal disaster.

The single meeting allowed for Erlene and Kairi Shepherd with Gibi

http://www.indiaamericatoday.com/article/inside-story-lack-accountability-leaves-kairi-limbo#.T8bm95CvYxc.facebook

INSIDE STORY: Lack of accountability leaves Kairi in limbo

ARTICLE | MAY 31, 2012 – 9:01AM | BY DR. MICHELLE HARRISON

Gibi’s passport had the name Shepherd, because Erlene was to have adopted her/ Credit: Dr. Michelle Harrison

Kolkata – Kairi Abha Shepherd was adopted from India at three months of age and has no country to call home. She was abandoned at birth in a Kolkata nursing home and taken in by a Kolkata orphanage that has since closed. At three months of age she was sent to the United States for adoption by Erlene Shepherd, a widow with six other adopted children. Erlene died of metastatic breast cancer when Kairi was eight years old, but never filed the papers to make Kairi a US citizen.

Now under threat of deportation, Kairi, who suffers from rapidly progressing multiple sclerosis, is an orphan without a country. She is from India, but was not raised as an Indian. She was raised as an American, but is not American. Deportation is a sanitized word. The proper term is exile, the banishment of a person from his home, his country. Given Kairi’s progressive illness, it might be death in exile.

I am an American doctor settled in Kolkata since 2006, where I founded Shishur Sevay, a home for orphan girls, some with disabilities, who were rejected for adoption. I have a younger daughter adopted in 1984 from IMH (International Mission of Hope), the same orphanage as Kairi. I also have an older daughter, to whom I gave birth. Both are American citizens, one by birth, the other by naturalization. When my older daughter was born she was mine and the only papers I filled out were for her birth certificate.

For my Indian daughter the process was longer and more complicated than pregnancy. I carried a different responsibility. I had been entrusted with another mother’s child, to love and raise her as if she were of my body. She had already lost a mother and a family. I felt a special responsibility to be the forever family she had been promised. Everyone in the long chain of people, institutions, and governments had a special responsibility for this child, because at that moment in time, they were the only ones in a position to secure her future safety.

Kairi didn’t hop on a plane at three months of age and say, “Mom, I’m coming home. Meet me at the airport.” Her “line of possession” was from a nursing home in Kolkata, to International Mission of Hope, to an escort, to Erlene Shepherd, her forever mother. An agency from the US side, AIAA (Americans for International Aid and Adoption), had to do a home study and approve Erlene to adopt another child.

Those papers had to be approved by the Indian Embassy in Washington and the US Immigration Service, all before Erlene could be assigned as Kairi’s mother. Back in India, IMH had to show how they received the child, and then petition the Alipore Court to give guardianship to Erlene Shepherd.

The guardianship papers defined the responsibilities of Erlene Shepherd: “Your petitioner submits that she is a fit and proper person to be appointed guardian of the person of the said minor during her minority. Your petitioner further submits that it will be for the welfare of and manifestly advantageous to the said minor as regards her up-bringing, education and establishment in life, if the petitioner is appointed guardian of the said minor and the minor is permitted to be taken to and live with your petitioner in USA.” The guardianship by the government of India did not require adoption or citizenship.

A different government office issued an Indian passport so Kairi could travel, with Erlene’s name as her US contact. The American Consulate had to issue a visa for Kairi to enter the US. Once Kairi was in the US, she would have received permanent resident status (a green card), which she then would have had to relinquish when she received her naturalization papers.

What went wrong – falling through the cracks

International adoption occurs in the context of a government agreement between the sending and receiving countries. At the time of Kairi’s adoption, neither government required that the child become a citizen. In fact they did not even require that the child be legally adopted!

All the people and government officials involved in the process of obtaining the child, caring for her, sending her to the US, and approving the US family were paid for what they did, by salaries or fees. Once Kairi was in the US, no one had a financial interest in helping her to get her papers. There may have been concern, but it was not imperative.

The agency that approved Erlene did so even though she had not obtained citizenship for her other international adoptees. Erlene was also approved to adopt Gibi after Kairi’s adoption. They had a single meeting, with Kairi present, and then the adoption didn’t happen; but Gibi had gone to Denver with Erlene’s name on her passport, just as Kairi had. Today in Kolkata, Gibi is tearful, and says, “Kairi was supposed to be my little sister. Maybe if I had been there to take care of her, her life would have been better.”

Erlene, a single mother with seven children, was struggling financially and then became ill with cancer. The child services agency in Utah which looks after orphaned children did not notice that the children lacked citizenship.
The older siblings attempted to apply for Kairi’s papers when she was 16, but the US authorities did not let them, as they were not her parents.

By the time Kairi was an adult, her life had truly fallen apart. She was on drugs and was convicted of forgery for the purpose of getting drugs, but as a non-citizen, she was suddenly an “illegal alien headed for deportation.” She has been fighting this since 2007. The United States Child Citizenship Act of 2000 created a system of automatic citizenship for adopted children, but it was not retroactive to the time Kairi was born. She missed the deadline by months.

Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” First it takes a mother, and Kairi had lost two mothers by the time she was eight. Her mother didn’t obtain the citizenship papers, but the village also failed to notice. The same government that welcomed her at three months wants to send her back at age 30, because she committed a crime. Did any adoptive parent ever think that their children’s remaining in the US was anything other than unconditional, that if they broke the law, back they went? When we adopted, we were the ones on trial as to our worthiness of raising our children. For Kairi, who lost two mothers, the village absconded.

Kairi’s multiple sclerosis – the effects of exile

Kairi’s first symptoms of multiple sclerosis appeared when she was 18, and she was diagnosed at age 22. It has progressed rapidly. She has clear lesions of her brain, which are worse on each subsequent MRI. Without powerful and expensive medications, she will not be able to survive. With each crisis of her MS, she is hospitalized for infusions. Even worse, she cannot tolerate the heat. If Kairi is exiled, she will arrive in India without funds and without a destination. She could literally collapse as soon as she leaves the airport and end up in a hospital with no money and no way of communicating.

The US does not deport in a kindly way. A person is put on a plane with no possessions except travel documents and they are not even allowed to make a phone call. All the rights of Americans that are taken for granted are only for citizens. Kairi has no rights, not even to a phone call to say she is leaving. She was escorted to the US with fanfare, with people sending her off, with people waiting for her arrival. Yet there are no goodbyes, just a disappearance.

When I adopted from this orphanage, I sent ahead an outfit for my daughter to wear for her journey home. We all did that. Kairi went to the US in that special outfit her mother sent her. She will be returning in whatever she happens to be wearing at the time, with no one to meet her, to a country where she looks like she belongs, where people will expect her to respond as an Indian raised in India, but she will be alone, more alone than when her mother left her at the nursing home in Kolkata. Kairi left for America as a healthy infant. She will be returning as a very sick adult with an incurable disease and without any means of survival.

Where is the village now as she faces death in exile?

The US must face its responsibility to the orphaned children it accepted, which at the time was understood to be unconditionally. As an adoptive parent, I didn’t have a return policy. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 was a good attempt to fix the problem, but it didn’t go back far enough. Kairi isn’t the only adoptee facing deportation.

Another Indian adoptee, Jennifer Hynes, was sent back to India, leaving two children and a husband in the US. She is begging to be able to return to the US to be with her children.

The law has to be fixed. The process of exiling these sons and daughters of Americans must be stopped. They may be “adoptees,” but they came to the US to be our sons and daughters, as if of our bodies. That is what we owe them.

About the Author

Dr. Michelle Harrison

Doctor, author, educator, and most importantly, mother, Dr. Michelle Harrison is a true visionary. She came to India in 2000, drawn by family connections having adopted from Kolkata in 1984. Over the next five years she returned to Kolkata often, sponsoring children in schools, putting toilets in villages and visiting many orphanages. She established Child life Preserve Shishur Sevay as a model of non-institutional care for orphan girls, some with disabilities, in response to asking herself, “What happens to the children who don’t get adopted?”

Kolkata: A Wall of Resistance

To make something happen in Kolkata, you have to look for cracks in the wall, work quickly, and get out before the crack closes.  I’m not talking about the usual corruption, bribes, money under the table.  Those are paths, not cracks, and each has its price and conditions.  The cracks are more about what is not expected, feats of perceived impossibility.  It’s how we got the kids.  We found a crack, and got them before this route was closed again.  But most of the time we are hitting the wall.  When I took eight children by ambulance to the Child Welfare Committee and said they needed care, we were told there are no facilities available, take them back.  We found places for three that day; the others went back.  It was a wall, with no shame.  Walls have no shame.

The following are pictures taken over the past ten years here in Kolkata, where time stands still and the walls get thicker.

Infected scabies infestation of child in a licensed home 2004

Infected scabies of the hand of a different child in a different licensed home 2012

Time stands still.  Conditions at the first home above were reported to the Department of Social Welfare, Department of Education, and the Human Rights Commission as girls there were being severely abused, and were not attending school.  Everything was documented.

In the case of the first picture, I was sponsoring this child at the “orphanage” as it was called.  I was asked to sponsor her as her mother was severely mentally ill and in and out of the hospital.  The grandmother had been taking care of her but found it hard.  What a delightful little girl she was.  I paid Rs. 1200 a month, roughly $25.  When I saw her hand I INSISTED a doctor be called.  The doctor came.  The little girl called him Uncle.  I learned she was actually the child of his servant and he wanted the child out-of-the-way.  The doctor owns a nursing home, a private school, and is a known expert in his field.  I said to him, “So you are a wealthy doctor and I, the foreign lady is supporting the child of your servant?”  He grinned and said yes.  No shame, that’s what I find over and over, no shame.

2006 I visited an adoption orphanage run by people who knew people I knew, and we “stopped by.”  I had already been told that the children were kept tied to their cribs, so I was curious as to whether we would be invited in.  We were invited in, and asked to sit for a while.  I figured they had gone to untie the kids.  But no…

Baby tied to crib, straining to look too.  Sometimes she rocked so hard I worried the crib would go over.

Three point restraint, plus around her waist. Her crib is too small for her to stretch out which I learned when I tried to examine her liver. She was Hepatitis B+ and considered non-adoptable.

And when these children are adopted, and they act strange, no one will know what they have been through, how they have lived, what they have missed.

This home’s license had expired and had not been renewed.  I showed these pictures and others to several government officials.  The home received its license and was scolded for letting me take pictures.  There is no shame.

I tried to buy these children, and I think came close to success.  We were negotiating…. For a long time I kept their pictures with me, kept two spaces for them.  I heard several different stories about their fate, so all I can tell is that I was not being told the truth, because not all the different stories could have been true.

Our children arrived at Shishur Sevay in February 2007 from a government home, with infected scabies, malaria, and bleeding gums.   There were no records of immunizations and none were given during their time in government care.  We immunized them at Shishur Sevay.  I had trouble getting them immunized for polio because most of the girls were over five years.  The doctor said, “Over five even if they get polio it will be mild.”  The government scheme only goes to five years.  I had it done privately.

It’s easy to be a critic, harder to find solutions.  When we started Shishur Sevay we needed a way to contain and protect our little ones — and so I had two “play pens” built.  That’s really the best way to describe them.  And I thought, “This is easy.  Why didn’t they do that instead of tying the children?”  It’s a mindset.  The children were inventory.  It didn’t matter if they were tied up.  In fact, several officials were impressed with the weight of the children.  “Necessary but not sufficient”

Why do I write this when “everyone knows?”  I write because I have hope; I always have hope.  And I write because I cannot be silent about what I see.  I also write to show my credentials for what I am doing here, not the past achievements of my life before India, but the sweat equity I have put into looking for solutions for the unwanted children.  I’ve been at this since 2000.  I’ve been up against that wall over and over, and sometimes I’ve found cracks, more often I’ve not, but each attempt has been a lesson.  I’ve learned to lose battles and come back a different way, a different strategy.  I like to think of myself as a good loser.

I started Shishur Sevay with a fantasy of showing what could be done and then shaming the government into doing something.  But I think the government is more like that wealthy doctor whose servant’s child I supported.  There is no shame.

I know there are others also trying so I write to reach out to them, to find them.  Maybe they will have ideas, and maybe they will be able to do things to make it better for the children. Maybe we will just all weep together at Kolkata’s wall of resistance, or better yet we will all go hunting for the cracks, and putting in wedges to keep them open, and celebrating each time we are successful.

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