A Beautiful Visit From The CWC

A comment posted to my last post, https://shishursevay.com/2013/07/14/cwc-child-welfare-committee-finally-coming-for-inspection/, wrote:

I am a little confused. One minute the CWC folks are confrontational; they want to take you to task for some kind of an infraction, teach you a lesson. The next minute, they want you to help them do their work for which they are paid by the tax-payers. I’ll eagerly wait for the next segment of the story, as will others, I’m sure.

Yes, that’s right.  No, it makes no sense.  That’s just how it is.

From the beginning, I have wanted to work with the government, particularly regarding the institutionalized children. I don’t know why the CWC’s attitude changed.  I do know that currently they are desperate and overwhelmed, and they have always been angry that I wouldn’t take more.

The visit was beautiful.  We did the formal things that are expected.  The girls presented flowers to each guest.  Each did Pranam, the touching of an elder’s feet.   One of the girls presented her embroidery work, framed, and another presented her artwork, also framed and inscribed to the CWC.

Our girl presents her artwork to the Chairwoman

They toured the house and I insisted they see inside of the bathroom.

Bathroom on the Tour

They noticed the fire extinguishers and said they’d not seen them before in a home.  Seema Gupta took them upstairs while the Chairwoman stayed down in my office to talk.  I had put my three published books out on the table and showed them to her.  I told her that clearly I had a lot of help here, but that I carried the full burden, that I have to think about what I can manage.

They had come with an agenda. The Chairwoman said they can offer all sorts of assistance to expand the building, or to build a new home.  But they also have an immediate problem, namely four very young children with disabilities who are in various hospitals in one of the districts that has no functioning  CWC.   The others came downstairs to rejoin us and talked more about the problems they are facing.   They talked of their pain in visiting the children in the institution.  There is a paralysis here… something I noticed years ago.  Some people really do care, but they don’t know what to do.

Table and Talking in the CWC meeting.

Tabla  and Talking in the CWC meeting.  One of the members plays and was thrilled that our girls are learning tabla.

I said I would help.  I said I would take the four children, but that I also then wanted two more without known disabilities.  We have to stay inclusive.  As we were talking, the girls on their own started to dance, and we went to watch them.

The girls on their own started to dance and so we all went to watch.

The Girls Decided to Dance

The CWC hoped Seema and I would come back to the office with them, and review the information on the four children.  I found that two of them are too sick to be cared for in a non-medical facility.  We agreed to take the other two, one an infant with Downs, and another with CP, about 2-3 years old.  Then I reminded them that we will take two little girls with no known disabilities, that we had to remain inclusive.  Right now there are many children in the institution.  Their care is horrible.  I can’t do as much as I want but it was just too painful to say no.  And I do believe we will be expanding.  We have to.

Sometime within the next week, the children will be brought to CWC for us to pick up.

Well, everyone here is excited.  We have many blessings.

She Wasn’t an Orphan

I faced a hard decision.  The child we brought home from CWC on 24 September is not an orphan.  She has a mother, sisters, aunts, uncles,  and cousins.  As I had guessed, she was part of a community of beggars, thieves, and goondas.  The woman who brought her in was some sort of boss.  All of this has unfolded over the last several weeks.  The woman who had brought her to CWC called us almost daily, showed up unannounced, and the child mostly did not want to see her.  Over the next few weeks we learned that the child’s mother lived right next door to that woman, with her younger sister, and that “L”, our girl would take care of her mother in the day (maybe).  The mother was said to be mad, but L told us this was just so people would give her money.  L missed all of them, and missed the freedom of her life.  At the same time she also loved being here, enjoyed the other girls, and started to learn the alphabet.

So, what’s the problem?  First of all, I’ve been at this work for 12 years and I have a good idea of who I can help and who I cannot help.  I cannot help this child.   I can feed her, but I cannot change the direction of her life.  Ultimately she would not stay and ultimately the family/community would not leave her here.  As long as she wants to go home, she will not tolerate any of the discipline, self discipline, and work of being part of our life, family, home.  She will always be different.  I’ve seen it too often.  She has a place to go, not a great place, but she has family, people of her life, who she wants to be with.  She will never feel, “Amar barrie Shishur Sevay.” or “My home is Shishur Sevay.”

Second, I left the US, sold my home and took my savings to come here and do this work.  I want to care for orphans, the one’s who do not have what this child has.  The girls at Shishur Sevay are without choice.  The one girl who has a family still wants to join them.  She probably will when she is 18 in seven months.  India has a horrible problem of beggar children.  There even are laws against it, but they are ignored.  It’s a problem I cannot begin to address because it’s fueled by organized crime, police, politicians, the people who get paid off to do nothing.  It’s simply not what I sold my house for.

Third, my commitment to the girls here is really lifetime.  That’s what my money is for.  I stay here, miss my family in the US, including my grandchild, because I care for children who would not be OK without me.   I’m not willing to make that sacrifice for a child with alternatives.   My daughter and son-in-law in the US feel a commitment to our girls, but this one is not an orphan and does not belong here.

Fourth, it is not OK to have a home of orphans, children who unfortunately carry the “shame” of  that label, to have a child who is automatically “above” that label.  Whatever WE may think of L’s community, she is accepted there.  Our Shishur Sevay girls have NO PLACE they are accepted.  Our girl who will return to her family when she is 18 wants to be where she IS ACCEPTED.    Before taking L back, the girls and I talked, because for them also it was hard to have her leave.  But our girl who is almost 18 was clearest, ‘Mummy, she will be like me.  She will want to stay with her family.”

So we went, Gibi, Purba, Maggie, “L”, and me.  I had prepared a letter for CWC stating much of what I’ve written above.  I also had the original CWC Order giving her to us, which described her as an orphan.   I brought the government form for signing a child out of care.  We arrived to be met by an angry group of her relatives, fighting with each other and accusing us of keeping her in a bad place.  Gibi threatened to call the police for fraud.  I missed a lot of it as I took the child inside and Purba made sure we got ourselves on the appointment list.  Among the group were the woman who signed her in, the woman who said she was the child’s mother, the younger sister, a woman who said she was the community representative of some sort, and a couple of others.  They were there to reclaim their child.  They were angry with the woman who had “relinquished” her, and now said she was actually the grandmother and the woman said to be mad was her daughter.

I had prepared myself for this CWC meeting differently.  Bringing this child back was difficult.  I had to do this for the security of Shishur Sevay, and the protection of the other girls.  I took out my business card, kept it in front of me as a reminder, and tried to stay in the mode of being the lawyer for Shishur Sevay.  Shishur Sevay became my client.   The CWC woman whom I’ve known now for years, was very astute with these people and ended up saying she had no idea who was telling the truth, but since no one could prove they were even a relative, she couldn’t return the child to them.  She turned to me and said I’d have to keep her for now.  I said very calmly, “No, I don’t have to keep her.  This “Order” you wrote says she is an orphan and she is not.  This is your failure to find out.”  She agreed I was right.  Sitting at the long table was also someone from  CINI (Children In Need Institute), which is the largest organization working with these children.  The official said that CINI would take her.  This is actually very good because they will investigate and they will keep her in a shelter if they decide not to return her to those people.  They have staff, social workers, project and program directors, informants, investigators, and connections to high places.   A social worker came into the CWC meeting room and took “L”  back to the waiting area where she joined about 20 other children sitting on mats, also waiting to go to CINI.  “L” was tearful and another girl moved closer to comfort her.

Hundreds, thousands of children pass through this way.   That’s really where the label “SHAME” belongs.

Today I did what I had to for, Shishur Sevay.

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

Beggars for Life

There ought to be a law that children can’t beg after ten o’clock at night!  There ought to be another law that NGO’s can’t use children to beg for their funds.  

There is a fine line between children on the street begging for food or money, and children in orphanages taken around, like kids in the US on Halloween, begging for clothes for the pujos —  That line was crossed last night after ten, when three children and their orphanage director came looking for money for “watches, shirts, jeans, and shoes.”

I know these children.  I know their director.  I’ve helped them out financially before.  I stopped when I could not get any accountability.  I have been able to get some services for the children, but financially I have said no.  I keep saying no.  I keep being asked.  A week ago I said no.    Four days ago she came for money and I said no.    But last night she got me.  She brought the kids, holding their hands out, looking very sad as she had them do their begging act.  I gave her Rs. 1000, about $20, far less than she had demanded.  I did it for the boys, who know me as someone who helped them.  I took pity on them and that overruled my anger at her.  It was already after ten and they had at least an hour’s journey home, although she did say they still had another stop to make.

These boys were beggars on the streets and in the rail stations, and now they beg for their orphanage.  This is their only achievement.  They don’t excel at sports because they have none.  They don’t excel at education because they have none.  They don’t excel at work because they have none.     This is the Indian government’s version of child protection and rehabilitation.  But it’s also a social and cultural pattern.

This is the season of extortion here.  Local “clubs” set up pandals, temporary temples to Goddess Durga.  These clubs raise money by assessing residents and asking for donations.    It’s one of the rules of life here that you do not say no, because people get killed that way.  There is never any accountability over that money either.  I’ve heard that the same goonda who demanded and got extortion money from me to open Shishur Sevay, also stole all the Puja money one year from his club.

But let’s come back to a central question, the difference between how India could take care of its orphan children and how India does take care of its orphan children.    Government homes receive funds from the State and the Central government, supposed to be 10% from the State, 90% from the Central Government, but the 90% doesn’t come until AFTER the State puts in 10%.  So, as is the case of West Bengal the State has not fulfilled its commitment, the 90% is not coming.   The people who run these homes are expected to raise the funds, hopefully from foreigners.  Foreigners have soft hearts and don’t like to see hungry or sick children.  It’s all a game because the people running these homes know from the start what to expect, know they will have to raise the money on their own.  So they become like government fund raisers, developing their networks to feed money into India to feed the Indian children India will not feed.

So you take the children who were begging on the street, all the better if they have disabilities, and put them into government homes where they can put these skills to better use, namely begging for the money that the government promises but doesn’t deliver.  When I adopted my infant daughter from Kolkata in 1984 I wondered what happened to the children who are not adopted.  The sad answer I’ve learned… not much good happens to them.

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