One of a Hundred Stories

Dr. Harrison in 2006

Dr. Harrison in 2006

I have a hundred stories for a hundred lives lived just within this lifetime.  In this story I am the Founder of Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay, a model of inclusive non-institutional care for orphan girls previously housed in a government institution, having already been rejected for adoption.  Some have severe disabilities.  All carried wounds, some visible, some buried deep within their memories.

This story began when I was 17 years old. I’d written an essay for school about “The Meaning of Life” in which I saw myself acquiring the education and skills to one day care for orphans in need.  I had just seen some pictures of Korean orphans when a friend returned from the war.  Something clicked; something that has lasted a lifetime.

I adopted my Indian daughter from Kolkata in 1984 and raised her in the US. That is my connection to Kolkata, a very personal one.  Kolkata is family. I also have an older daughter to whom I gave birth.  I raised both them as a single parent.  All my stories have twists and turns to them, all 100 of them.

In 2000 I decided we should visit Kolkata.  I had just been through breast cancer and didn’t know how long I would live.  I had also wondered what happens to the children not adopted.  I knew India needed to provide for its orphan children and not just ship them abroad.  When we visited, and in subsequent visits I made, it was clear that mostly these children languished.  I also realized that there was little hope or expectation that anything really could be done for them.  The phrase I kept hearing was, ‘Nothing Can Be Done.”

I sold my house in 2006.  My younger daughter graduated from Barnard College and the older one from New York Law School and I left for India to start Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay.  The Society received its registration in June 2006.  We received our License in January 2007 and 12 girls were sent to us by Order of the WB Child Welfare Committee for care rehabilitation, four of them with profound disabilities.  I realized quickly that what the children needed most was a “mother” at home checking their homework at night.  I also learned how much they needed each other.  Bonds of genuine love grew between the abled and the children with severe disabilities.  I am mother to them but their strength and security is also in their connections to each other.

Shishur Sevay is not well-known.  I used to refer to us as a stealth orphanage.  Some of that was because I couldn’t stretch myself or our resources any farther, and also because it was hard for me to keep hearing people say it couldn’t be done.  In my relationship with the government I was simply a nice lady from America who liked children.  I shed the titles, roles, privileges of my earlier life.  I also endured death threats and all the other obstacles to creating something good in the face of a culture of mistrust and cynicism.  I needed time to learn about these children.  I understand why people felt nothing could be done, because some of these children are the first to tell you not to bother, that nothing can be done for them. I needed time, time to think, to learn, to try approaches that worked or sometimes didn’t work.  The children needed time, a lot of time, a lot of safety and protection, and a lot of support as they began to risk “trying.”

Ten years later Shishur Sevay is a shining example of what CAN be done.  The girls are thriving.  Two are studying for Class X Boards.  Shishur Sevay is a leader in inclusive living and inclusive education.  We have caught the attention of researchers at Vanderbilt University and have been studied as a unique case of inclusion of abled and differently abled.  We created our own school Ichche Dana Inclusive School, as after six years we gave up on outside schooling for our children.

We are leaders in advanced communication technology.  We were among the first in India to use the Tobii Eye Tracker for our girls with severe cerebral palsy.  They are able now to communicate with us using their eyes to control the computer.   For them and for us this is a profound life changing experience. Our girls are showing what can be done.  We are doing it IN India so that the girls have opportunity without the loss of their homeland, language, culture, heritage and religion.  In the first week I showed them the map of India and began to teach them that they are Indian, that this is their country, and that they belong.  Although I am American and a catalyst, we are strong because of our Indian staff of teachers, caretakers, accountants, administrators, and Board.  Each year we have passed our inspections and the government has thanked us for our efforts.  India gave me the gift of my daughter, who lives happily in the US.  But I am like so many fortunate Indians who want to give back for the gift I have received.

Our infrastructure is strong.  We have received the GuideStar Gold Seal 2017 for transparency of our records, a goal from the beginning.  Our records and processes are open.  We want people to understand what we do and how we do it.

What must be the next part of this story?

  1. Establish lifetime care, inclusive and inter-generational for those who cannot live independently
  2. Establish Shishur Sevay as a model of inclusive care in the spectrum of alternatives to institutionalisation
  3. Conduct training in inclusive living and education in the community and within the professional community
  4. Assist in the creation of other homes based on the model of Shishur Sevay but adapted to the character and needs of the community
  5. Inspire hope and dreams by evoking positive inclusive experiences with the differently abled
  6. Contribute to the building of an Inclusive India

For this, we are no longer stealth, and I am no longer quiet. I am here to tell you what I have learned in raising these abandoned and rejected children.  I will share what they have taught me, what I have learned.  And I will share my adventure of constant growth and emergence.  I’m back.

We are here. We are building an inclusive India

2017: We Are Here. We Are Building An Inclusive India

 

 

 

CWC (Child Welfare Committee) Finally Coming For Inspection

Our last contact with CWC is described in the post “Foes Into Friends” https://shishursevay.com/2013/04/03/foes-into-friends/

Before that we were told we would be investigated for violation of child labor laws because of a complaint by an adolescent who had become too violent for us to manage.    On Friday, Seema Gupta, our Board Vice-President stopped in at CWC to find out the disposition of the girl who had made the complaint against us, as she was still officially on our roll.

Then the officials asked Seema, “Would Madam please take more children?” and Seema explained that we have no room or resources for more.  Then they asked, “Would Madam build a home for boys with disabilities?  We have the funds!  We would help her do it!”  Seema said they had to visit first because only then would they understand what Shishur Sevay is.  So they are coming tomorrow.  We will pick them up and bring them and then take them back.  Seema will take the day off from work.  The girls will stay home from school.  But it’s not about what’s wrong with us.  It’s about their wanting help.  They do remember when I brought the boys from Aunty’s Home and they had no place to put them.  They still don’t.

Would I do it?  I will if I can make it good, as it should be, and inclusive in some way, and with lots of recreation.  I think that’s one of the worst problems for children with limited mobility and other disabilities.  They don’t get to wear themselves out with fun, exercise, etc.  I want a pool, enough for them to experience weightlessness…..

I’m a dreamer.  I’m already planning it in my head, thinking about building plans and accessibility.  I already looked up construction costs for commercial buildings….  I would have two wings though, for boys and girls, but for the lower ages I’d keep them together.

I want to start with an advisory group of people with disabilities….

I’m so glad I put down the outside tiles.  I’ll have more pictures later on but instead of ramps looking separate, they just blend in, and look like rolling surfaces.  Before we chose the tile, we had Sudip try out several, with water over them, to see which ones gave his crutches the best grip.

The “client” should always be the end user.  Schools should be built to meet the needs of students, hospitals to meet the needs of patients, Shishur Sevay to meet needs as we discover them, and then find the best solutions.

Well, this may all be too much for the people coming from CWC, but I’m fired up and looking for ways and funds to make such a thing happen.  I like the idea of building what is needed, as defined by the community.  But just in case anyone is worried, Shishur Sevay and the life of the girls, of our family will also continue.  This is home, my home and theirs.

Outside feels part of the house now, a nice place to be, to play… safe from slipping.

Ready for School, with her bag and her sister's shoes.

Ready for School, with her bag and her sister’s shoes.

Well, you can see the tiles!  On the left, the black area is Jelly, the dog.  Actually the side there is flat for her bed.  Before we made a bed for her she would stretch out across the entrance, even when someone in a wheelchair was trying to go through.

Tiles going up, across, an down.

Tiles going up, across, and down.

I love what we have been able to do.  I’m looking forward to the visit.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  I’m prepared for the best and the worst.  It’s just how life is.

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?”

A Vulnerable Boy

Earlier this month I ended up hospitalizing one of the older boys at Aunty’s.  He was  already in a government hospital, refusing to eat, and no one seemed to know what was wrong.  Aunty took him out of that hospital and brought him for me to see, and I sent him to a nursing home where Shanti Devi used to work.  The doctor there is not only respectful of me, but seeks my advice.  I’ve used that home as respite care for girls who have become out of control — a stop short of mental hospitalization, which I’ve also done.   This boy was on anti-psychotics which had been discontinued several months ago. Then there had been staff problems and we presume he was beaten.  It’s what he kept gesturing to us.  When I saw him he was terrified and shaking.

We got him back on his medications, and other than the first night when he screamed all night, he did fine.  But then the question, what to do with him?  Over and over people would say to me, “But he will be beaten if you send him back there,” as if I had any other solutions.

The bill ran up, $12 a day for the bed and $6.00 for the 24 hour aides.  I had a CT scan done to be sure he didn’t have any acute head injury.  It showed only mild abnormalities associated with Schizophrenia.  I’ve been in crisis mode for multiple reasons, including money woes, school enrollments, grants, website development, doctor visits, and all the regular things that go on in a home with 14 children.   But basically I didn’t know what to do.  Then a sore on his foot became infected and swollen so we started him on antibiotics but also did some blood work checking liver and kidney function.  That added a few more days.

We have had occasional times of girls hitting or pinching others, and I deal with it harshly.  Last night after evening prayers we had a meeting and I talked about violence, torture, pinching…. I told them that this is a sad thing that happens in almost most homes.  I talked about the boy in the hospital, whom they have all met, and the problem of what to do with him.   And we talked about how even little things get out of hand.  I think our home is one of the safest places there is for children.    I have friends who beat their children, friends who pinch their children, friends who look away when one sibling hurts another.

I was the Director of a Tufts Day Hospital for mentally ill in Boston and our patients were sometimes beaten up on the street coming to the Center and going home.  We tried to get transportation but the politicians didn’t want to acknowledge the danger so the patients walked the gauntlet to come for care.  You see, Boston, New York, Kolkata, all on the same spectrum of human behavior particularly with respect to cruelty.

I lived part of my childhood on a farm.  My parents were city-dwellers who decided to be farmers.  We were poor; our crops didn’t do well; droughts came and then floods, but I loved that life.  I drove a tractor when I was 12.  I could manage a plow at 14.   I had a horse I rode in competitions of barrel racing and pole bending.  I also tamed horses for other people sometimes.  I kept a blanket roll under my bed so I could jump on my horse and run away from home in the night.  However I was sensible enough to know that a young girl wasn’t going to get very far on horseback in New Jersey.  It was a wonderful fantasy life I had.  One day when I was about thirteen, I was looking out the window to the field where Stormy (the colt) and Twinkle Toes (his mother) were grazing.  Suddenly Stormy playfully came up behind his mother and bit her hard on the rump.  She kicked out at him with both hooves.  Pow! He backed off!  I don’t think he ever bit her again.

Well, it was an epiphany for me, having been raised on Spock, and reason, and guilt, and suddenly I thought, “Wow, her job is to socialize him, and she just did it!  No scolding, no explanation of goodness, no guilt trip, no judgement that he was a bad colt who didn’t appreciate his mother…. No, just a good kick and he learned his lesson.  I believe there are times when this is appropriate.  But here in India, as a white woman raising Indian children, I can’t do it.

Today’s newspaper talked about torture in the schools.  Keeping children from going to the bathroom is replacing caning as corporal punishment is made illegal.  We had that, one of our girls who needed to go to the bathroom and was refused permission and soiled herself — that was in the school that had NO water in the bathrooms, and further humiliated her by telling her in front of others to ask her mother for Rs. 10 for the clean-up.  No mercy in the schools.

Well, back to today and bringing this boy out of the hospital.  To all the people who reminded me he may be beaten, I just asked if they would take him.  You see, I don’t know anyplace I could guarantee his safety.  He is vulnerable and has impairments and whether in a government institution, or NGO home or even in a family, he may not fare well.  The Child Welfare Committee was of no help.  The politicians walked away.   I can’t keep him in a nursing home forever, and nor can I bring him here.

Safe places…. the heart of the matter, so hard to find, to build, to maintain.  So this is part of what has been on my mind a lot.

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