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Journey to Odisha, India: Part II

As I mentioned in my blog yesterday, I recently had the opportunity to visit several locations in the impoverished western region of Odisha, India, meeting with a wonderful local charity called YCDA. With limited resources, they provide essential support to orphaned and vulnerable children.

During my trip, we were given permission to visit several local orphanages. As I explained yesterday, it’s important to know that in India, there are two types of orphanages:  baby homes for children birth through age 5, and then Child Care Centers for children 6-18.

The first orphanage we visited was a Child Care Center for older children which had been operating for several decades. The conditions were very meager, and with only five adoptions in the western Odisha area taking place this last year (almost all babies), it was heartbreaking to look into the children’s faces and know almost none of them would ever find a family. The director invited us to give a speech of encouragement to the children, as the sad reality is that it is very difficult for children who grow up in institutional care to transition to society. Life skills training and a full education are rare, so many orphaned children are turned out at 18 without a safety net.

During our visit, we learned that this orphanage does not have a water source on site, so we are committed to providing a water collection unit for them. Just like in Cambodia and Uganda, my travels have shown me repeatedly that access to water should never be taken for granted.

Daily tally of children in the orphanage

We then traveled to a nearby baby orphanage.

These younger child orphanages are called SAAs, or Special Adoption Agencies. In India, they separate the younger children from the older since the babies and toddlers have the best chance of being chosen for adoption.

Sadly, at the moment the current foster care laws will not allow any child under six to be placed into foster care. The government prefers babies to stay inside institutions, as there is a belief that it would be too difficult for a child to attach to an adoptive family if they were already feeling loved by a foster family. You know I will be praying that this policy changes with time, as it’s the exact opposite of what we know about the critical importance of bonding and the attachment cycle in infancy.

At this SAA, I got to hold a newly abandoned baby who had been found on the train platform just the day before. He was so tiny and alert, and I gave thanks that he had been found in time. I just kept wishing, however, that he could go straight into family care versus staying in an orphanage.

I also spent time with a sweet toddler who had pretty significant cerebral palsy, and sadly we learned there are no rehabilitation services for orphaned children with special needs.

We then went to meet three teen girls (18, 19, and 19) who had all aged out of institutional care. YCDA has a program where they provide a tiny bit of financial support and a safe place to live for orphaned teens aging out. All three of the girls I met were so kind and sweet, although it was clear from their physical stunting that they had faced chronic malnourishment over the years. They are learning to sew clothing through a vocational skills program and are making plans to move to the capital city in the hope of finding employment. Like our project in China, I would love to see LWB begin helping with Life Skills in India as well. It’s such a critical program to help older orphaned children, as without guidance and support, far too many can fall victim to exploitation and abuse.

As we walked through the village, we soon had a crowd of children trying to be brave enough to say hi to us. It was really funny to see them all dissolve into giggles if someone was courageous enough to run up and shake our hands or give a “high five.”

This was an extremely impoverished town whose village school was extremely lacking in supplies. Again, the children had no access to books, so we offered to purchase some for them as well.

Soon after, we experienced one of the most emotional moments of our time in the region, meeting with a Child Welfare Committee, more commonly known as the CWC. This group of volunteers in each village or town serves as an essential body of the justice system.

The CWC is the local group who decides what happens to children referred to the court under the Care and Protection of Children Act. The justices continually refer to this book when making their decisions, as it details what steps to take when children are abandoned, trafficked, tortured, or forced into child marriage.

We talked at length about their work and the difficulty of the cases they see in a country where so many children face neglect. Just that morning, for example, they told us a baby girl’s body had been found discarded in a terrible way, and a member of the court had to go and document that nothing further could be done.

As we talked further, they explained that the primary reason for female infanticide is still because of the dowry system. It is just too expensive to have a daughter for many impoverished families, as you have to “pay out” for them to find a husband versus having a son who receives a “pay in” upon marriage. Because of the strong preference for sons, the gender birth ratio in India is one of the most skewed in the world.

Boys are also abandoned, of course, and in those cases it is almost always due to poverty. Many families make the heartbreaking decision to leave a child when they feel the other members of a family would starve unless there are fewer mouths to feed.

The court committee then informed us they needed to process a child’s case, and we were allowed to stay while a two-year-old boy who had been abandoned earlier that day arrived. It was heartbreaking to watch as this beautiful little boy, with huge terrified eyes, was brought in and placed in a chair at the end of the table. His head barely reached the tabletop, and his black eyes filled with enormous teardrops as the formal questioning began. “Where are you from?” “Who are your parents?” “What is your name?” – of course with no response since he was so small and overwhelmed. And then the heavy sobbing began. He was led out to sit in the next room while the court gave the order for him to be taken to the nearest orphanage. It was agonizing to sit and watch, knowing there was nothing I could do to take away his emotional pain.

After this boy’s case was processed, we talked with the court about the difficulties of questioning children who come in so traumatized by losing their parents. They told us about a case where a child around age 6 came in completely paralyzed with fear, and despite their questions, the child wouldn’t utter a word. He was then sent to orphanage care, where he remained silent for almost seven months because he was so overwhelmed. One day he suddenly began talking, and he quietly gave them his name and where he lived. The orphanage soon learned that the little boy had actually been lost in a crowded train station (Did anyone else see the movie Lion? If not, rent it immediately). Once he was finally able to give his information, he was quickly reunited with his parents, who had been desperately searching for him the whole time with no success.

One of the things we agreed to help the CWC with is to create a room in the court with some toys and child-friendly colors and paintings. YCDA has a “drop-in” room like this in other locations so that when a child like the one we met today comes in, there are at least some teddy bears or cars or a doll they can hold onto while the court decides their future.

The volume of child cases seen in this region was truly staggering to think about. One child welfare office we visited had just four social workers on staff, overseeing 1,000 children without parental care. They told us they work 7 days a week, often from early morning to late at night, and they can never catch up. With the number of cases that this one small district court follows, I just kept wondering about the volume in enormous Indian cities like Mumbai or Kolkata. The need in India to help orphaned and at-risk children is very real, and I know without a doubt that well-monitored foster care could be one solution to keep children from a life in institutional care.

Our final day in Odisha was spent at the office of YCDA to discuss more in-depth their hopes in the region.

Three of the YCDA social workers

I loved reading some of the pamphlets in the YCDA office since they align so closely with LWB’s mission:

  • Thousands of children (no accurate number available) live outside of family care without the love and nurturing environment.
  • Through residential care facilities, children may have some basic needs met, such as food and clothing, but many do not receive the attention and love that only a family can provide.
  •  It is a fact and much scientific research has confirmed that children grown in loving nurturing families have better outcomes than those who grow up in residential care.

Isn’t that a definitive truth?  EVERY CHILD DESERVES A FAMILY.

The people in Odisha were all so kind and warmhearted, and we said goodbye to them with sadness in our hearts as we began our journey to our next destination in India.  YCDA has put together an amazing team, truly committed to helping children in a region of immense need.

All across the world, there are children languishing in institutional care. I’m giving thanks that LWB and YCDA were brought together through our shared goal of helping orphaned children know how absolutely deserving they are of love.  Stay tuned for more news as I can’t wait to get started.

~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer

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