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The Sacred Heart Sisters are not alone in closing many of their orphanages, most of which housed children from single-parent families, not orphans. A new law passed by the Parliament of India in 2015, and put into force as of January 2016, calls for officially classified orphanages to be run under a much tighter framework of rules and raised the standards for those caring for the children. Although the biggest and perhaps the most controversial aspect of the act is that minors between the ages of 16 to 18 will be tried as adults if they have been accused of a crime, some other requirements have also caused a stir, particularly for women religious, who operate facilities with limited resources and tight budgets.

“The new rules require a lot more staff than we have or can afford,” the Sacred Heart sister says. “We would need staff members who are graduates and postgraduates, doctors and nurses, psychologists and sociologists. Can you ever imagine people from the cities coming to these remote parts of Kerala?”

The state of Kerala has the highest number of orphanages and child care facilities in India. Most of these are run by religious institutions — predominantly Christian and Muslim organizations. For decades, these child care institutions of the Catholic Church in India — Syro Malabar, Syro Malankara and Latin — were administered by religious communities of men and women who, with varying levels of education and training, devoted their lives in service to the care of children. But with the decline of vocations to the religious life in Kerala, especially among women, most administrators of child care institutions have had to hire staff to deliver the same quality of care once given by sisters, priests or brothers for free. In addition, the administrators have had to train and inculcate these new staff members with the unique charism of that particular religious community and the values of the church, especially the commitment to care and protect children.

The state, too, had in place laws for the care and protection of children — such as the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000. This newest act, however, came about in part as a response to reports of child trafficking. In the past three years, according to authorities, there have been more than 500 reported kidnappings in Kerala alone.

Among other things, the new law passed by the federal government codifies foster care in India for the first time. Families may now enroll in a program designed for the care of abandoned and orphaned children. Such families will be given financial help by the government, but they will be monitored closely. In addition, the law now regulates the amount of foreign aid or grant money such child care institutions can accept.

“We can either accept government grants or foreign grants. Not both anymore,” Sister Francila says. Most institutions then, she concludes, choose to accept the money from the state authorities, even though it is not always sufficient.

While the new law lifts the standards for the care and protection of children, it impacts resource-poor religious communities, such as the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, which provide much of the care that is needed.

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