From ONE Magazine

‘Our Doors Are Open’

Editors’ note: The names of children in the article have been changed to protect their identity.

Bobby lived in the hills of Idukki in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala with her mother and father. When she was 3 years old, she witnessed her father murder her mother, chopping her body into pieces and burning them. Bobby is now 7. She remembers it all.

Understanding the level of trauma the toddler faced, the head of a nursery that received her placed Bobby at a facility equipped to provide the level of care and support she needed — St. Thomas Home, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

“The girls we’ve had here have been from broken families,” says Sister Francila, who administers the center that has served girls since its founding in 1968.

“Either their mother has left the family to be with another man or the father has left to be with someone else.”

This situation seems to be common in the high ranges of Kerala, where laborers from different states migrate for work.

“People who work on tea or spice plantation estates in this part of Kerala are all day laborers; they don’t have a steady income,” Sister Francila says. “These workers have no homes or savings.”

Most of the laborers hail from northern India or neighboring states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. “Intercaste and interreligious marriages are common here,” Sister Francila adds. Cohabitation is likewise common.

“Leaving one’s family to be with another man or woman isn’t something that’s looked down upon. That makes it common,” she says.

The tea and spice trade has flourished in this part of Kerala because of the climate, which is temperate, yet slightly humid. Spices such as cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg and areca nut grow in abundance. This region is also known for its rubber plantations.

Most of these estates are owned by generations of the same families, who provide housing and accommodation. “The houses are built very close together,” Sister Francila says. “Anyone can go in or walk out of any home at any time of day or night. This makes safety and the security of girls a big problem.”

St. Thomas Home was founded with this challenge in mind — to provide a safe place for girls among a highly transient population.

“The idea has always been to give girls from these families an opportunity at life — or they would have the same life as their parents,” Sister Francila says. “That cycle would never break otherwise.”

Presently, the home houses 30 girls, ages 5 to 18. There, Sister Francila says, they lead a disciplined life: “They wake up, pray, go to school, study and learn to manage their lives.”

Despite its long record of providing an invaluable service, St. Thomas Home has recently decided to give up its legal classification as an “orphanage” and will now run as a “boarding home” for girls.

In the last year or so, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart has closed eight of its so-called orphanages in Kottayam district alone. “Just two of the ten orphanages we had in this district remain,” Sister Francila says. “The rest are closed.”

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.

“One of the principles of our congregation is to look after the young and old of the society. We have always done that.” As her voice fades, Sacred Heart Sister Francila adds, “and now we can’t.”

However, in light of the demographic changes taking hold in Kerala especially, and the impact of these changes on vocation recruitment efforts among the state’s dynamic churches, India’s new child care and protection act is challenging the Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara Catholic churches to reconsider their priorities and to develop new and creative ways to instill self-worth, dignity, security and hope to India’s most vulnerable.

Anju was 8 when she went to live in an orphanage for girls in Kerala. Her mother had left her there after she left Anju’s father for another man. Her mother never came back. Anju continued with her schooling, showing promise academically. In time, the orphanage helped her find work in the kitchen of a missionary hospital. She saved the money she earned, and at 18, she put herself through a nursing course offered by that very hospital.

Today, Anju is a nurse working in the United States, but she still visits the orphanage that gave her the chance to turn her life around.

However, the institution is no longer classified as an orphanage.

“This is now a boarding home,” says Sister Ancy Maria, the director of St. Mary’s Charitable Boarding School for Girls.

Founded in 1956 in a remote village in the Kozhikode district of northern Kerala, the home is administered by the Franciscan Clarist Congregation. Until 2017, St. Mary’s still housed some children with neither mother nor father. “Now, however, under the new rules, we can only have girls who have at least one parent,” Sister Ancy Maria says. “That’s the exception the new act makes for boarding homes.”

Service to young children in need was the founding principle of the former orphanage. “This place used to take children as young as 3 months old,” Sister Ancy Maria says. “They’d grow up here, study, eventually get married. The aim was to allow these children to have a nurturing family life.”

There are 11 girls here at the moment. Last year, when it was still run as an orphanage, there were 24.

Children living at an institution facing closure or reclassification have a few options, Sister Ancy Maria says. For instance, some children might be entrusted to the care of extended family, while others might transfer to another church-run facility. The former is rarely the preferred option, but it is nevertheless a common one.

“We are trying to get them away from this cycle of poverty, lack of safety,” the sister explains.

On the other hand, transfer is rarely feasible, given the strain placed upon these child care institutions. “Most orphanages have closed down. The ones that remain operational are full,” she says.

“The children can also move to a government-run orphanage, but that’s a more involved process.” Once placed on a centralized register, children are allocated spots when they become available. This can mean a long wait.

Finally, those who qualify to remain may face another hurdle.

“We now have to charge a minimal fee so the girls can be here. We’ll have to see how it runs as a boarding home. If we do not enroll enough girls, we will have to shut it down altogether,” she says.

Other than a minimal amount per month that St. Mary’s takes from the parents of the girls, the sisters and their charges live off the land. “We grow coconuts, areca nut, tapioca, bananas and rubber. If there’s anything in surplus to our needs, we sell it locally. That helps with some income,” Sister Ancy Maria says.

“For now, at least, our doors are open, even if it is as a boarding home for girls who go to school or college. The rest, time will tell.”

Sacred Heart Balanagar, about 20 miles from Cochin International Airport, was founded as an orphanage in 1910. According to its administrator, Brother George Kumminithottam, the need was overwhelming.

“There were a lot of orphans or poor children just left on the streets,” he says. “They never received any education or protection. It was to help those children that Sacred Heart was founded.”

The former orphanage, run by the Congregation of St. Teresa, today calls itself Sacred Heart Hostel for Boys. In May “we were forced to change its classification status from orphanage to a boarding house because we could not meet the demands of the new rules,” he explains.

“Who knows what will happen in the future? As of now, this is status quo,” Brother George says.

From the time of its founding, he says, the orphanage had adhered to “humble” principles, prioritizing need above all else. “There was never any discrimination on the basis of religion,” he says. At its start, it hosted as many as 300 boys of various religious backgrounds.

Today, this institution still stands true to its principles, albeit with fewer residents — 60, at present.

“We take boys from age 5 and above. They stay with us until they finish high school. We also give them vocational training so they can earn a livelihood. For example, they can train to be electricians, plumbers or carpenters,” he says.

Faith plays a major role in all the places mentioned here. “Christian-run institutions are about character formation. We nourish children in spirituality and faith. These give the children a moral and ethical compass.”

Yet, each institution is very particular not to proselytize. “We teach them that there’s a higher power — that they should trust this higher power, the Almighty, in times of need. If the children have faith, and trust, it makes their lives easier.”

Electing to go without government support, the hostel takes its funding from a variety of sources. “Their parents pay us money toward their stay and food. Some funds come from our congregation. CNEWA also provides funding,” the brother says.

At lunch time, 8-year-old Abin rushes in with other boys. Abin’s parents are from Kerala, but they left to make a living in Delhi. The young boy speaks Hindi, Malayalam and some English.

“I really like it in here,” he says. “I’ve made friends. We play together and celebrate all festivals.

“My older brother is here too,” he adds. Abin’s brother, Albin, is 16. He lurks behind other boys, a typical teenager. He says little, but observes much.

“He’s very protective of me,” little Abin says. “My brother looks out for me and when I miss our parents, he makes me feel better.”

Abin and Albin’s parents did not have enough money to keep both boys with them in Delhi, but Abin is sure he will see them soon.

“I will see them after Christmas is over. When it is the New Year, we’ll all be together,” he says, though he is not certain which year, which Christmas.

Anubha George is a former BBC editor and writes on Kerala culture. Based in Cochin, her work has been published in Scroll.in, The Good Men Project among others. She also teaches journalism at India’s leading media schools.