ONE of the more traditional ways in which aid is given to foster children is that they are taken away from their families and put into special homes or hostels. The idea is to ‘save’ the child by giving him a boarding-school education and turning him into a ‘success story’.
And there are, from the thousands of children who have gone through the hostels, a small handful of success stories — those who have escaped poverty and become doctors perhaps, or tradesmen, or priests.
As Pastor Kosak of the German agency Kindernothilfe explains:
But what of the rest of the children? Two years ago we travelled to the provinces of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala where we shot a documentary film on the effects of sponsorship programmes. We visited hostels and, more importantly, spoke in numerous villages to many youths who had been fostered. Their stories were much the same.
One father told us why he let his son go to the hostel. ‘We live from casual, manual labour. Life is uncertain so it is good if at least one in the family becomes educated and eligible for a better life. He will be able to help all the others.’ Even on visits home, hostel children enjoy a privileged position and are given better food and clothes than their brothers and sisters.
The dream of a better life is nourished by contact with rich Westerners. Proudly the hostel children showed us photos of finely-dressed foster parents in front of luxurious cars or houses. In return the children are obliged to write at least two thank-you letters each year. These letters play an important role in the motivation of the foster parents so the hostels often prefer to hire professional letter writers or to have the wardens dictate letters according to the sample in the super-intendant’s manual.
The results are usually stereotyped and, since all letters must go through the organization’s censorship, criticism about the conditions in the hostels is not allowed. So the sponsors learn nothing about how the letters are written, nor about any beatings or corruption in the hostels. The superintendant and warden have scant training and, greatly outnumbered, too often resort to the cane.
Former hostel youths discussed hostel life with us: ‘Great injustice is done. A nominal amount of money is given to us but receipts are taken for higher amounts. If we protest, they threaten to throw us out. They beat us. If money is received for clothes, they buy some and then give us whatever they choose. Then they make us sign a receipt stating that we have selected the clothes and purchased them ourselves. They do whatever they want to do, we have no say.
‘We were living in hopes that some day we would be much better off. Our parents also had high hopes that we would bring fortune to the family. We never protested, we never said a word for fear of expulsion or a beating. This continued until we failed the tenth class. “Now that you have failed your exams, the sponsor’s benefits are over, you must leave.” With these words we were sent away.
Thrown out of the hostels, they return to their families and villages. Bishop Poulose Mar Poulose of the Syrian Church in Kerala summed up their situation. ‘These children are not willing to go back to their own family or to the village-community and they don’t want to do any service for the community. They are too educated as far as the village is concerned and they have no education at all as far as the standards of the town are concerned. Very often these hostel children are considered good-for-nothing.’
Often they were selected for sponsorship because they were the most intelligent in the village. But nowhere have they learned solidarity or grown close to the problems and possible solutions to underdevelopment and social injustice. The rude awakening comes when they comb the cities for the much-prized office job but find the slums full of the unemployed. Often these young people travel back and forth for years between the city and their villages, only returning to collect money for the expensive search for work. Unsuccessful, some turn to petty crime or vandalism.
The following is part of a discussion between unemployed youths and their parents: Former fosterchild: ‘When we ask anyone for an office job, they say, “Your education is very meagre and you’re unfit for any useful work.” When we offer to do manual labour, the employers say. “You don’t have stamina, you are unfit for continuous work.”’
A father: ‘If he had done some manual labour at any time in the past, he could do that now. But he is not used to it, and so, what can he do? If he tries to use the axe or cut with a sickle, he only injures himself. We let him do whatever he can do and tolerate the little he does.’
A mother: ‘My son has not been of any help. He only asks for money for this and that. He wrote that he is coming next Wednesday from Hyderabad and that he wants money.’
Youth: ‘We have to stay at home because we have no money to go and try to find work. Sometimes we are even driven to complaining about our parents to the village elders, driven to despair by this situation. Mental balance is lost and a harsh word is said to the parents whom we should respect.’
A mother ‘If they had been given simple village food, they would be able to live on it now. We cannot keep them, yet we cannot throw them out heartlessly.’
Despite strong criticism, sponsorship organizations have become obsessed with the one-to-one formula, be it one foster parent to one child or one family. These suggested solutions sell easily and make the donors feel good but they disorientate young lives and only add to the problems.
Bishop Poulose suggests another approach: ‘I don’t think that poverty in this country can be solved or social changes can be achieved by this kind of charity. If people really are to be emancipated from the miserable conditions in the villages, it is not good if someone from the outside comes and helps them or guides them. There should be somebody from within the community giving them leadership by living with them, conscientizing them so that people will understand that there are burdens on their backs and they need not carry these burdens, they can throw these burdens away.’