It’s a pleasantly cold December morning in scenic Udaipur, a city of lakes, forts, and camels in India’s state of Rajasthan, southwest of New Delhi.
Dressed in casual slacks and dandy shades, Ian Anand Forber-Pratt is sipping sugary, milky tea and chatting with Seema, a primary school teacher with a plump and smiling face and a toddler in her arms. Ananya, a chatty 3-year-old, clings tightly to her “mummy” and stares suspiciously at the visitor with her large, post-nap-time eyes.
Ananya was born to a mentally unsound woman who isn’t capable of caring for Ananya or consenting to her adoption, so Ananya spent her first two years in an orphanage. During her time there, she never spoke a word. Seema and her husband thought she was mute. When they applied to adopt Ananya, they were placed on a years-long waiting list.
And then Mr. Forber-Pratt, an Indian-American, with his funny foreign-accented Hindi and a laser-focused goal of placing every Indian child in a family, came along and told them about foster care.
“We knew about adoption but never heard of fostering,” says Seema, who asked that only her first name be used. “But I am glad he convinced us.”
While it has been difficult to persuade families to agree to become foster parents – Forber-Pratt has been successful in placing three children in foster care, with three more pending – it has been even more difficult to persuade local child welfare officials to take him seriously.
“I walked into their offices one day and said I wanted to write a law,” Forber-Pratt says. “They thought I was mad, but I persisted.”
Recently the Indian government issued updated foster-care guidelines, with provisions for paying foster parents to look after the children and requiring family visits to ensure their safety. It will pave the way for more children like Ananya – for whom adoption is complicated because they are not strictly orphans – to be brought up in a family setting.
“The time was right, and I offered a bit of a push,” Forber-Pratt says.
The Indian government provided for foster care in its Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000 but only for children who were waiting to be adopted.
With the new guidelines things are set to change for India’s more than 30 million orphans, among whom only a few were adopted last year. The waiting list for adoption is long and children older than 5 are often overlooked for adoption.
Forber-Pratt founded the nonprofit Foster Care India in May 2012, using almost $20,000 of his own savings. It now has a team of 12 people and is supported by the United Nations agency UNICEF.
“We work across the continuum of care for children based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which means family is the first and best option for children as it’s safe and appropriate,” Forber-Pratt says. “Failing that they should be either with relatives or community members or unknown families. Institutions should be the last option.”
Forber-Pratt’s passion for providing children with families perhaps stems from his own unusual childhood. He was abandoned by an unwed mother in an orphanage in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta a day after he was born and then adopted and raised by empathetic, loving, white American parents in the United States.
“Without that story this work wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “After hearing my story no one can ask me why I am here.”
His passion is infectious.
“[Forber-Pratt] is extremely knowledgeable about foster care,” says Vasundhra, a member of the Child Welfare Committee of India’s Department of Women and Child Development, who is working on a project with him. “He has the passion, and thanks largely to him there is some momentum in the ministry regarding foster care.”
“There are no shortcuts with him, and he thinks ahead,” says Shilpa Mehta, who works for Foster Care India. “He probably has the next five to 10 years mapped out in his mind already.”
Although his adoptive parents tried to keep him close to his Indian roots, including his mother wearing a sari and taking him to Indian events, he still struggled with his identity.
“I felt confused when I saw something about India, and I didn’t truly understand what it meant,” Forber-Pratt says. “I didn’t really have the vocabulary to attach to my emotions.”
As a young adult in 2006 he decided to visit India, in search of his roots. Although he couldn’t find his biological parents, he returned again in 2007. By the end of that trip he knew he wanted to work in India on protecting children.
The idea of foster care, however, hit him only after he began a graduate degree program in social work at Washington University in St. Louis. A project there led him to look at the disproportionate number of African-Americans in the foster-care system in the US. “I searched on the Internet to learn about foster care in India, and the only result that came back was how to adopt a dog or a cat,” he says. “I knew there was a genuine gap there that I could fill.”
But he didn’t want to rush in to India with a bag of quick solutions and then leave. True development involves connecting with, appreciating, and finding the heartbeat of a culture, he says. “And it doesn’t think [out] five years but for five generations.”
To gain experience he worked in foster care for almost four years in St. Louis, helping older youths in foster-care situations.
“Every morning I woke up and said to myself, ‘Is it time to go to India yet?’ ” he says.
In 2011, the answer was finally, yes.
He sold everything, apart from his house, and in May landed in Udaipur. He knew only two people there from a previous trip: a hotel owner and a tour guide. They helped Forber-Pratt start out. “When I reached [India] I knew no Hindi. I didn’t know anything about the system,” he says. “It was so crazy.”
His plan was to get a successful model of foster care up and running that could be replicated in other cities, and that he could present to the government as a case study. He chose Udaipur because it was small enough that a pilot project would not “get lost in the noise of a big city,” he says.
His years in Udaipur have taught him an important lesson: Communities already have the resources to provide foster care. His job was “not reinventing the wheel, just systematizing it,” he says.
“The strength of the foster care in India system lies in the robust Indian families,” Forber-Pratt says. “Indian families truly understand the meaning and the need for families, and the idea that every child deserves a family touches everyone.
“But then they start worrying about what happens afterward and how do you keep the children safe. It inspires me every time people ask me these questions because that tells me they care.”
But there were days when he felt frustrated and alone. He would go for long bike rides in the countryside, stopping for a chai in rustic local tea stalls. At one point he found himself sitting with a family explaining his story in broken Hindi.
“They listened to me, and after that all they said was, ‘Thank you for coming back [to India]. Have some more tea.’ And that was all I needed,” Forber-Pratt recalls.
In Udaipur he rents space in a lovely white building. Foster Care India’s offices are on the ground floor. He lives on the second floor with his Indian wife, Nargis, a social worker from New Delhi. Their three-bedroom apartment is currently in disarray; the couple is packing up to move to New Delhi.
While Foster Care India will continue its work in Udaipur, Forber-Pratt will divide his time between Udaipur and New Delhi. He wants to create an umbrella organization for groups working on foster care, providing them with training and consultation, and working as a “bridge between communities and government,” he says.
“I came to India with the goal of changing the way 1.2 billion people care for and protect children,” he says. “How far am I from it? I think there will be a benchmark at five years, 10 years, and 25 years because we are talking about true social change here in one of the biggest [countries] in the world, and it’s going to take time to find a system that ... [will keep] children safe.”
• Learn more at www.fostercareindia.org.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that help children and families in India and elsewhere:
• Embrace advances maternal and child health by delivering innovative solutions to vulnerable populations. Take action: Provide Embrace newborn warmers in Kabul, Afghanistan.
• Global Citizens Network promotes cross-cultural understanding through authentic immersion experiences. Take action: Construct a village clinic for women’s health and infant care in Mexico.