Interview with Ian Anand Forber Pratt, MSW; South-East Asia Director of Advocacy, Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI)
Based in Delhi, Ian’s personal and professional mission is to serve underserved children by reducing India’s over-reliance on institutionalization of children in orphanages and cultivating stronger families and robust family-based care alternatives.
Ian is currently serving as the Director of Advocacy – Southeast Asia for Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI). He helps governments write policy, advocates for minimum standards of care for children, and works with organizations at the grass roots level to combine their voice to move the field forward.
How did you become involved in childcare reform in India?
I was born in India and adopted by an American family. While raising me in the US they encouraged me to connect with my Indian culture. As an adult, I volunteered for a number of years in India, then returned to the United States to earn a master’s degree in social work with particular interest in the field of child protection.
Six years ago, I moved to India in order to introduce family-based care options for children who would otherwise be placed in institutional orphanages. In India, the majority of children who need care or protection either go to institutions, such as orphanages, or receive no support at all. Options like adoption, foster care, and training to strengthen families are almost off-the-radar.
I founded Foster Care India to cultivate stronger families and robust family-based care alternatives, thereby reducing over-reliance on institutionalization of children and the negative consequences from separating them from loving families.
In my work with Foster Care India, I was instrumental in the passing of the Rajasthan Foster Care Rules that empowered 366 families to stay together and not have to send their children to institutions.
Tell us about your current activity and its effect on the well-being of children.
When I first started, foster care was my only focus. There was definitely a need for a new law and foster-care guidelines to pave the way for orphaned children to be brought up in a family setting.
But I soon found that my passion lies in strengthening of existing families by promoting the entire range or continuum of family-based care options for children, including kinship care, foster care, and domestic adoption.
My life’s goal is to introduce family-based care options for children in India. I hope to accomplish this child care reform through policy, practice, and the capacity of implementers.
How did this become your goal?
The majority of children in need of care and protection in India go into institutional orphanages or do not receive services at all. Options like adoption, foster care, family strengthening – more common in the west – are almost completely off the radar in India.
A child in an institution lives there until their 18th birthday and then “ages out” of the child protection system. We have no idea where they go or how they survive. But we know worldwide that children in institutions are 40 times more likely to have a criminal record than their peers, 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution and 500 times more likely to commit suicide.
Research shows that children do better in families when their best interest is considered first and foremost. When that’s not possible children should be with relatives or community members or even new families. Institutions should be the last resort.
I think of the three year old boy I saw on the road-side here in Delhi. He was with his family, happy, playing, and just being a child. His hair, however, was bleached from malnutrition, his hygiene dangerously poor and his vulnerability high. Is the answer to remove the child from the family or to remove the poverty from the family?
Why can’t we work with anyone willing to keep their children, but they need help to do it? What is best for a widow with three children who has placed them in an orphanage just because she can’t feed them? What about a father whose children must live in an orphanage because he has to work all day and can’t care for them? How can we support these children and their families to keep them together?
My view is that we must expand the services for children and families to a ‘menu’ of options for every unique child and unique need. Instead of “institution or nothing,” why can’t there be a continuum of care options that starts with family strengthening (sponsoring, livelihood training, counseling, support), expands to kinship care (children living with their relatives and supported), offers foster care or adoption, and possibly provides small specialized group settings – then finally and as a last resort, provides big institutional care.
What are the challenges you typically face in your work?
This work is literally mind-set changing!
Although I’ve helped to establish 10 foster homes according to the proper United Nations definition and law in India, social change is overwhelmingly difficult and takes time, as the great majority of the country has never heard the words foster care. Every day I face not only professional challenges but personal challenges. They often interweave.
When I walk into a room my Indian face gets me in the door and then my accented Hindi and American beliefs get me quickly heading back out the door. This is where cultural competency, humility and unapologetic passion are my saviors. People can see that I’m here for real. This is where my spirituality forms the bedrock of my approach.
How do you incorporate a spiritual practice in your service?
I pray more than daily to be able to say, do, and be the right things for the most good. I pray to be God’s tool in helping others. I pray to be a better husband, father, son, community member and child of God. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not – but always I try to see progress.
In a challenging landscape of personal and professional daily struggles, I remind myself that I am not in control, God is in control.
How does your spiritual practice help you? How does it benefit those you are wanting to help?
I practice Christian Science with significant overtones of the pieces I love from every religious concept I think I understand in the world.
This is the individual spirituality that I understand on my own terms, and then I aim to reflect those terms to others. I don’t influence, convert or preach other than what I hope my life’s example naturally does.
My life is a lesson in inter-faith practice! My wife is Muslim, I am a member of the Christian Science church here in Delhi, I proudly work for CERI, a Christian Organisation, and I love praying in a Hindu temple! I take a huge interest in building the capacity and success of faith-based leaders of every creed, faith, and religion.
I believe that my spirituality allows me to do this work, period!
Can you share a particular story when you saw the effect of your spiritual practice on a specific situation?
There are so many stories! But here’s just one.
The National Government in Sri Lanka is engaged in similar efforts of child care system reform as in India. I have been meeting with child protection experts both in the government and NGOs. Last May I visited with one of the organizations. They had arranged a site-visit day that included a long drive to a small group home “orphanage.”
There were several of us in the car on the way to the institution. Half way there, I received an intuition, something I call an “angel message.” It was clear as day. The message was, “Don’t go, don’t visit the children.”
Odd right? I ignored it, and it came back stronger. I listened and thanked God for direction. I then thought about why this message was coming and how it aligned with my beliefs.
It is important to me that children in orphanages not be “visited” unless you are coming as a value-add, such as coming to teach or guide for a limited time, with clear expectations. You are not coming as a “viewer.” Otherwise, the children are no more than zoo animals to hug, post a photo on facebook, and maybe offer a perspective on life. What happens to them, on the other hand, is that they attach to one more person who leaves them. Again.
So my beliefs and this angel message aligned, and I followed without hesitation. I turned to the leaders of our group and apologized but said I did not want to visit – I would rather go to their office to chat (in the opposite direction and not planned).
Later I learned that they shared my same beliefs about the children and typically do not let people visit. The order to visit, however, had come from higher up in the organization.
By following God’s word I helped them be free and re-inspired. I respected their time (they were able to get back to work three hours earlier than expected) and we connected on a truly spiritual level.
You’ve accomplished changes on the governmental and policy level. What does “success” look like for a particular child or family?
Here’s one example. I spent the afternoon with an amazing kinship family that lives here. The children are cared for by their grandparents who struggle to make even $1 per day. We sat in the sand together and I asked them to come up with a plan for sustaining the family. Their solution? Poultry farming, which by our estimation, is brilliant and do-able. We got out a notebook and thought about demand, competition, start-up costs, running costs and other details. The 17-year-old daughter will write up the plan in the local language and we’ll finalise it next week. We are focusing on their ownership and empowerment. They will have to pay 5-10% and we’ll locally fundraise the rest. Next year when the house floods and times are tough, this can bring hope and a future.
To learn more about Ian’s work, go here: https://cerikids.org/who-we-are/meet-ceri-staff/ian-anand-forber-pratt
Go here for more information on the work of Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) and how you may contribute: https://cerikids.org/what-we-do