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Mumbai: Bollywood director fights biological mother over baby's custody

Updated on: 05 December,2020 07:00 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Vinod Kumar Menon | vinodm@mid-day.com

Woman from Bihar fights mental instability under Magsaysay Awardees care to realise film director foster father wont let go of her child; CWC in spot after kid picked up from govt orphanage by fosters against law

Mumbai: Bollywood director fights biological mother over baby's custody

The woman's loving but aggressive behaviour around her child was spotted by the police at Borivli station

A toddler has become the centre of a custody feud between his biological mother, recovering from mental illness, wanting him back and his influential foster family, who took him back after being ordered to give him up. While doctors treating the mother are worried that she will slip into depression without the child, the foster parent, a well-known Bollywood director, after taking good care of the child, has become emotionally invested. But what is in the child's best interest? These questions and the possibility of a court case are looming before the two parties and related stakeholders.

The first five years of a child’s life are the most crucial in terms of development and should preferably be spent with biological parents, especially the mother. Representation pic
The first five years of a child’s life are the most crucial in terms of development and should preferably be spent with biological parents, especially the mother. Representation pic

The child's mother, in her early thirties, was spotted loitering on September 16, 2019, at Borivli railway station, with the newborn in her arms. She alternated between caring for the baby and beating him up, evident from the wounds on the child's body, due to her mental illness. Noticing the mother's behaviour, the railway police got the woman admitted to Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation, a home for the mentally ill, run by psychiatrist Dr Bharat Vatwani, a Ramon Magsaysay awardee.

Dr Shivangi Pawar, consulting psychotherapist
Dr Shivangi Pawar, consulting psychotherapist

The child was taken to the Children's Welfare Committee (CWC) and eventually placed in foster care with the family that now has him. With the mother having recovered, when the CWC asked for the baby, the seemingly influential foster family pulled strings with political parties and retained the child who is now almost two years old. The question being asked now is — for how long will this continue?

Timeline of events
Dr Vatwani, founder and trustee of Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation, an NGO founded in 1988 for mentally-ill destitutes, also runs a rehabilitation centre at Karjat where it houses, treats and reunites such people with their kin. Since the inception of the Karjat facility, they have 7,349 people with their families.

According to Dr Vatwani, the Family Service Centre (FSC), on November 4, 2019, asked the Shraddha Rehabilitation Centre for an update on the mother's health. She had improved rapidly and the centre gave a medical and psychiatric fitness certificate. It informed the FSC that she is pining for her child and separation could result in severe reactive depression. "We managed to trace her relatives to Bihar. They also enquired about the child and were willing to come to Mumbai to take the two home," said Dr Vatwani.

During December 3, 2019, and January, 14, 2020, the woman was sent to BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai Central for psychiatric observation on multiple occasions before she got a fitness certificate. There was some correspondence between the FSC and CWC in Mumbai and the CWC in Arrah district, Bihar. On November 4, 2020, the FSC, Mumbai wrote to the woman's relatives in Bihar, asking them to take her and the child. Accordingly, her father arrived on November 22 and is still in the city.

Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 lockdown, a lot of time had passed by the time the letter was sent, resulting in the foster family's attachment with the child and their refusal to part. The family appeared before the CWC when the matter was placed before the committee.

On November 24, on the advice of the FSC, a DNA test of the mother and child was done and a report is awaited. On December 1, after a three-hour hearing, the CWC directed the police to place the child at Asha Sadan, a government-run orphanage. However, on the same night, the foster family visited the orphanage with a few policemen and took custody of the child. Highly-placed sources told mid-day, "We presume the action was a result of pressure tactics and a letter from the FSC, stating that it was unsafe to keep the child at Asha Sadan, citing the COVID-19 pandemic."

A deeply distressed CWC member then rang up a social worker from Shraddha Rehabilitation Centre and narrated the incident. Dr Vatwani said, "It is highly objectionable that a child is taken away from a government-run orphanage, sent there by none other than CWC. There are 62,000 children in Mumbai staying with their poor parents who cannot afford to take care of them. Does that mean all such kids can be separated from their biological parents and handed to families who are well-off in the name of foster parenting?"

Dr Vatwani added, "In the first place, the police had no right to separate a breast-feeding infant from his mother. They could have brought them both to our shelter. We would have taken care of the child. In a similar case from five years ago, a mentally ill woman with two children was brought to us by Dadar police and we provided for them. They were later reunited with their kin in Beed." He added, "We have everything on paper in this case - the village gram pradhan and police stating that the woman left with her child, Borivli GRP saying she was breastfeeding. She was also lactating while at our Karjat centre."

What CWC says
Milind Bidwai, chairperson, CWC, said, "The CWC is yet to take a final decision. It will be taken soon and in the best interest of the child." When quizzed about the circumstances under which the child was taken from Asha Sadan and if any enquiry has been instituted, Bidwai said, "I am travelling at this moment," and disconnected the call. He could not be reached again.

Stakeholders weigh in
NGO Snehalaya's founder, Dr Girish Kulkarni, who also runs Snehankur Adoption Centre in Ahmednagar, said, "It is truly unfortunate that the biological mother, who has the right over her child, is being deprived even after she's well." "Foster parenting is usually a temporary arrangement with a like-minded family willing to provide shelter and care for a young one," Dr Kulkarni said.

He added, "While we should appreciate that the foster parents took good care of the child, the dedication with which the mother was treated by Dr Vatwani is also appreciable. As per the Juvenile Justice Act, the foster parents have no right over the child and have no right to keep him away from the biological mother. If they desire to support the child, as foster parents, they can do that even with the child in the mother's custody."

Nishit Kumar, founder and managing director, Centre for Social and Behaviour Change Communication, said, "As a signatory to the UNCRC, with a well-established Juvenile Justice Act (JJ Act), and clear protocols, it is surprising that a nursing infant was separated from the mother and sent to so-called foster care, in a manner clearly against the interests of the child and in violation of all norms and rules."

"Being poor and sick is not a crime. If that were the basis of children being taken away, 30 per cent of the country's children would be eligible," said Kumar. "The child's place is with biological parents and their development in the crucial first five years is deeply impacted. It is true that some parents in India want to give away children in institutional care as they can't look after them, but that is not the case here," Kumar added.

"I can't imagine under what circumstances the CWC can issue 'verbal' orders on such an important matter. By separating the child from the biological mother, it may have caused the child damage that may have a lifelong impact," Kumar said. He concluded stating, "The mother should be linked to State schemes that provide food, security and employment. The State can't shirk its responsibility by handing over the child to the first person who agrees to take him in and then claims that their family can't live without the child."

Dr Shivangi Pawar, a consulting psychotherapist, said, "A child learns multiple things in a very short time. Skills like crawling, walking and coordination, speech development, understanding clues from parents, development of emotions, forming attachments with surroundings - all this happens when children are toddlers. A child must have a stable and secure environment while growing up, preferably with the biological parents. A safe environment where emotional needs are taken care of, good nutrition and emotional care and attention from parents, especially the mother, are the essential ingredients for the healthy development of a child. If the child is exposed to prolonged or frequent stress like neglect or abuse, it hampers brain development. These can potentially cause physical, mental and behavioural problems in adulthood."

Sept 17
Day in 2019 the woman was found by railway police and admitted to Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation

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