In Search of Happier Beginnings and Joyful Endings
What if our number one priority was the well-being of children across the globe?
I recently saw Lion, a film that tells the story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy who is separated from his mother, brother and sister in India. Saroo is quickly adopted by an Australian couple and raised in Hobart, Tasmania with his new family. The film touches on topics I’ve been working on for the past 25 years of my career, including in my current position as Executive Director of International Social Service, USA. I was curious to see how realistically Lion would portray these issues.
Lion addresses some of the complexities of the intense bonds between biological children and their parents and siblings; between adoptive children and their parents and siblings; and between adoptive and biological families. It also shows how easily children can become separated from their families and how difficult it is to reunite them in countries where child protection infrastructures are in the early stages of development. The film portrays how vulnerable children can be when they are separated from their families through a brief shot of street children trying to find a safe place to sleep, to a shot of those who intend to harm them such as the police and child traffickers, and through depictions of people who are indifferent to lost, hungry, dirty children.
Lion‘s Nod to Intercountry Adoption Challenges
We, as child protection experts, have struggled for decades to figure out how to properly care for children who lack the support and protection of families. Starting In the late 1940s and early 1950s, intercountry adoption evolved into a popular care option; families in countries such the U.S., Canada, Australia and across Europe became eager to adopt children from poor, war-torn, or communist countries including India, Haiti, South Korea, Russia and China, to name a few. The film briefly acknowledges some of the challenges surrounding intercountry adoption. Lion shows the limited methods of searching for family, the reasons why some families choose to adopt, the lack of transparency in sharing medical, mental health and behavior histories of adoptive children, the experience of raising a child with disabilities, and the fear that adoptive families have about their capacity to support their children.
In Lion, we watch the adorable and brave Saroo (Sunny Pawar) grow up into a seemingly well-adjusted, bright, young man (Dev Patel). Then, we see Saroo fall apart when memories from his early childhood haunt him: he struggles with the reality that he has another family, is confused about his cultural identity and grapples with the fact that he does not know how to find his family and if they are alive or dead. We feel his growing panic, pain, and deep-seated desire “to know.” Any parent who has lost track of his/her child in the grocery store, and any child who has lost his/her parents in a crowd, understands this sense of relentless urgency to reconnect. This must be a fraction of the pain Saroo felt for more than 16 years. We watch this panic paralyze Saroo, alienating him from his friends, girlfriend and family.
What if Saroo’s mother had enough money to support her family? What if Saroo and his brother and sister attended school? What if Saroo only had to work before or after school near the family’s house? Saroo and his brother would NOT have had to stray so far from home to earn money to help feed his family, and Saroo would never have become separated from his family. Investing in FAMILY STRENGTHENING, by providing cash assistance, employment, parenting training/support and education for children, is critical to prevent family separation and to protect the long-term well-being of children. Unfortunately, very few countries invest enough (if at all) in the full range of family strengthening activities. Countries that do have some of the highest indicators of child well-being. Countries that don’t, including the United States, pay far more for the costly consequences of family separation. This puts children at greater risk of being trafficked, abused, neglected, harmed, and becoming involved with criminal behavior including gangs and terrorist groups in adolescence and adulthood.
How Investing in Child Protection Systems Could Have Changed Saroo’s Life
What if, in addition to family strengthening, we invest in child protection systems that, together with legal systems, provide the framework to care and protect vulnerable children? What if we support the development and enhancement of child protection services, including birth registration, social services, and training for social workers? Then, family separation would be a solvable problem. Building social work capacity to prevent and address consequences of separation is critical to the health and well-being of all children. The ability to work across jurisdictions would better protect the historic numbers of people on the move today who are crossing, or separated by, borders.
Having enhanced child protection systems would enable trained social workers, like those in the International Social Service network, to talk to Saroo, search for his family, and reunite them. Saroo could be linked with reintegration services that would ensure a smooth transition. Social workers could visit him and his family and continue to connect them to the resources they need to keep Saroo safe within his family and community.
While we all like joyful endings, the bottom line is that we need to work much harder on HAPPY BEGINNINGS. It’s wonderful when people reunite after a long separation. But it’s even more wonderful when those bonds are not severed for long or are never severed in the first place.
Stay tuned for updates from my upcoming trip to India to visit my esteemed colleague Ian Anand Forber Pratt, MSW, National Program Director, Centre of Excellence in Alternative Care of Children (India) Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI). While there, I will attend and speak at the National Symposium on Family Strengthening: Deconstructing Alternative Practices in the Current Legislative Framework and learn about the many wonderful ways in which India is developing its child protection systems.
Julie Rosicky, Executive Director
International Social Service, USA Branch Inc.