* On August 20, 2023, Priyadarshini Lingaraj Patil, a 45-year-old Non-Resident Indian from Karnataka’s Dharwad, died by suicide in Belagavi. She had left New South Wales (NSW), Australia, where she lived with her husband and children, for Bengaluru on August 18. In a letter addressed to her father, she alleged harassment by Australia’s Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) and some neighbours in NSW over her children’s custody. The Australian authorities had assumed custody of her children three years ago after deeming her incapable of caring for them. Priyadarshini said in the letter that she was very depressed about the developments in Australia and her family was feeling threatened.
* Sagarika Chakraborty, in her 2022 autobiography, The Journey of a Mother, documents her long court battle against the Norwegian Child Welfare Services, which took away her children alleging “incompetent parenting” in 2011, when she and her now-divorced husband were living in Norway. Finally, in 2013, the Calcutta High Court awarded her full custody in an interim order. She now works as a software engineer in a leading company, providing for both her children as a single mother. The Rani Mukherji-starrer Bollywood movie Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway (2023) is based on her book.
* Dhara Shah’s campaign for the custody rights of her baby daughter, Ariha, who was moved to German foster care in 2021, is ongoing. The Indian government wrote to its German counterpart seeking repatriation of Ariha under the protection of Indian child welfare authorities but got no response initially.
Three women, three timelines, but united by circumstances. The core issue: the repatriation of Indian children residing in foster homes or with childcare services abroad. There is no protocol in place for this process, and the Indian government’s response has been ad hoc and contingent on how much parents or supportive organisations are able to pursue their cases either through the media or through repeated petitions to the authorities.
Sagarika Chakraborty’s fight in Norwegian family courts became so publicised that the Indian government ultimately stepped in. Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway acknowledges the efforts of Sushma Swaraj, the then External Affairs Minister, and Brinda Karat, then a Rajya Sabha member, in helping Sagarika. She now plans to write a sequel to her autobiography, documenting her post-custody struggles. “People realised that mine was not an isolated case. It took a lot of time for me to get back on my feet,” she said, speaking to Frontline.
Perhaps for the first time, a group of concerned people gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on August 31 to protest against the Australian authorities’ attitude in the Priyadarshini Lingaraj Patil case that, in a way, led to her death. They sent a memorandum to the Australian High Commission with details of the case. They pointed out that since Australia had signed a Mobility and Migration Partnership Agreement with India (on May 24, 2023) to encourage skilled workers to seek jobs in Australia, it needs to create a more secure and welcoming environment. “We are seeing too many of our compatriots, especially those moving to Australia and other rich G20 countries for jobs in the IT industry, being victimised by their child protection systems,” they wrote.
Several retired judges, including four of the Supreme Court and two of High Courts, wrote to the G20 invitee-states urging them to “initiate discussions” on repatriating children of Indian parents residing in western Europe, the UK, North America, Australia, and New Zealand on a short- to medium-term work stay. The letter stated that most of them were Indian passport holders intending to return to India after gaining a few years of experience. They expressed concern that there had been “many cases of children among these expatriate families being removed from parental care by the child protection authorities of the country of residence on grounds of abuse, neglect or risk of harm. Such children are placed in the custody of foreign child protection authority.”
“The Jantar Mantar protesters pointed out that since Australia has signed an agreement with India to encourage skilled workers to seek jobs in Australia, it needs to create a more secure and welcoming environment.”
Though all such children are entitled to kinship care, this is not always possible, given the absence of the extended family in the country of residence. The children are placed with foster carers who do not have any ethnic or cultural links to the child’s country of origin. “As a consequence, these children... are unable to develop any bonds with their country of origin or their extended families. They age out of foster care in a state of double alienation—they are not citizens of the country of residence and have no substantial ties with their country of origin,” they wrote.
The retired judges also said that while it was not for India to question the assessment of parents by the country of residence, a better understanding of cultural differences was required along with the provision of good translators in child protection proceedings. Indian children removed from parental care were the responsibility of the government of India. As per international conventions, children have a right to return to their country of origin and a right to the preservation of their nationality, identity, religion, and language. The signatories included retired Supreme Court Justices Ruma Pal, Vikramajit Sen, A.K. Sikri, and Deepak Gupta; High Court Justices Manju Goel, R.S. Sodhi, and R.V. Easwar; and former High Court Chief Justices A.P. Shah and S. Muralidhar.
Speaking to Frontline from NSW, Lingaraj Patil, husband of the late Priyadarshini, said that it all began when they requested the children’s hospital where his son, Amartya Patil, was being treated for ulcerative colitis, to allow them to seek a second opinion. “We had no issues with the treatment, but there were side effects and we wanted to take a second opinion. The treatment had gone on for four years, from 2013 to 2017. He was in remission. When we sought a referral to another hospital, we were accused of missing appointments and then the case was referred to the DCJ,” he said, adding that when care workers visited their home, they did not find anything amiss. One care worker gave an adverse report and that became the basis for the children—Amartya (16) and Aparajita (13)—being taken away from parental care. “We were diagnosed as mentally ill and suffering from monosymptomatic delusions,” he said.
“The retired judges said that while it was not for India to question the assessment of parents by the country of residence, a better understanding of cultural differences was required.”
In October 2022, the children’s court in Australia directed the allocation of all aspects of parental responsibility in relation to the health and education of Amartya to the Minister for Families, Community and Disability Services until he attained the age of 18. A similar care order was passed for Aparajita, effective until she attained 16 years of age. The Secretary of the DCJ was directed to provide two reports to the court on or before February 19, 2023, or on October 19, 2023, concerning the suitability of the arrangements for the care and protection of Aparajita. Regular updates on the progress in implementing the care plan, education, safety, well-being, school attendance, and health were asked for. The DCJ was also required to furnish information on whether a practitioner had been engaged to assist and support Aparajita to understand her parents’ shared “monosymptomatic delusions”.
On March 10, 2023, the children’s court in Parramatta, NSW, issued an “airport watch order” restraining anyone from removing Amartya and Aparajita from the country. The lookout notice was effective until April 2023.
Rights snatched away
Priyadarshini was a postgraduate in science and her father is a well-known educationist in Dharwad. She and her husband last visited India in 2016. “In my entire life and career I have not had a single brush with the law. I worked in the US for several years before coming to Australia. Priyadarshini was very upset. For what fault of Aparajita was her right to parental care taken away too? For Indian parents, health and education are the two things that matter the most. Those rights were taken away from us,” said Lingaraj Patil.
In the case of Dhara Shah, her daughter, baby Ariha, has been in the custody of the Jugendamt, the German Youth Services, since September 23, 2021, when she was just 7 months old. Sections of the Indian community gathered on September 2, 2023, at the Paradeplatz (city square) in Mannheim demanding that she be returned to her parents. Dhara went on a hunger strike on September 9 and 10, 2023, in Delhi in a futile bid to draw the attention of the G20 leaders to her case. A month earlier, she had stood with a placard at Jantar Mantar demanding the return of her daughter.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has pursued the matter actively but with little success. MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told the media in June, July, and August that the government accorded high priority to the case and believed that “at a minimum, the child’s cultural rights and rights as an Indian are being infringed upon by being placed under German foster care”. He said that the German Ambassador had been summoned and told about the violation of these rights. Germany had been requested to let the child return to India as soon as possible. “We will continue to engage in discussions with the German authorities and keep pressing them to send the child to India,” Bagchi told the media on August 10.
- The series of cases where children of Indian parents working abroad are taken away by the childcare services of the respective countries on grounds of abuse or neglect points at a lack of understanding of cultural differences
- Recently, several retired judges wrote to the G20 invitee-states urging them to “initiate discussions” on repatriating children of Indian parents residing in western Europe, the UK, North America, Australia, and New Zealand on a short- to medium-term work stay
- Most of the cases started when parents took an ailing child to a hospital with an injury. The problem can be partly remedied only if protocols are immediately put in place by India for the speedy repatriation of children placed in foreign foster care
On September 21, Bagchi announced that some progress has been made in the case, with the German authorities granting counsellor access to the Indian Embassy, which has handed over materials relating to Indian customs and practices to Ariha’s caregiver so that the child could be in touch with her faith and culture. But Dhara was not quite enthused. She said: “It is true that the MEA got counsellor access. But it is not at all a big win as it is only one counsellor access in two years. We don’t have any update on whether there is regular counsellor access. No one knows where Ariha is being kept and neither does the government of India.”
Dhara’s story, like Lingaraj Patil’s, suggests a string of grave consequences arising out of miscommunication. On September 17, 2021, Dhara had noticed blood on Ariha’s diaper. The child was taken to hospital and examined, and Dhara was told that there was nothing to worry. Four days later the Shahs took the child for a voluntary check-up. It transpired that Ariha had some perianal injury, which probably needed stitches. “It was very difficult to understand what they were saying. My English was poor and I didn’t know German. I got scared when they said stitches, especially when they had certified only a few days back that my baby was fine,” she told Frontline. Ariha, Dhara said, was not in discomfort either.
“Dhara’s story, like Lingaraj Patil’s, suggests a string of grave consequences arising out of miscommunication.”
Subsequently, the Shahs were informed that sexual abuse was suspected and the police needed to be involved. On September 23, 2021, childcare services took away the 7-month-old baby. “We repeatedly asked them what the matter was. They said we needed to wait till the medical reports came. We did not even know where our baby had gone. We contacted our community people, who advised that we should contact the embassy and hire a lawyer. The lawyer told us that it was suspected that the injuries were the result of sexual abuse. I was blamed,” said Dhara.
Later, other “injuries” were added to the list, Dhara said. Dhara and her husband, Bhavesh, were psychologically assessed and found to be unfit for parental responsibilities. In February 2022, the police closed the case without any charges brought against the parents. But in June, parental rights were terminated by the family court. “We said that if we are unfit, Ariha could be taken care of by Indian parents so that she’s not alienated from her culture. The Jain-Gujarati community in Berlin has offered to take care of her,” Dhara said.
““Even if the family court decides on the basis of a negative assessment of the parents, but a government, such as the Indian government, is willing to take responsibility of the child, why not give Ariha back?””Suranya Aiyar, Indian activist and lawyer
Suranya Aiyar, an Indian activist and lawyer who has been working on this issue for several years, said most of the cases started when parents took an ailing child to a hospital with an injury. “The hospital turns around and blames the parents. Typically, the child is below the age of one and not able to communicate. In every instance a parallel police investigation is initiated, but in most cases, as in Dhara’s, it gets closed. The family courts persist that parental custody be terminated,” she said. “Even if the family court decides on the basis of a negative assessment of the parents, but a government, such as the Indian government, is willing to take responsibility of the child, why not give Ariha back?” Aiyar asked. “The child is being mistreated in so many ways. She’s Jain but is being given non-vegetarian food,” she added.
Regarding Priyadarshini’s case, Aiyar claimed that the son “was being bullied in school and started falling sick”. His stomach issues apparently coincided with the bullying. Priyadarshini, she said, was asking legitimate questions. “I think what pushed Priyadarshini to the brink was the continuous harassment,” she said.
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Parents in despair
In Sagarika’s case, the children were taken away from her in May 2011 and put in a standby home. Two of the charges was that she was able to meet her son’s needs only to a “limited degree” and that she “lock[ed] the boy out of the kitchen” when she was cooking. The couple were given bare visitation rights—just three times a year. An Indian alternative for custody was explored in the winter of 2012. It was only after a protracted struggle in the family courts in Stavanger, Norway, interventions by the Indian embassy, and support from politicians like Brinda Karat and Sushma Swaraj, that Sagarika got her children back.
Debashis Saha, a software engineer who underwent a similar experience in New Jersey around the same time as Sagarika, said his 11-month-old son was put in foster care after a head injury, which the treating hospital suspected had been caused intentionally. Saha told Frontline from his home in New Jersey that with the help of a good lawyer and medical experts he managed to turn the case around. The child protection agency offered to negotiate, and Saha was urged to drop the case. “These experiences can make parents feel helpless and suicidal,” he said. Now Saha helps other couples in the IT sector who face similar issues.
On September 8, as the G20 nations geared up for their meetings in New Delhi, several groups of mothers in the UK stood in front of the Indian High Commission in London holding placards saying, “G-20—Take our poverty, not our children”; “Thank you, Indian judges, for speaking out.” They demanded the return of their children removed by social services in Australia, the EU, the UK, the US, and New Zealand. With most of the mothers being women of colour from different countries, it is clear that the issue is not confined to India. The biases run deep.