What an incredibly powerful statement! In the last few months, institutional care, international adoption and reunification have been highlighted by the Australian Movie, Lion, which stars Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel. One film critic wrote, “The film's message is about the essentially human need to always find and return home. But the beauty of "Lion" is that it explores and allows for the unique possibilities and power of multiple homes, multiple families and multiple selves.” (4)
As an educator in the field of child welfare, a birth, foster and adoptive mother of several adults in their late thirties and mid-forties, seeing the film was a personal journey for me. I have watched with considerable interest as the promotion and screening of the film has played out on the global stage.
Based on the book, A Long Way Home, Lion is the true story of a 5 year Indian boy, Saroo, who was separated from his family at a train station and eventually adopted by a couple in Tasmania, Australia. Unable to speak Bengali, and unaware of his home town, Saroo had no way to return to his village. He lived as a street urchin and survived on scraps of food. “I can still remember my early childhood”, he says, “the hunger and the scavenging. But I’ve moved on and been adopted by amazing parents. They gave me unconditional love, an education, and I live in an amazing country and society.” (13).
What makes Saroo’s story unique is that more than two decades later he used his memory, Google Map and a map of India, to find his home village and so his birth mother in Khandwa, India. “It is the epic tale almost impossible to believe…but it is true”, writes Anne Mather in the Herald Sun. (2)
Lion has taken $100 million (13), with invitations for the adoptee and his family to attend the Oscars and the 89th Academy Awards, where it has been nominated for 6 Awards. Requests for TV interviews in USA and Europe continue to pour in. After finding his birth mother in 2012, Saroo has bought her a home, supports her financially and visits once a year.(2)
This movie has touched the hearts of hundreds. Lion’s Facebook Page has nearly 78,000 likes! Comments I have read on this page and others include- I cried all the way through, I am still reeling after three days, I'm about to watch this for the 3rd time.... this story has touched me to the very core. A brilliant thought provoking film, I am proud that Australia has produced such a masterpiece. (3)
Saroo’s adoptive family state that they want to see people moved beyond tears and into action. Sue Brierley, his adoptive mother, says she wants people to think about the issues of overseas adoption and the dire needs of orphaned and refugee children. She is passionate about making adoption in Australia simpler and continues to raise money for the orphanage where Saroo lived. (2)
Explaining Lion’s effect on the audience, its creator, Emile Sherman (Seesaw Films) says “The film is affecting people at a cellular level, not just an emotional level as it is a deeply personal story that resonates with the public……. the need to find a home, to find your identity. It demonstrates love. And pain…it binds the audience and there’s such a deep mythical quality that people are inspired and shaken. (2)
I agree, however for some viewers, does it raise more questions than it answers? “It necessarily sugarcoats some aspects of the plight of lost children. When young Saroo risks being sold into prostitution doesn’t go too far, I’m grateful for that. Watching a child in peril is not my idea of entertainment”, writes a film critic. (5)
I know from working thirty years in the field of child rights, that understandably, some people find stories, especially those involving ‘orphans’, child soldiers or child prostitutes, as particularly disturbing. As one person angrily said to me, “Don’t tell me about children at risk that you see and work with, I don’t want to ruin my good life”. What is the reality? I want to take this opportunity to share some facts as I believe that progress is being made. Worldwide, there are thousands of individuals, non-government organisations, networks and governments working in a variety of areas.
The Children At Risk Global Network (CARGN) is a worldwide group of individuals, organisations and ministries that are involved with children, youth and families. Currently the 19 members are in twelve countries (Australia, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, India, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, USA, South Africa, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic) and working in a wide range of fields, such as training, media, prayer, family reunification, day care, preschools, foster care, children’s homes, adoption tracing, Sunday school, children’s camps, child protection, community development work etc. As such, the Global Network is impacting thousands of children annually, by uniting in the ‘fight’ to make the world a beter place. (9)
Lumos, founded by the well-known author J.K. Rowling, believes that institutions cannot provide for the complex needs of children and denies them their basic human rights. A lack of individual love and care, states Rowling, can result in life-long physical and psychological harm. Babies fail to develop as they should without one-to-one parental interaction. Recent research demonstrates the severe impact of institutionalisation on early brain development. (6)
Many studies support their approach. One study found that young adults raised in institutions suffer long term effects, are 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution than their peers, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record and 500 times more likely to take their own lives. For children with disabilities the situation is even worse. Another study found that 26% of young children with disabilities died in the institution – 100 times the mortality rate of their peers without disabilities. (8)
Of concern, is that more than 80% of children living in institutions worldwide, are not orphans. Families are placing their children in institutions because of poverty, disability and discrimination. Lumos is supporting families to care for their children rather than placing them in ‘orphanages’, and works in partnership with governments, professionals and carers, communities, families and children, to transform outdated systems that drive families apart. (6)
ReThink Orphanages, an Australian initiative, that uses research, awareness raising, advocacy, and policy and practice consultation, agrees. Children who grow up in orphanages experience attachment disorders, developmental delays, and have difficultly forming relationships in adulthood. The effects of institutionalisation can last a lifetime and even impact upon following generations. In many cases driven by the well-meaning but uninformed support of foreign donors, orphanage voluntourism, and the supply chain of people, money and resources that drive the orphanage industry. (7)
Many governments are trying to make a difference. Thousands of children in Armenia are needlessly separated from their parents and placed in institutions because of disability, poverty, poor housing, and a lack of social services, states a recent Human Rights Watch article. They often live their whole life in care, although more than 90% have at least one living parent. “All children have the right to grow up in a family and donor resources should support families and children, not institutions”, writes Jane Buchanan, its author. She states that poverty is not a justification or basis for placement of a child in an institution, and is encouraged that the Armenian government has targeted 22 institutions to close by 2020. The USD3-5,000 per child it costs to maintain a child in an institution will be targeted to community-based services to ensure children are not separated from their families. (12)
Why did I find this film so moving? Well, apart from it being a tearjerker of a movie it's because the work we do at SFAC - www.sfac.org.uk works amidst this kind of scenario many hundreds of times. Children separated from their family usually due to poverty, trafficking or neglect. Vulnerable children find themselves in an alien place open to abuse and exploitation. And here's the tragic part, most of them will never end up with a lovely couple like in the film. SFAC trains organisations in how to work with children and reintegrate them safely home from orphanages. if their family can't be traced then to find alternative local families who could stand in the gap and give a child a safe and loving home. There are many thousands of Saroo's waiting for someone to act for them and find them a home. If you want to know more about the work of SFAC check out our web site www.sfac.org.uk
There is so much YOU can do!
Download a copy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) would be a great start! The Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear about children and their rights. It is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the history of the world. It changed the way we look at children and acknowledges that they have special needs and vulnerabilities.
The CRC states that each child should enjoy full rights without discrimination to disability, ethnicity, and gender (Article 2), the child’s best interests shall be the primary consideration (Article 3), parents have joint and primary responsibility for raising their children (Article 18), and the state should support parents in child rearing and provide special protection for children deprived of a family environment (Article 18). Children also have a right to a name and a nationality (Article 7), health care, education and cultural activity (Articles 24,28,31). They should be protected from physical and sexual abuse, drug use, torture and neglect (Articles 19, 32, 34 and 37). (10)
In addition, to support the CRC, there is now the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children and Implementation of the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. These treaties are now being adopted across the globe as standards for governments, NGOs and others to ensure best care practice for children, especially for those separated from their families and in out of home care. (11)
Check out the Better Care Network website to get the latest information on hundreds of studies on important topics issues such as children, youth and families in poverty, foster care and adoption, institutions etc. (11).
Or volunteer in one of the many organizations that work with children, youth and families in need. Perhaps Investigate becoming a foster or adoptive parent.
I would love to hear from you on your perspective of Lion!
Lion Facebook Page
Mather, Anne, “Roaring Success”, Herald Sun, Australia, February 19th 2017
Walsh, Katie, Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/sc-lion-mov-rev-1219-20161222-story.html
ReThink Orphanages; better solutions for children. www.rethinkorphanages.org
Ending the Institutionalisationof Children Globally– the Time is Now
“Armenia’s Children: Isolated, Needlessly Separated from Families”, www.hrw.org, 22nd February 2017
Carroll, R., “Saroo Brierley, the inspiration for the film Lion: My mother saw my face after 25 years”, February 2017