Five years ago, 41-year-old Rameela, wandered into Thiruvananthapuram with her one-and-a-half-year-old son. And she wouldn’t have been so different from the hundreds of migrants that come into the city if she wasn’t mentally ill. When she was found, she was placed in the state government health care centre Peroorkada. Her son was separated from her, and housed in a centre for children run by Kerala state Council for Child Welfare in Thycaud. Rameela’s story has a bittersweet ending – while she was able to reunite with her son when she got better, the child didn’t recognize her. And she could no longer communicate effectively with him, because while he had picked up Malayalam, she had not.
Rameela’s story is not one of a kind. Children are often separated from mothers who have left their homes unknowingly or have been abandoned, are mentally ill and have wandered into the city. Thiruvananthapuram sees many such cases because it is the final destination of many long-distance trains running through the country. Those in the know of the issue say that there is little effort by the police who find these people to find relatives of the child. So the child is separated and sent to another state home. In most cases where the mothers get better, they have to go through complex and long procedures to find their children and regain custody. There are also chances of the child getting adopted while the mother is being treated.
To prevent such painful separations and its fallouts, some field experts are calling for setting up of mother and child wards inside hospitals, or facilities of housing the children near the centres where such women may undergo treatment.
Struggles of reuniting the mother and child
When Rameela’s mental health started improving, she began asking about her son. She also had help from a nurse who would speak to Rameela, and who ultimately found out the details of her son’s lodging with the Council for Child Welfare. The hospital authorities then approached Kerala Social Security Mission, functioning under the Department of Social Justice, to take up the issue with the Council.
Dr Dinesh, a psychiatrist from the hospital where Rameela underwent treatment, was the one who helped reunite her with her son. The process took an agonizing year, and they had to wait for the DNA test results to prove that she was her child’s mother. “Surprisingly, even when she left Rajasthan in that mental state, she did not lose her child. He was with her on the train journey here, and even when she was wandering in the city,” he observes.
When the police found her, they separated her from her son. “When they were separated, Rameela was not in state to understand the separation. But it took a while for the child to process the separation and get used to the new circumstances,” says Dr Dinesh says.
Need for mother and child wards in mental healthcare centres
While Rameela was able to be with her son again, not everyone is that lucky. Dr Dinesh says that housing a child of a mentally ill mother at a centre should be the last resort. “Hence the police and the authorities should try to find out if the child has other relatives. There is no protocol or system to follow. Since the mothers would be ill, they won’t be able to demand what they need. Who would then speak for their toddlers? It isn’t every time that a mother who is searching for a child is able to get help and find him or her,” he argues.
Further, there are chances that the child may be adopted when housed in a state home and the mother is still undergoing treatment, as police often do not clarify that the child was found abandoned with (presumably) their mother, when placing them in the care of the state.
“There should be a home inside the campus of mental healthcare centres to accommodate children. There should be trained aayahs to look after them as well. It should be taken care that the bonding between the mothers and the children shouldn’t be lost. The children should be able to see their mothers when the latter’s condition improved, which can be assessed by a committee of doctors, even if it’s once a week,” Dr Dinesh asserts.
Dr Sagar, the superintendent in charge at the Mental Health Centre at Oolampara agrees with Dr Dinesh. “There should be a separate ward for mothers and children inside mental healthcare centres. If the children are separated like this from their mothers at a tender age, they could even develop anxiety, stress or other disorders which may impact their mental health as they grow up,” he says.
He adds all stakeholders should arrive at a consensus on the issue at take a decision due to multiple state departments involved. At a recent meeting chaired by the District Judge on April 24, Dr Sagar proposed the setting up of a mother and children ward inside the hospital.
However, Deepak SK, Secretary of the state Council for Child Welfare holds a different view. He argues that they have to take a call on the fate of the child on a case to case basis. “The safety of the children becomes our responsibility. There are cases in which the mothers won’t be cured even after years of treatment. As far as the Council is concerned, children should be made legally free - that is they should be given the opportunity to get adopted. It is not advisable to keep the children at a state institution for long. But we have done this too in cases where it’s not possible to give the children back to mothers,” he says.