Many Unanswered Questions in Custody Battle With Director
The custody battle of a child less than two years old between his mentally ill birth mother and a Bollywood director who was his foster father had many twists and turns. Rules and regulations were thrown to the wind as the authorities bent back to please the influential man while ignoring the rights of the insane and the poor, emphasizes DR BHARAT VATWANI.
The recent custody battle by an influential Bollywood director over the child of a mentally ill woman has left many questions unanswered. Mother Madhavi (name changed to protect identity) was found walking on September 16, 2019 by Borivali Railway Police, who referred her to the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation the next day. She had a little boy who appeared to be physically wounded.
While Madhavi was being admitted to our foundation’s Karjat center, the child was eventually given up for care by the family welfare center, first to one family, then apparently to another, and finally, presumably in May 2020, to the director. Even the mother got better and wanted the child back, the foster father refused, which led to an ugly fight for custody of the child.
On December 14, 2020, the Child Welfare Committee, Mumbai, issued a final order to officially deliver the child to Madhavi. Since then, the child Madhavi and her father have been safely housed in our Borivali center.
While this seems to have ended in a fairytale way, it leaves some unanswered questions like these:
* Section 21 (2) Chapter V of the Mental Health Act 2017 states: “A child under three years of age of a woman who is being cared for, treated or rehabilitated in a mental health facility is normally not allowed by her during this time stay in such an institution:
“Provided that the attending psychiatrist, based on his examination of the woman and possibly on the basis of information from others, is of the opinion that there is a risk that the woman will be harmed as a result of her mental illness or the injury to the child. In the interests and safety of the child to temporarily separate the child from the woman during his stay in the psychiatric institution:
Section 21 (2) Chapter V of the Mental Health Act 2017 states: “A child under three years of age of a woman who is cared for, treated or rehabilitated in a mental health facility cannot normally be separated from her during her stay in such a facility. “Then why was that done in this case?
“Provided that the woman continues to have access to the child under the supervision of facility staff or her family during the period of separation.”
Section 21 (3) of the same law states:
“The decision to separate the woman from her child will be reviewed every fifteen days during the woman’s stay in the mental health facility, and the separation will end once the conditions that required the separation no longer exist:
“Provided that any separation that a psychologist believes is permissible, if it lasts longer than 30 days, must be approved by the appropriate authority (State Mental Health Authority).”
We in Shraddha never approved the separation of the child from the birth mother. In fact, even though we are the psychiatrists treating Madhavi, our permission has never been obtained. The child was separated from the mother before being brought to our NGO. Why was this separation allowed if it violated the above laws?
Was this separation approved by the State Mental Health Authority because the birth mother was separated from the child for more than thirty consecutive days as required in Section 21 (3) above?
And if the separation, even over repeated periodic 30 days, had not received regular approval from the state mental health authority, shouldn’t the subsequent FSC transfer of the child to a foster family be considered illegal and ultra vires?
Not mentally healthy
* As three psychiatrists – I, my wife Dr. Smitha Vatwani (a gold medalist) and Dr. Roopa Tekchandani – had certified the birth mother as mentally fit in November 2019 and the Nair Government Hospital also certified her as mentally fit in January 2020, why was the child transferred to another foster family by the Family Service Center (FSC) in May 2020, and that of the wealthy and influential director too?
When three psychiatrists classified the birth mother as psychiatrically fit in November 2019 and the Nair Government Hospital too, why was the child transferred from the Family Service Center to another foster family in May 2020?
* Has the FSC not done the birth mother and child a great service by subjecting them to psychological trauma by separating them and allowing the child to go into foster care?
The need for a DNA test
* What was the need to have mother and child DNA tested when there were documents from her village of Pradhan and the police station showing that Madhavi had left the village with her child?
* Even the Borivali Railway Police had recorded that they were breastfeeding the child at the station. Madhavi was even breastfeeding at the Karjat Center. Wasn’t the FSC aware that breastfeeding and breastfeeding are physiological reactions of a female body after pregnancy and childbirth?
* Even if the DNA test was required by law, how is it that he apparently only promoted the FSC on November 24, 2020, when the child was in his care and the mother in our care since September 2019?
* Oddly enough, although the FSC had written to Madhavi’s father in Arrah, Bihar, on November 4, 2020 to fetch his grandchild, it appeared to have been pondering whether the child was genetically Madhavis even after the letter was published.
FSC and foster family responsibilities
* Before a child is taken into foster care, a certain comparison should take place between the two families with regard to social status and the similarities in upbringing.
* Didn’t FSC realize that there is a huge difference between the social status of the director and the birth mother, who is from rural Bihar? For what reasons was the child handed over to this family? Didn’t FSC realize that they would expose the child to later psychological trauma?
* The biological mother was very present throughout the period from September 2019 to December 2020. Then why did it not occur to FSC to expose the child to the birth mother in order to reduce the trauma of separation and psychological morbidity?
Before a child is taken into foster care, a certain comparison should take place between the two families with regard to the social status and the similarities in their upbringing. Didn’t FSC realize that there was a big difference between the social status of the director and the birth mother, who came from rural Bihar?
* Why didn’t the foster family think once of reaching the birth mother and connecting with the child? Wasn’t it an obligation on your part? After all, they had signed a legal document that they were only foster parents and nothing more?
Misfortune of the child
* On December 1, 2020, the CWÜ issued an oral judgment according to which the child should be returned to Madhavi. There was a memo to FSC that the child was out of its legal jurisdiction and ordered police present to physically separate the child from the foster family and place them in Asha Sadan, a government-run orphanage. Why wasn’t the child given to the mother? Why was our social worker Farzana Ansari, who was present during the trial, asked to come a few days later with Madhavi and the railway police to pick up the child?
* Why was the child removed from Asha Sadan in the middle of the night and even then not handed over to the birth mother, even though verbal orders were given to bring them together again?
Can a child be separated from its birth mother just because it comes from a poverty-stricken family? Can a biological mother also be deprived of her right to motherhood because she has had an episode of psychiatric illness?
* Do the mentally ill have no rights or emotional needs? Should their desire to love or be loved be extinguished because society wants conformity with right behavior?
Why was the child removed from Asha Sadan in the middle of the night and even then not handed over to the birth mother, even though verbal orders were given to bring the two back together? Can a child be separated from its birth mother just because it comes from a poverty-stricken family?
Let us come to a philosophical question: Does God exist? Can right really win wrong?
There are many who are cynical and skeptical about these issues. We too had our moments of doubt in Shraddha, but the benevolence of the gods above saw through us. This birth mother has been with us for 15 months … long enough to bind us to her emotional pain. When the world collapses around you, it takes a loving hand to reach it. And in her case it was her child. She had to be reunited with him. So Madhavi’s fight became our fight, and with other good people it became our common fight …
The birth mother finally reunited with her child a few days ago.
(Dr. Bharat Vatwani is the founding trustee of the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation, an NGO for the wandering mentally ill. He received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2018. The views expressed here are personal.)