Part 2 of a 3-part blog series about The Coalition’s National Program Advisor, Ian Forber Pratt
In a cluttered, sweltering government building in Rajasthan, India, Ian Forber Pratt stood sweating in the office of the Director of the Department of Child Rights (DCR). He had come to ask permission to do something unprecedented: create a foster care system from scratch.
After hours of waiting, The Director invited Ian inside his office, paper files stacked in all directions, and asked what he wanted. Less than a minute into Ian’s prepared speech, The Director cut him off. He thanked Ian for his time and told him to get out of his office.
It would be the first of many rejections.
Just months earlier, Ian had sold everything he owned and moved from St. Louis to India. He arrived in the city of Udaipur with three bags of clothes. He knew only three people: a woman in Calcutta who ran a small group home for disabled girls, a hotel owner, and a tour guide. Although he’d taken a Hindi immersion course while still in the States, he had trouble communicating, especially in the jargon of child welfare.
“Family is a core value for Indians,” said Ian. “But bringing unknown children or young people into their homes – that required a complete mindset change. It was much easier for the government to say ‘Foster care will never work in our country.’”
But Ian saw a dire need. In 2009, more than 31 million “orphaned” children were living in India. Many were abandoned by their parents due a combination of extreme poverty, gender discrimination, and an ancient caste system that defined boundaries and limited opportunities. With no alternative, those children ended up in orphanages run by the Indian government, or private unregulated homes. These children tended to end up in extreme poverty, used as child labor, or abducted by traffickers.
The government recognized there was a problem. More than a decade earlier, India had launched the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, which aimed to protect the rights of all vulnerable children, especially orphans. Although all Indian states were asked to adopt those statutes, none actually knew how to implement it. What they lacked was a bridge between the abstract theories of child protection and the messy reality of life on the ground in desperately poor communities. Ian knew that if he wanted to get kids out of orphanages and into families, he’d have to rely on skills honed at the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition.
Ian’s time at the Coalition taught him how to be that bridge. He had seen experts lead a reluctant system toward change through a mixture of self-awareness and tenacity. He thought he had the answer for millions of children, but he knew he needed to learn the heartbeat of India first. He bought a motorcycle and spent time roaming the streets, immersing himself in the culture.
“I was spending 18 to 19 hours a day researching the systems, the infrastructure,” Ian said. “I reached out to every person and organization I could find in the child protection space, letting them know who I was and what I was trying to achieve.”
Even registering a non-governmental organization (NGO) was a grueling process. Ian knocked on door after door of government agencies, asking for help in navigating the bureaucracy, only to be turned away.
“There’s no other way to say it; I was burning out. I had no money. There was enormous resistance and many levels of corruption,” Ian recalled. “But I had a global network of friends and family. I had invaluable mentors at the Coalition who I was calling every other week. I funneled that energy into my work. I camped outside those government offices, drinking their tea, and learning how to break through the administrative red tape.”
The next summer, Ian’s family flew him out to London where they had all gathered to watch his sister compete in the Summer Paralympics. The trip turned out to be a turning point for Ian. While there, he met with Core Assets, a leading for-profit foster care agency in the UK.
Halfway through his pitch about his work in India, the Core Assets team was rapt. They brought in more staff to listen. Ian started his story from the top. They asked tough questions, but as the meeting ran over the questions kept coming. When the questions stopped, a VP of Core Assets asked Ian what his plans were. He started to talk about India and the VP stopped him, laughing. He clarified that he meant that weekend.
Core Assets flew Ian out for a EUSARF conference in Scotland that day, where he learned from and networked with 600 child welfare delegates.
He left Scotland with an army of support … and his first personal financial backing. It was his first major win. The entire flight home, Ian couldn’t shake the feeling he was dreaming.
Little did he know, the greatest gift was yet to come.
In 2013, he headed to a Dehli government conference to present his ideas about creating a foster care system in India. He arrived late and sat next to a woman, Nargis. They began to talk, and soon they weren’t listening to the presentation at all. Nargis was the founder of an organization in the south Delhi slum in which she was raised which educated 100+ children each day. She was brilliant and compassionate. Despite the difference in their backgrounds they had an immediate connection.
Ian had been running at full speed – often completely alone – for years, laser-focused on his mission to help families in India. Meeting Nargis was an unexpected, beautiful reminder that he, too, deserved a family of his own. They were quickly married, adding a richness to life that he didn’t know existed.
Ian continued to work tirelessly to shift the narrative in India about children in care and to solidify a strategic plan for Foster Care India, his newly incorporated nonprofit. He remained in close contact with the team at Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition, seeking their guidance on how to build a scalable system, from policy to practice.
Knowing that systemic change required the state government’s support, Ian returned to The Director in Rajasthan’s capital city of Jaipur every single month to inquire about writing a law to establish foster care in Rajasthan. After two long, grinding years (with pressure from the community he had mobilized), Ian got his wish; there would be foster care in Rajasthan.
More success quickly followed. Money from UNICEF began to arrive and local support began to trickle in. Governments of States and Union Territories asked Ian and his team to train their social work forces. The community and government began to invest in Ian’s work. Soon, he was managing a team, and was regularly in The Director’s office, rather than waiting outside.
Like all revolutionary ideas, what once seemed impossible was now closer to reality. Rajasthan was slowly implementing a system, with Ian consulting on its creation. Then one day he got a call from Delhi. The Minister of Women and Child Development for the entire country wanted to know if Ian would help them draft a law creating foster care nationwide? Clocking the irony for just a moment, Ian smiled and said yes. The Minister asked if he would be able to Co-Chair the committee responsible.
In just a few years, Ian helped take foster care in India from a fringe idea to a national reality. He learned from those who had been working in the field for years and saw every move as a collaboration. Soon, states across India began to ask him to help draft their legislation. The nonprofit he started in a dormitory room had become internationally recognized, and was regularly presented at high-profile conferences.
But there were downsides.
He and Nargis had their first son, Zane, in 2017. Choking pollution in the city and a lack of educational opportunities had begun to convince them that Zane’s future would be brighter in the United States. Additionally, because of the threat he posed to the profitable orphanage industry, Ian often received anonymous threats. More and more, another homecoming of sorts seemed in order.
Discussing his concerns over the phone with friends and mentors at the Coalition one day, a new need came up … this time in the United States. There were organizations developing innovative solutions who worked directly with the most vulnerable children in foster care, but they couldn’t get the funding to scale those solutions beyond their immediate community. They needed someone to bridge the gap.
As they packed up their belongings, Ian tucked away the knowledge he had gained over the last six years. He had witnessed a grassroots advocacy movement steadily transform a rigid bureaucracy. A country steeped in tradition had discovered an authentic way to expand its core belief of what a family might look like. Poor communities had the opportunity to be innovative in improving the quality of life for their most vulnerable members. For the first time, orphaned children could hope to grow and heal in the love of a family.
Boarding the plane, Ian looked at his wife and son. He knew firsthand the power of a family’s love to transform a life.