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“One of the principles of our congregation is to look after the young and old of the society. We have always done that.” As her voice fades, Sacred Heart Sister Francila adds, “and now we can’t.”

However, in light of the demographic changes taking hold in Kerala especially, and the impact of these changes on vocation recruitment efforts among the state’s dynamic churches, India’s new child care and protection act is challenging the Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara Catholic churches to reconsider their priorities and to develop new and creative ways to instill self-worth, dignity, security and hope to India’s most vulnerable.

Anju was 8 when she went to live in an orphanage for girls in Kerala. Her mother had left her there after she left Anju’s father for another man. Her mother never came back. Anju continued with her schooling, showing promise academically. In time, the orphanage helped her find work in the kitchen of a missionary hospital. She saved the money she earned, and at 18, she put herself through a nursing course offered by that very hospital.

Today, Anju is a nurse working in the United States, but she still visits the orphanage that gave her the chance to turn her life around.

However, the institution is no longer classified as an orphanage.

“This is now a boarding home,” says Sister Ancy Maria, the director of St. Mary’s Charitable Boarding School for Girls.

Founded in 1956 in a remote village in the Kozhikode district of northern Kerala, the home is administered by the Franciscan Clarist Congregation. Until 2017, St. Mary’s still housed some children with neither mother nor father. “Now, however, under the new rules, we can only have girls who have at least one parent,” Sister Ancy Maria says. “That’s the exception the new act makes for boarding homes.”

Service to young children in need was the founding principle of the former orphanage. “This place used to take children as young as 3 months old,” Sister Ancy Maria says. “They’d grow up here, study, eventually get married. The aim was to allow these children to have a nurturing family life.”

There are 11 girls here at the moment. Last year, when it was still run as an orphanage, there were 24.

Children living at an institution facing closure or reclassification have a few options, Sister Ancy Maria says. For instance, some children might be entrusted to the care of extended family, while others might transfer to another church-run facility. The former is rarely the preferred option, but it is nevertheless a common one.

“We are trying to get them away from this cycle of poverty, lack of safety,” the sister explains.

On the other hand, transfer is rarely feasible, given the strain placed upon these child care institutions. “Most orphanages have closed down. The ones that remain operational are full,” she says.

“The children can also move to a government-run orphanage, but that’s a more involved process.” Once placed on a centralized register, children are allocated spots when they become available. This can mean a long wait.

Finally, those who qualify to remain may face another hurdle.

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