Fixing the System so Kavi Can Learn to Talk

Kavi's delayed development occurred within a context of poverty, abuse and neglect. We can't save him while ignoring his sister – who is likely being abused – and his mother – who escaped an abusive marriage and is struggling to support herself and her two children.

This article is part of a bimonthly series that will address early child development.

How I met Kavi is a story in itself, one that could, perhaps, only happen in a developing country like India. It goes back almost ten years, but the lessons I learnt from this one little boy continue to inform the work I do today.

Child development is always challenging and intricate; delayed child development even more so. However, put delayed development in a developing country and the challenges become almost insurmountable, the intricacies hopelessly tangled.

I was out walking with my daughter who had severe developmental delays and for whom I started a school in 1994. A young girl passing by stopped me to ask about Moy Moy: Why was she in a stroller? Why couldn’t she talk?

Over the next few weeks, I met this young girl Anya* very often and I began to think she was planning our encounters. Each time, Anya’s questions were the same: “Why couldn’t Moy Moy talk? Wasn’t there anything that could be done?”

One day I had the opportunity to meet her in her home and suddenly all her concern and curiosity made sense: Kavi*, her own little brother, aged two-and-a-half, did not speak a word.

I spoke with the mother and persuaded her to bring the boy in for an assessment. Our paediatrician and our speech therapist agreed that the child had normal intelligence but simply lacked stimulation. They “prescribed” enrolling him in our inclusive children’s centre where our special educators would ensure that he interacted with other children in a language-rich environment, that he sang, danced, played and had the normal experiences any child his age should have.

Given all of this, timely development of a child seems so simple. It is anything but.

First, why was Kavi not getting the stimulation a child his age should be getting? Maya, his mother, had left her husband after being repeatedly beaten – traumatic and violent incidents that both children witnessed and often experienced along with her. Now a single mother in a culture which blames the victim for her situation, she was struggling to support herself as a domestic helper. The family she worked for exploited her economically, treating her as little better than an indentured servant. The room they provided was a hovel, so small that the bed she shared with the two children left almost no space for the gas burner on which she prepared their daily meals.

That bed was thus Kavi’s world. He was not allowed to come with her to the house where she worked or to play in the garden where she could have kept an eye on him from inside. He was expected to sit quietly the entire day and wait for her to return. If questioned, the employers would probably deny imposing any such rules, but Maya knew that she could lose her job if her son were out and about.

Second, we were quite sure Anya was being physically abused (she arrived one day with a big bruise on her cheekbone and her eye all swollen). In fact, Anya approaching me as she did – me, a total stranger – is itself surprising behaviour for children who typically do not approach strangers, especially in India; they know instinctively to maintain boundaries. A child who doesn’t have such instincts may be being abused either sexually, emotionally or physically. I worried about “Uncles” she might be exposed to and what else was going on in her young life.

Clearly, Kavi’s delayed development occurred within a context of poverty, abuse and neglect. We can’t save him while ignoring his sister and his mother.

Kavi’s progress in our inclusive children’s centre was little short of miraculous. Hesitant and silent at first, he quickly learned to play, first on his own, then with a teacher and finally with other children. Once he dropped his guard and began to trust in the new environment the centre presented him with, his language developed just as it should. Within six months, his vocabulary was almost at the normal level for a three-year-old.

But soon after this milestone, Maya lost her job and had to shift to a different neighbourhood. Anya was enrolled in a new school, Kavi stopped coming to our centre and we have no idea how any of them are doing now. But knowing what we do know, it’s unlikely to be good.

All of us long to help a child like Kavi and, knowing how easy it is to enhance his life with opportunities for play and language development and happy interactions, we wonder why it doesn’t work, why he will still suffer, why he still won’t develop as he should, why he will still carry the scars of abuse and neglect.

We wonder, and yet we know: he suffers because the system he lives in is rotten; he won’t develop as he should because children are last on every list; he carries the scars of abuse and neglect because that’s just the way it is.

For Kavi, a child with developmental delay, the way forward is clear. For Anya and Maya, not so much. And until their problems are also addressed, systemically, no amount of intervention for Kavi will make enough difference. That’s just the way it is.

*  Names changed.

Jo McGowan Chopra is American by birth and a writer by profession. A mother of three, she has lived in India for the past 34 years with her Indian husband. She is co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organisation for children with disability in Dehradun. She blogs at www.latikaroy.org/jo.