Australian government reviews children’s custody after death of Indian-origin mother

Claiming a pattern of ‘Indian newcomers to rich G-20 countries being persecuted by their child services’ due to cultural differences, activists call for MEA intervention in child custody cases abroad

August 30, 2023 10:58 pm | Updated 11:10 pm IST - NEW DELHI/HUBBALLI

The Australian government has expressed its condolences over the death of an engineer of Indian origin, Priyadarshini Patil, who was found dead last week in Karnataka, allegedly upset by the Australian authorities having separated her from her teenage children for the last two years. Officials in Sydney are reportedly reviewing the case now, and assessing whether custody can be returned to the children’s father or grandparents.

Activists have highlighted the case’s similarities to that of two-year-old Ariha Shah — who was taken away from her parents over allegations of child abuse and is now in the custody of German youth services — and a series of other cases involving Indian children or children of Indian origin. Demanding that the Central government take a more “proactive” role in such cases, a group of activists plans to take out a protest march in Delhi on Thursday, and hand over a memorandum to the Australian High Commissioner, asking that the Patil children, who were not allowed to attend their mother’s funeral in India, be returned to their family at the earliest.

Ms. Patil’s family say that 17-year-old Amartya Patil and 13-year-old Aparajita Patil were removed from their parents’ custody in 2021 after they complained about medical negligence at a public children’s hospital in Sydney, where Amartya was being treated for a severe illness.

Custody assessment

“We are greatly saddened by the death of an Australian woman in India. We offer our deepest condolences to the family during this difficult time,” said the Australian High Commission spokesperson in Delhi, adding that the “Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has provided consular assistance to the woman’s Australian family.”

Sources said that the children are now in the “care” of their father Lingaraj Patil, also an engineer, in Australia, although Mr. Patil says he is yet to be handed physical custody of the children. Speaking to The Hindu from Sydney, Mr. Patil said that he was contacted by Australian child services officials on Wednesday, who said they were carrying out an “assessment” over returning full custody of the children to him, indicating the case has been reviewed.

‘Delay led to death’

Along with his father-in-law based in Dharwad, Subraya Desai, Mr. Patil has called for the Ministry of External Affairs to intervene in the matter, in order to allow the children to be restored to the family. This would require Australia’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ) to sign over Parental Responsibility (PR) to either the parent, or the grandparents in India. 

“As Priyadarshini (now deceased) and I had earlier asked, I requested the officials to carry out the assessment for both myself and the maternal grandparents in India simultaneously so that there is no further delay in resolving the issue of custody”, he said, adding that it was the delay in the case that had driven Ms. Patil to take her own life during a visit to her parents in Dharwad.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) declined to comment on the case. Officials said the fact that the Patil family were all Australian citizens made it more difficult for the Indian government to intervene. 

‘Pattern of persecution’

However, child rights lawyer Suranya Aiyar, who has also been advocating on behalf of Ariha Shah’s parents, said that the cases were part of a pattern where “Indians and Indian-origin newcomers to rich G-20 countries are persecuted by their child services,” due to cultural differences. Ms. Aiyar, who is organising the protest on Thursday, called for the MEA to negotiate bilateral protocols for the repatriation of children to foster agencies in India, or to extended families, when they are removed from parental custody. 

According to Mr. Desai, the case dates back more than a decade, when his grandson Amartya was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a condition that required his parents to take him for an infusion of intravenous drugs every two months at the Westmead Children’s Public Hospital in Sydney. Over seven years of treatment, the Patils grew successively dissatisfied with the progress in the boy’s condition and raised a complaint of “medical negligence” against the hospital in 2019, seeking permission to shift him to a private hospital.

‘Disturbed and hopeless’

However, they were shocked when the DCJ filed a counter-case against them in the Children’s Court in 2021 (Case No. 2021/00304854-001), on the grounds that, according to the hospital, they were unfit to take care of their children. Subsequently, both Amartya and Aparajita were taken into childcare protection.

The Patils then began a campaign to have their children’s custody restored, including an online petition filed by Ms. Patil that accused the children’s public hospital of “corruption” and “forcibly” holding her son. After losing custody of both children, the Patils approached the Indian Consulate in Sydney on July 28, 2023.

Ms. Patil returned to India earlier this month, “deeply disturbed and losing all hope of getting back her children”, according to her family. Her body was found in the backwaters of the Malaprabha river in Belagavi district on August 20.

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