Abuse of chil­dren re­veals crisis of re­form

On pa­per, In­dia’s chil­dren are pro­tected by a slew of laws. But there is lax­ity in im­ple­ment­ing these reg­u­la­tions

Business Standard - - IN DEPTH - NAMITABHANDARE

She has no mem­ory of her early child­hood, no rec­ol­lec­tion of her bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents and no idea of how or why she got sep­a­rated from them when she was about three years old. What she does re­mem­ber is the day she ar­rived at the Udayan Home for girls in south Delhi.

“I had then been liv­ing at a gov­ern­ment-run shel­ter for some years,” said Ritu, who of­ten uses Udayan as her last name. “I must have been around six years old when this lady came to take three of us away, to give us a life. It was so ex­cit­ing. I had never sat in a car. Never been any­where. I was cu­ri­ous about ev­ery­thing.”

Now 25, Ritu is one of the ex­cep­tional ones who grew up in a shel­ter home and found a fam­ily. She calls Ki­ran Modi, the founder of Udayan homes, her bua( aunt) and the two girls who came to Udayan with her, sis­ters.

“I had a per­fectly nor­mal child­hood, go­ing to school, go­ing to the park and get­ting the kind of pam­per­ing any child would get in a lov­ing home,” said Ritu, who played bas­ket­ball for her school team. “I was so pam­pered that when I left Udayan, I was scared about how I would cope in the out­side world.”

Not every child placed in an in­sti­tu­tion is as lucky. Re­ports of abuse from shel­ter homes in Muzaf­farpur, Bi­har, Deo­ria, Ut­tar Pradesh and, the lat­est, from a hos­tel for dif­fer­ently abled in Bhopal are new mile­stones in a long road marked with abuse and ne­glect.

Every such milestone brings in its wake an out­break of out­rage, which in due course dies down— un­til the next time. There is no sys­temic cleanup, no wide­spread re­form. “In­stead of sen­sa­tion­al­is­ing each case of abuse, we need to un­der­take re­form that is sys­temic and sys­tem­atic. This is sim­ply not hap­pen­ing,” said Enakshi Gan­guly, co-founder of Haq: Cen­tre for Child Rights, a childrights or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“There is no ac­count­abil­ity and no ur­gency,” said Shan­tha Sinha, the first head of the Na­tional Com­mis­sion for the Pro­tec­tion of Child Rights (NCPCR). “The prob­lem is that when it comes to chil­dren in in­sti­tu­tions, we do not ap­ply the same stan­dards of care that we would to our own chil­dren.”

In state­ments made to the Supreme Court in Au­gust 2018, the the Min­istry of Women and Child De­vel­op­ment con­ceded that a third of child­care homes are un­reg­is­tered. In the wake of re­ports of abuse at Muzaf­farpur, the min­istry has asked chief sec­re­taries of all states and union ter­ri­to­ries to in­spect all child­care in­sti­tu­tions. The Supreme Court’s next hear­ing on the state of shel­ter homes is sched­uled for Oc­to­ber 30.

The wide­spread, seem­ingly en­demic abuse, in­clud­ing sex­ual abuse, of chil­dren placed in shel­ter homes is In­dia’s worst-kept se­cret. Con­cerns have been voiced since at least 2007 when a jour­nal­ist, An­jali Sinha, re­ported in the Hin­dus­tan­that chil­dren in or­phan­ages in Ma­ha­balipu­ram, Tamil Nadu, were be­ing sold for sex to In­dian and for­eign tourists. Based on her re­port, a pub­lic in­ter­est lit­i­ga­tion was filed in the Supreme Court and lawyer Aparna Bhat was ap­pointed am­i­cus cu­riae. In over a decade since the apex court be­gan hear­ing the mat­ter, the case has taken sev­eral twists and turns, ex­pand­ing far be­yond its orig­i­nal man­date of Tamil Nadu or­phan­ages to cover child rights in gen­eral. “We found these chil­dren had no con­tact with their par­ents, not even dur­ing va­ca­tions,” said lawyer Dipa Dixit, who as for­mer mem­ber (le­gal), NCPCR, was part of that fact-find­ing mis­sion.

Mid­dle­men were lur­ing poor par­ents to send their chil­dren away on the prom­ise of a good ed­u­ca­tion. In­sti­tu­tions in re­turn were us­ing these kids to get fund­ing from well-heeled donors abroad, said Dixit.

In the end, NCPCR rec­om­mended ac­count­abil­ity, trans­parency and the mon­i­tor­ing of the huge num­ber of chil­dren who were be­ing sent to the South from dif­fer­ent North­east states. Nonethe­less, the chil­dren con­tinue to be sent out of the re­gion. In Bodh Gaya, Bi­har, 15 boy-monks aged 6 to 12 years from As­sam were res­cued from a res­i­den­tial ‘school­cum-med­i­ta­tion cen­tre’ fol­low­ing phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse by the monk, Bhante Sang­priya, who ran the school.

But with­out mon­i­tor­ing, it is hard to say whether the rec­om­men­da­tions were ever adopted.

There is no de­fin­i­tive an­swer to the ba­sic ques­tion: Just how many chil­dren live in in­sti­tu­tions? In 2017, Child­line In­dia Foun­da­tion (CIF), which is sup­ported by the WCD min­istry un­der the In­te­grated Child Pro­tec­tion Scheme, said 470,000 chil­dren were liv­ing in in­sti­tu­tions. But in 2018, WCD told the court it was 261,000.

“That’s a huge dis­crep­ancy of over 0.2 mil­lion chil­dren that has not been ex­plained,” said Bhat. “I’m not say­ing the gov­ern­ment is wrong. But if homes funded by the gov­ern­ment are giv­ing in­flated fig­ures then what ac­tion is be­ing taken against them?”

But to take ac­tion, you must first have knowl­edge. De­spite the Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice Act of 2000, which man­dates the au­dit­ing and mon­i­tor­ing of child­care in­sti­tu­tions, it took a Supreme Court order in 2013 to be­gin the firstever map­ping of 9,589 homes, in­clud­ing ob­ser­va­tion homes, across the coun­try.

In March 2017, data from that ex­er­cise— which in­cluded 200 ques­tions, in­clud­ing those re­lated to the num­ber of care­givers, the qual­ity of food served, stan­dards of hy­giene and meth­ods of dis­ci­plin­ing —were sub­mit­ted to the WCD min­istry. These data are still be­ing an­a­lysed, but some ini­tial find­ings were sub­mit­ted to the Supreme Court.

Over 41,000 chil­dren cur­rently in in­sti­tu­tion­alised care should not even be there since they are ei­ther or­phans or have been aban­doned by their par­ents . These chil­dren should be put up for foster care or adop­tion in­stead, said Bhat.

Nearly a quar­ter of all shel­ter homes where girls are housed— 2,309 in all—do not have a woman su­per­in­ten­dent or man­ager in charge. Short­age of staff is nearly en­demic and there are some states with over 4,000 va­can­cies.

Un­der the law, each child is sup­posed to have an in­di­vid­ual care plan. Yet, over 27 per cent, 2,624 homes, do not con­duct the ed­u­ca­tional as­sess­ment and needs of chil­dren. There is no es­ti­mate of how many chil­dren placed in in­sti­tu­tions even go to school.

“In some shel­ters, we found chil­dren who des­per­ately wanted to go to school but they don’t go,” said Tarique Mo­ham­mad of the Tata In­sti­tute of So­cial Sci­ences (TISS), which re­cently con­ducted an ex­haus­tive so­cial au­dit of 110 child­care in­sti­tu­tions in Bi­har jointly with Koshish.

In one of the homes at Sa­harsa, lo­cated right above a reg­u­lar school, the team met a young boy who was keen to study, said Mo­ham­mad. But the shel­ter said it did not have the staff to es­cort the boy to school, one floor be­low and back. And the school did not want to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the child.

Rev­e­la­tions of sex­ual abuse at a state-funded girl’s shel­ter home at Muzaf­farpur fol­lowed an in­de­pen­dent so­cial au­dit by TISS, or­dered by the state gov­ern­ment. The au­dit raised “grave con­cerns” at not just Muzaf­farpur but at 14 of the 110 in­sti­tu­tions sur­veyed by TISS in Bi­har’s 35 dis­tricts.

“The idea was not to set out on a fault-find­ing mis­sion but to as­sess needs in terms of re­sources, in­puts and train­ing,” said Mo­ham­mad, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor, Koshish.

You can tell some­thing is wrong with the way an in­sti­tu­tion is be­ing run, the minute you en­ter it, said Mo­ham­mad. But to do that you have to look out for the tell­tale signs: Is a home for chil­dren un­nat­u­rally quiet? Do the chil­dren seem sullen and with­drawn? Does the staff sig­nal each other through eye and hand ges­tures?

The 15 homes flagged for ‘grave con­cerns’ did not all re­port sex­ual abuse. In fact, apart from Muzaf­farpur, sex­ual abuse was not re­ported. But, said Mo­ham­mad, “Abuse is not just sex­ual, it could also be ne­glect.” At one home, the au­dit team met a three-year-old child who was be­ing fed and clothed but could not speak sim­ply be­cause no­body was in­ter­act­ing with him.

“It should not take a tragedy for us to speak up. Even now we have to ask, what’s changed? Are we se­ri­ous about child safety?” said Mo­ham­mad. “Un­for­tu­nately, as a so­ci­ety we have gen­eral ap­a­thy to­wards the poor.”

It was Neha Prab­hakar’s birthday and the chil­dren at Udayan Ghar for Girls in Sant Na­gar in south Delhi were danc­ing to Shakira’s 2010 hit, Waka Waka.

Neha Prab­hakar is the coun­sel­lor at the home. With a master’s de­gree in psy­chol­ogy, she has been vis­it­ing the Sant Na­gar home once a week for the past twoand-a-half years to coun­sel the nine girls who live here.

As with most shel­ter homes, these are chil­dren who end up in in­sti­tu­tional care for var­i­ous rea­sons. Per­haps it’s an al­co­holic father who couldn’t take care of his daugh­ters af­ter their mother died. Or maybe a child was found lost, per­haps aban­doned, on the street.

“These are chil­dren who have al­ready suf­fered phys­i­cal, ver­bal and emo­tional abuse,” said Prab­hakar. “It is a chal­lenge to work with them be­cause we want them to grow up with val­ues and do well in life.”

Said Ritu: “Or­phans don’t un­der­stand the value of love and life be­cause there’s no one to make us un­der­stand.”

All 14 Udayan homes are lo­cated within com­mu­ni­ties and all the chil­dren go to school. The idea, said Ki­ran Modi, an In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy alum­nus who started the first home in 1996, was to cre­ate homes with no more than 12 chil­dren and two full-time care­givers liv­ing on the premises, so that they feel more like fam­ily. Uniquely, each home has at least one ‘men­tor par­ent’, a vol­un­teer to talk to and men­tor the girls as they reach adult­hood.

Ritu, who stud­ied fash­ion de­sign af­ter com­plet­ing her 12th grade, now shares a flat in Delhi with her house sis­ter, one of the two girls who came to Udayan with her. “When I first left the house, I dis­cov­ered for the first time that in the out­side world peo­ple are self­ish. But I chose to be strong. So I can cope. I now live with my sis­ters and I am not afraid of go­ing any­where alone, not even at night. I can han­dle my­self any­where.”

Ritu has just quit her job with the ad­ver­tis­ing de­part­ment of a global MNC so that she can in Oc­to­ber ac­com­pany a group of Udayan chil­dren on a year-long mu­sic tour of the United States. “I’m re­spon­si­ble for these kids, their laun­dry, food and even their school­ing on the road,” she said.

On pa­per, In­dia’s chil­dren are pro­tected by a slew of laws, in­clud­ing the Com­mis­sions for Pro­tec­tion of Child Rights Act, 2005. But there is lax­ity in im­ple­ment­ing these laws. “De­spite the many laws, schemes and poli­cies, there is poor and in­ef­fec­tive im­ple­men­ta­tion com­pounded by gross de­lays in ren­der­ing jus­tice to chil­dren,” said Dixit.

It took a 2013 Supreme Court order to be­gin mon­i­tor­ing and au­dit­ing of child­care in­sti­tu­tions —a re­quire­ment since 2000. States do not lack funds for an au­dit. For 2013-14, the year be­fore CIF’s map­ping ex­er­cise be­gan, nearly ~300 mil­lion un­der the In­te­grated Child Pro­tec­tion Scheme had been un­spent. Mad­hya Pradesh alone had an un­spent grant of ~108. 4 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to court records. Why couldn’t this money be spent on con­duct­ing so­cial au­dits, ob­served the court?

Every­body agrees that In­dia’s child­care in­sti­tu­tions are in ur­gent need of fix­ing, but no one knows how to go about it.

“Strengthen fam­i­lies so that they can take care of their own chil­dren,” said Bharti Ali, who along with Enakshi Gan­guly is a co-founder of Haq. “The law has pro­vi­sions for strength­en­ing fam­i­lies through a spon­sor­ship scheme of the gov­ern­ment so that chil­dren can be looked af­ter in their own homes. But these op­tions have not been ex­plored .”

How does In­dia en­sure that a Muzaf­farpur or a Deo­ria never hap­pens again? There is no such as­sur­ance.

Nearly a quar­ter of all shel­ter homes where girls are housed do not have a woman man­ager in charge

Reprinted with per­mis­sion from In­di­aspend.org, a data-driven not-for- profit or­gan­i­sa­tion

There is no es­ti­mate of how many chil­dren placed in in­sti­tu­tions go to school

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