The Breakthrough Voice 24th January, 2019

The Case Of Shelter Homes For Children In India.

Have you ever been to a children’s shelter home?

If yes, perhaps you had visited one with an intent to feed the children on an auspicious occasion. After all, feeding the poor and those without means is a quick way to salvation. And I’m sure you must have felt elated and secretly thanked your own stars and loved your family even more.

Ever cared why you felt like thanking God for your fortune instead of feeling joyous after meeting the children in a home? Possibly, it’s the sense of doom and sadness within such spaces, where its housemates and managers evoke  pity .

While the name ‘Children’s Home’ signifies a bright and beautiful space with manicured lawns, swings and a plethora of toys strewn all around. Where children of all ages   play merrily, while laughing and having fun. In fact, if one reads the mandate of the Juvenile Justice Act 2015, the vision seems to be the same.

The impersonal touch

However, in real life, if you visit a children’s home in any state of the country the situation is very different. More  often than not, the institution is an old building in a huge complex, with the signage hidden from sight. A long corridor will lead to a spacious superintendent’s room with little furniture. Upon request and after filling in some details , visitors can support either one time or two-time meals for children or any other donation they intend to give. On your way back, one might feel eyes following curiously and when you turn around, they  vanish out of sight and peep again from window panes. Some older children around you might seem to be callous and ignorant of your presence.

When you visit around lunchtime, rows of children sitting in an orderly manner in a large room will greet in unison. It’s almost like a practiced drill in which  the children will greet visitors in their native language and will wait patiently for your address or alms. Perhaps they do that often and that is why one can feel the impersonal touch to the  scene. After that, the sight of children devouring their meal will push you towards a hasty end to your visit.

In the entire sequence of events, there is no  connection or sharing between those offering support and those in need of comfort. The institutional staff is as impersonal to you as they seem to be to the children.

Behind the veil

The situation of ‘girls only’ homes is even more precarious. The infrastructural support in these homes is like a fortress, as if keeping them in lock and key is the way to offer care and protection. Many such homes even have two or three levels of corridors to reach the main sanctum. Interestingly, stories of runaway girl children from such homes is a very common phenomenon. But when an in-depth inquiry is done on any such case often the character assassination of the girl child is done and the authorities responsible for care and protection end up demonizing the children.

While the rules and regulations to run such homes are clearly drafted, due to lack of stringent monitoring from state authorities these children are left even more vulnerable in the hands of caretakers. During regular inspections, reports filed don’t have a single column to record one to one interactions with the children without the presence of staff. In recent cases, where incidences of sexual violence on women and girls were reported, it came to light no mechanism was followed to report abuse during inspections. Some girls shared that if they dare complain, they were starved, beaten, unclothed and isolated. To escape further trauma, many would succumb to their fate and as a result of positive picture is created, while the documents and stories remain behind their walls.

No takers  

The sense of abandonment is very apparent in among children in such homes. This is an obvious manifestation of the life they live within confines of such homes. Although rules and regulations stipulate that children can go out to further their education, but it has been observed that most institutions house schooling within the campus and thus limiting the children’s interactions with the outside world.

Some accounts by children reveal the dejection they felt when a peer gets adopted and how this further isolates them. Although vocational activities are part of daily life in most institutions, their repetitive nature and monotony makes many leave such skill-building processes mid-way.

Among children, the girls are even more prone to psychological trauma as stories of them being unwanted children and a societal burden alienates them further from their full potential. While counsellors do make regular visits however other than apparent mental illness such kind of traumas don’t find any mention in record keeping.

Way Forward: The need for an integrated approach

With increased awareness and recent incidents being reported and criticized in media,  attempts are being made to strengthen the implementation of rules and regulations and push for better monitoring of such homes. However, what is required is an integrated approach to look at the users of such facilities as not ‘discarded’ or ‘worn out’. but as ‘children of the nation’. The policies and rules need to be drafted with a human rights framework in mind, giving primacy to a dignified life for all citizens of the country.. Instead of promoting isolatory institutional services these, spaces should be part of integrated child development planning. Efforts should be made to bring each child to the mainstream  and encourage early adoptions. The repatriation of children in such homes after 18 years of age needs to be looked in more critically and all steps should be taken to encourage children in homes to develop into citizens in their own right.

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