The stories of horrific exploitation of hapless minors in shelter homes are coming ups across the country, which has left the nation stunned and shocked. Children living in shelter homes across India have spoken about what they have endured in the name of rehabilitation. They have been forced to abort fetuses that were a result of rape by shelter staff, forced to urinate in bottles and bear physical and mental scars of torture. The recent case of the Kanpur shelter home where 57 minor girls tested positive for the coronavirus and five of them were found pregnant shows us that nothing has been changed for children living in institutional care.
Shelter homes are meant to be warm, caring places for children who have been traumatised by circumstances. Many children have mental health issues and need to be nurtured back into society. But the reality is different. In fact, these are places straight out of hell, where the children are beaten, starved and sexually assaulted.
The Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act defines a child care institution (CCI) as: “Children’s home, open shelter, observation home, special home, place of safety, specialised adoption agency and a fit facility recognised under this Act for providing care and protection to children, who are in need of such services.” This includes a list of basic mental healthcare services. The JJ Act also mandates that any such institution be registered, irrespective of being run by a state government or an NGO.
The Supreme Court had issued a writ petition directing all unregistered child care institutions to be registered by December 31, 2017. It said that such institutions should be linked to specialised adoption agencies so that the children deemed fit for adoption can find a home. The Act also places responsibilities on the state government to form specialised committees to monitor the institutions and ensure that all norms of child protection and safeguards are followed. However, ground realities are far from ideal.
There are still many child care institutions which are not registered. According to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), until July 2018, there were 5,850 registered and more than 1,300 unregistered CCIs in the country and 3,68,267 children are living in these institutions according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development. And according to a 2007 report by this ministry, 56.37 percent of children in CCIs across the country faced physical abuse by the staff of these institutions, 80 percent of children in special needs homes suffered physical abuse and 47.08 percent of those in institutional care reported sexual abuse.
The Muzaffarpur case shook the country’s conscience; the case reached the Supreme Court as well as parliament. The Supreme Court bench made several compassionate observations, calling for overhauling the mechanisms protecting our children. Directions were passed for the Central government to bring a National Policy for the Protection of Children at the earliest. The Ministry of Women and Child Development expedited the inspection of children’s homes across the country. For once, it was felt that the worst was over.
However, the truth is that nothing has changed since. Our institutions continue the way they used to. All cases of abuse and violence that have been reported since the Bihar case were revealed accidentally and not as a result of a systemic mechanism. How can we rely on these accidents or coincidences to bring out cases of violence?
There is a disturbing pattern in how we respond to such acts. Whenever there is a case like this, we are flooded with anger. Media, including social media sites, talk about it for some time but within days, we forget everything. Governments also forget that anything happened at all.
The apex court expressed its concerns over the plight of children and political parties condemned the abuse, so it was expected that the rehabilitation framework would be strengthened and the monitoring mechanism would be fixed. It had been established beyond doubt that the existing mechanism might be good for administrative and financial checks, but failed completely in protecting children. The very basic, simple act of speaking to children is missing from our designs of institutional monitoring.
Following the Muzaffarpur case, this was expected that the states would conduct social audits across the country, just to find out if there were any incidents of abuse and if the children were doing okay; but no state except Delhi conducted an independent social audit and the purpose of the audit has failed to meet its goal as the state government is yet to implement or act on the findings of the report. Till today, Bihar is probably the only state that carried out a social audit by an independent agency and followed up on the findings.
It’s possible that political vulnerability is preventing states from carrying out such an exercise. But then, can the future of our children be compromised for political reasons? Governments must rise above political calculations and set up independent social audit units within their states, or at least carry out regular social audits with independent agencies. Establishing an institution where people can be trained on conducting social audits would be the natural progression.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the best environment for a child to grow up is in a family or family-like environment. Every child has a right to a family. In India, some 170 million children are living in difficult situations and need care. This means that either they do not have parent(s) or their parents are unable to take care of them.
The world over, institutional care in child care is known to be the last care option, preceded by forms of alternative care which provide the child family or family-like care. These include foster care or group foster care, sponsorship, kinship care and adoption.
The government and civil society need to work together and create mass awareness about alternative forms of care and should not promote one form over the other. As there is no one rule to fit all, all forms of alternative care should have a robust framework, apt understanding and appropriate systems to ensure protection of the children.
Setting up an independent social audit mechanism will be the first step towards fixing this problem. Juvenile justice committees at the high court would directly supervise, monitor and issue guidelines for the states to ensure the wellbeing and safety of children in institutional care.