The Muzaffarpur shelter home scandal has got the mainstream media to finally turn its lens on the status of child protection homes in India. The TISS report not only highlights the horror, the abuse, the rapes, beatings and deprivation that some the most vulnerable children were subjected to, it has also put the importance on the lived experience of the victims/children front and centre.
On cue, there have been similar reports from Deoria, Sitapur, Basti, from the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. This is almost like the mainstream media is into redemption mode for its long-standing neglect of child protection, in a country where 59% of all human beings trafficked are children (per 2016 National Crime Records Bureau figures). And this attention is much needed and can never be too much.
The institutionalisation of children, when some child protection homes turn rogue, has come under sharp focus too. Globally, the debate is, should children be raised by the community, foster families, vis-à-vis institutional setups? Heavy-weights like the author of the Harry Potter series author JK Rowling and non-profits like Child Relief and You (CRY) have weighed in on family reunion, community-based care and/or foster homes over the institutionalization option. JK Rowling has even started the Lumos Foundation to reunite the children with their biological families or foster families, who are currently in orphanages after being rescued.
But is it that easy? And should the choices be between institutionalization or family reunions/community-based care/foster families? Are these options mutually exclusive to each other? A close look at the CHILDLINE operations in Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh) gives us the much-needed perspective.
CHILDLINE is the country’s first toll-free helpline for street children in distress. Started in 1996 as CHILDLINE, it is now called the CHILDLINE INDIA FOUNDATION, with the dedicated toll-free number of 1098. As of March 2015, 36 million calls have been serviced in 366 districts in 34 states and union territories through its network of 700 partner organizations. It is currently operating in partnership with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, at the federal and state levels and the partner NGOs for district-level operations are selected through rigorous processes. It is the gateway to child protection in India.
When I visited Jhansi in the first fortnight of August 2018, the horrid tales of Muzzafarpur shelter home was still stumbling out and Deoria, Sitapur cases has just got the media attention. Hence it was very credible that the Childline partner NGO, Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, facilitated open access to all their operations. It also ensured independent access of the author to all sites. In Jhansi, Pragati Path is the other partner for the Railways’ Childline.
Why Jhansi? It is the hub of Bundelkhand, gateway to the country via the railway network. Because of long spells of drought in the region, Bundelkhand has been in the vortex of agrarian crisis. Jhansi has been the epicenter of out-migration of small and marginal farmers from all the districts of Bundelkhand (spread across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh). Considering the out-migration trends, the number of children in distress is equally high.
In the past few years, on an average, 600 children have been rescued by Childline in Jhansi. These are children in three categories:
The vicious cycle of poverty and agrarian crisis contributes to such numbers.
The protocol is well-laid out and applies across the country. When a distress call is received from a child or a concerned adult, a volunteer in the centralized call-centre processes the call. This is forwarded to the district’s partner NGO. The NGO staff takes over and the protocol kicks in.
They rescue the child and provide shelter. The rescue is done in collaboration with the District Child Protection Officer and the police (wherever needed). The partner NGO and the district child protection officer produce the child within 24 hours in front of the Child Welfare Committee (which is at par with a first-grade court). The Child Welfare Committee either sends the child to an institution or traces the family and connects the child with the family. During the process of tracing the family, the child stays in the institution, which is mostly a shelter home or orphanage. The district administration is responsible for monitoring the home periodically and ensuring safeguards against exploitation are strictly implemented.
In Jhansi, the shelter home of choice is Nirmal Hriday run by Missionaries of Charity founded by Saint Mother Teresa. Interestingly, while Jharkhand government is on a witch hunt against Missionaries of Charity, in Uttar Pradesh, they are the partners of choice for the Ministry of Women and Child Development. This reminds us of the massive injustice that “trial by media” does on primetime TV by generalising and demonising. Nirmal Hriday has been one such victim of hyper-ventilating anchors on PrimeTime TV.
The Jhansi Nirmal Hriday is the third Nirmal Hriday shelter in the entire country and was set up in 1961. Sister Leons, the current sister superior (in-charge) feels well-laid out safeguards, periodic and rigorous monitoring is the only way going forward. And even if shelters do not receive money/grants from government, they should be open to inspection. Monitoring and uncompromising implementation of safeguards is the only way going forward, she emphasizes.
Sanjay Singh, the secretary of Parmarth, shares the impressive figure of 70% i.e. the children who have been re-united with their families after rescue. This is a number corroborated by the Child Welfare Committee members too.
Mr Singh feels there is an enormous need for increasing budgetary allocation, human resource allocation for Childline’s partner NGOs considering the increasing case-load and the emergency nature of work. Members of the Jhansi Child Welfare Committee, Naseer Ali and Rajeev Lochan, feel the lack of attachment of their Committee to any court, gives them the power to bark, but none to bite. Their resolutions become recommendatory rather than mandatory.
However, operational constraints and resource crunch notwithstanding, there is near unanimity amongst members in the frontline of rescuing children in difficult circumstances in Jhansi. Sanjay Singh and team ChildLine-Jhansi, members of the Child Welfare Committee in Jhansi, the District Child Protection Officer Abhishek Mishra and even the district collector, Mr Shiv Sahay Awasthi feel reunion with parents is the most preferred option (unless it is an abusive family) and institutionalization of rescued children with adequate safeguards is the second most viable option. While the idea of community-based care and foster families sound nice, they are utopian and unimplementable.
In the case of community-based care, they concur, if the community can be traced, the family of the child can be traced too and then reunion is just a matter of time. But foster families pose a whole set of complex challenges. Finding foster families is difficult in the first place. Monitoring and safeguards in foster families would be difficult. And when the real/biological family of the child is traced, the foster parents find it difficult to give away the child after emotional attachment.
So the jury is still out if the choice should be child-care/child protection institutions, community-based care or foster families. But what is not debatable is that welfare of the rescued child should be the core concern, irrespective of the choice.
The author is a fellow with the International Centre for Journalists, Washington DC, and writes on childhood matters. She can be reached at email@example.com