Last month, the country was shaken by the horror stories emerging from shelter homes for children in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. What was brought once again into focus is the utter failure of the State and its partners and agencies to ensure protection to children, even those who live in their care. In the aftermath of the public outrage, the government and the courts have - as happens in these situations - been stirred to action. We hear talk of new committees being formed, new SOPs being written, new ways to do all of the old things that were not done before. Meanwhile, the spotlight has moved away from 461,000 children living in 9,589 shelter/rescue homes across the country who remain endangered. So this bears reiteration.
Let's be clear: the rape and abuse of the girls in the shelter homes in Muzaffarpur and Deoria is not an anomaly. More pertinently, although no one might have known about the specifics of those homes, everyone who is accountable for the safety of children in shelter homes has always known of the perilous situation and the rampant abuse in homes everywhere. Because: this is not the first time institutions have been monitored; this is not the first report ever to surface of abuse in shelter homes; this is not the first time that officialdom at every level has promised change; and in all likelihood, this is not the first time that there will be proclamations, probes, and high-level consultations and committees set up, but absolutely nobody made accountable for real, consistent, on-the-ground, home-by-home remedial action.
Since as far back as 2000, India's Juvenile Justice Act has required States to set up Inspection Committees at the district level to monitor homes. In the Act's current avatar, Section 54 requires states to set up inspection committees who will visit shelter homes on a quarterly basis and report back to appropriate authorities who will in turn take action - all of it in a time-bound manner. The law is - and has always been - quite clear on this.
Whose job is it to make sure this happens? And who should be held accountable? Take the case of Bihar itself: as far back as in 2009, a Times of India report announced that the state government in collaboration with its partner agency had not only set up and trained district child protection units (DCPUs) across the State, but they were also embarking on a pilot to model them in 10 districts. One of the myriad pieces of DCPU work was to improve standards of care in rescue and shelter homes according to the government's announcement. It's 2018, and we now know that at least that bit of work did not come to pass. What happened in the intervening nine years? If the DCPUs from the 2009 news report were actually not appointed, or untrained, or too busy or under-resourced to do the work of improving standards of care, whose job was it to make sure that what was promised was actually delivered? The Government? The institution it had partnered with? And more important, going forward, what is the lesson learnt?
Here is a list of four key actions that signal whether the State is (or isn't) serious about changing the system to improve the standards of care in rescue and shelter homes and ensure children's safety:
1. State Orders rather than State Consultations: The most concrete thing a State can start with now is publishing a list of state-appointed Inspection Committee members along with written orders about reporting dates, and penalties for non-completion. Almost any practitioner on the ground will tell you that this is not the time for state consultations and committees to pontificate about audit methodology, tools and never-ending pilot studies. These will waste precious time and resources, considering they are activities that have been conducted repeatedly over the years. Re-doing these is not the most productive action for imperilled children.
2. Appointing a Wider Range of Members to Inspection Committees: The existing selection criteria for the five-member inspection committee makes it challenging to find the right people. If they are appointed, they simply will not have time to do the hundreds of visits to rescue homes/shelter homes all year long, which is what is required. With the kind of member profiles prescribed (in the Model Rules), almost every member would take this work on as a second responsibility, in addition to their real jobs. How does this balance with them doing hundred of visits across every district of a state four times a year? Instead, identifying who is actually available, accessible, willing and present in the locations where Homes are will make sure that visits are regular and constructive. This could mean giving Inspection Committees the flexibility to bring on board local volunteers like teachers, responsible citizens and even parents in local communities who could quite easily be trained on what to look for and how to respond. Limiting Inspection Committees only to "experts" (based on academic qualifications) will not solve the issue of ensuring frequent visits and participating actively in strategies for solutions. Certainly, State Committees can be appointed and Ministers and MLAs can visit Homes as has been recommended by the Court and the Ministers - these will do much to keep everyone on their toes, but these do not come in lieu of a systematic and regular process of monitoring-diagnosing-remedying, which is what children need.
3. Investigations that Result in Solutions: Each time studies reveal the terrible conditions of rescue and shelter homes anywhere in the country, the response cycle tends to go somewhat like this: a media storm, some legal action, questions in assembly, some government officials resigning and then the issue goes back into the deep freeze. Instead, if within the first three months of investigation/audit, States ensured that the Inspection Committees define priority issues for homes and action is taken and reported on in a home-specific way, it would be a sign that 'investigation' is being used for its real purpose - to bring about change.
4. Ensuring that Government Officials are the Decision-makers and are Accountable for Implementation: It might seem obvious that it's the senior officials of State Departments who are the ones who prioritize the issue of conditions in rescue homes. We might expect (and hope) that they personally engage in the appointment and reports of statutory bodies like Inspection Committees. After all, it is the survival and protection of child survivors who are in their care that is at stake. Internally, however, things work a bit differently. State departments often delegate the work of implementation to consultants - people placed in the department by other entities, institutions and private organizations to facilitate the roll-out of various government programs by 'coordinating' the efforts of civil society. It is important to note that while these consultants might lighten the 'burden' of officials, their obligation to deliver results (outside of their own organizational mandates) is wholly unclear. One might argue that this dissipates the accountability of appointed officials. Simply put, for serious issues, and especially at times when the system seems to be in crisis, it is urgent that senior officials are themselves engaged and held accountable. And that there are consequences for every act of omission, from ground-level staff right up to secretaries and ministers.
It's important also to remember at this time that working with child survivors rescued from trafficking, exploitation or abuse is difficult work. Those who run shelter homes are not only navigating a complicated system, surviving on scarce resources, they are also working on staggeringly complex cases. There will be times when even the best intentions might fail - tragedy, accidents or abuse might occur, despite every best effort. We must be careful not to view everyone who runs a shelter home with suspicion or to assume they are all mal-intentioned child abusers. That would be an enormous disservice and would likely not lead to the solutions that would benefit child survivors in need of refuge and safety. What we must insist on, and follow through to fruition, is for everyone concerned with children's protection to actually get down to doing the work that's needed, not in meeting rooms where the policy people are, but in those miserable places where the children actually live.
Because if we don't, hundreds of thousands of children rescued from trafficking, exploitation or abuse living in shelter homes across the country will continue to be at high risk of being re-victimized or abused. Simply because in a country of a billion people we can't seem to assign anyone from the outside world - beyond the walls of the shelter home - to regularly go in and ask them the life-saving question: Are you okay?
(The authors, Atiya Bose & Suparna Gupta, work at Aangan, an NGO focused on child harm prevention. Between 2009-2013 Aangan worked with governments in 16 states to monitor and report on standards of care in 642 shelter and rescue homes.)
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