Sunday, April 18, 2021

Unsafe care homes

The reports exposing the abuse and exploitation of children and old age persons in the care homes across the country are shocking and give an impression that the successive governments have not paid any serious attention to them. This is happening despite the fact that most of the political parties engaged in power struggle with their adversaries have been promising to improve their conditions if voted to power. But nothing appears to have improved over the years and their conditions have worsened with the involvement of politicians in their management and extension of benefits to the disadvantaged sections of the society. It is unfortunate that the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) also became hostage to petty politicking of the politicians in most parts of the country. Somehow, the NGOs involved in charity work have been edged out by the politicians or the right wing organisations to suit their interests. Moreover, child care institutions have been trapped in an administrative blind spot and the case of Muaffarpur in Bihar and many others across the country are no different. They have been suffering due to political and administrative apathy. It is also sad that some of these institutions have become victims at the hands of those politicians, who were charged with the responsibility of looking after them and provide succour from exploitation and abuse. In Muzzaffar’s case, the home meant to protect girls rescued from exploitation itself turned into a den of predation. The shocking rot in the management of such shelters has now been reported by a central government panel. It studied 9,589 Child Care Institutions and Homes, mostly run by NGOs that come under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act and those covered by Social Welfare Department. Only an emergency measure to address the serious lapses can bring some semblance of order to these faceless shelters and homes. In these homes, most of the inmates are orphaned, abandoned, sexually abused, trafficked or victims of disasters and conflict. Among them are 7,422 children in conflict with the law, and 3.70 lakh in need of care and protection, including 1.70 lakh girls. That they often have to live in facilities without proper toilets, secure compounds or the opportunity to vent their grievances as provided for under law underscores the painful reality that they remain virtually invisible. Reform of this depressing system, as the Ministry of Women and Child Development seeks, can be achieved only through systematic scrutiny by state governments. This could be done by appointing special officers whose task it would be to ensure that all institutions register under the JJ Act, account for funds received by each of them, and enforce mandatory child protection policies during adoption. Apart from this, most of them have been lacking humane approach in treatment of the inmates. The recent records compiled under the study programme revealed that only 32% of child care institutions or homes were registered under the JJ Act as of 2016, while an equal number were unregistered, and the rest were either empanelled under other schemes or awaiting registration. The priority should be to bring about uniformity of standards and procedures, evolving common norms for infrastructure, human resources, financial practices and external audits for improvement in their working. The central panel found child care standards were poor in many institutions, without proper bedding, food and nutrition and sanitation. Some states obviously have too few homes, giving authorities little incentive to take up cases of children in distress. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala together account for 43.5% of all shelters. In some states these institutions do not even exist, if the report submitted to the Supreme Court by the centre is to be believed. A few states do not have even one home of every category, such as child care, observation and adoption. The centre’s study lays bare the disconnect between civil society and the welfare system for children, and the poor engagement elected representatives have with such a vital function. The government needs to turn the findings of the central ministry’s committee into a blueprint for action. The governments in the states need to involve credible NGOs already working in this field so that a humane face can be provided to the work for taking care of the children and old-age persons across the country.