Ensuring children live and thrive in protective environments free from violence – building alternatives to institutional care

New Delhi: The 5th National Roundtable on Effective Implementation of The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015, jointly organized by the Supreme Court of India and UNICEF, focussed on the need to respond to requirements of children without parental care through Child Care Reform. The roundtable stressed on the need to strengthen alternative care such as foster care, standards and monitoring of care in institutions, and prevention of family separation.

Approximately 300 people participated in the conference, including chairpersons and senior members of the Juvenile Justice Committee of the Supreme Court of India; High Court Juvenile Justice Committees; Child Rights Commissions; Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) other representatives of the Government and NGOs from across the country, as well as UNICEF.

India has a large number of children in institutional care. In the most recent study conducted by the government more than 370,000 children were identified in 9,589 in child care institutions. The numbers are likely to be higher, as not all institutions are registered. In recent years, India has passed legislation and policies recognizing the principle of family responsibility and institutionalization as a measure of last resort.

At the roundtable consultation, Mr. Ravinder Panwar, Secretary, MWCD outlined key policy and programme initiatives including recent revisions affecting child protection services, and current efforts to develop standards for foster care and sponsorship schemes. He also mentioned strengthening legal provisions for new forms of violence including child pornography and online child sexual abuse.

However, there was a recognition that while India has made significant progress in law and policy, challenges remain in implementation.

Justice Madan B. Lokur, Retired Judge, Supreme Court of India, highlighted the need for “focus on implementation of laws, on monitoring and necessary follow-up actions”.

Hon’ble. Mr. Justice Deepak Gupta, Judge Supreme Court of India and Chair, Juvenile Justice Committee, stressed the need to focus on standards of care in institutions and the challenges for youth leaving care. He urged duty holders to now focus on the quality of services for children, especially for children who are under the care of institutions. “Even the best institutions have a shortfall on emotional quotient – love,” he said.

Panelists also reiterated the importance of monitoring tribal hostels and residential schools which do not fall under the purview of the Juvenile Justice Act. Some representatives highlighted the case of Muzaffarpur or Panvel shelter homes, where girls were allegedly sexually abused, as examples of the consequences of not raising those standards.

Swetha, a 20-year old adolescent girl who grew up in child care institutions and is now pursuing her BSc in Mathematics, gave testimony of some of the challenges that she had faced while transitioning into adulthood. She gave examples of the consequences of the isolation faced by children and adolescents who grow up in institutions, which impact their financial and other foundational skills. “Even when the old bank notes were banned, some did not know that this had happened, and they did not know what the new currency notes looked like.”

Panelists also emphasized the need to increase the number of children without parental care who can access alternative family-based care, such as foster or kindship care arrangements. Odisha and Himachal Pradesh States presented successful models in this regard.

Hon’ble Dr. D Y Chandrachud, Judge, Supreme Court of India shared a personal experience which highlighted how personal commitment of foster carers can make remarkable changes to the circumstances of neglected children, especially girls. “In my many years on the bench I have seen instances of grave deprivation where the system has failed children who needed care and protection, I have also seen some amazing examples of people who have come to their rescue and given them the love and affection they yearned!”

There is global evidence that while the number of children in large scale institutions is decreasing, the number of children separated from their families is increasing. Evidence also indicates that it can be ten times more cost-effective to support parents with social services than to fund orphanages.

UNICEF Representative Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque highlighted the need for family-based care saying, “We can’t emphasize enough the need to keep children in families and avoid unnecessary separation. Families are the fundamental unit of society and the natural environment where children can best acquire their full potential.”

Children’s vulnerability to violence increases when they are without parental care. Many panelists reiterated the importance of addressing violence against children.

Dr. Haque, emphasized, “We need to look at ways to socially and systemically prioritize prevention in all our work. This goes beyond care reforms and should look at ensuring children live and thrive in protective environments free from violence. Unfortunately, media reports continue to remind us how much work needs to be done. This requires us to work with communities, faith leaders, opinion leaders, influencers, to adopt community behaviors that nurture children, recognize the value of girls, and are violence free.”

A study in 2018 identified as many as 1,575 victims of sexual abuse of children in institutions (1,286 girls and 286 boys).

The Judiciary has been collaborating with UNICEF in its efforts to build adequate structures and systems for the effective implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act at the National and State levels. This year the focus has been on alternative care, standards of care in institutions and monitoring mechanisms with a special focus on a standard record-based management of information systems.

There were five key conclusions of the Consultation.

First, the importance of increasing the focus on prevention of family separation, including by strengthening sponsorship and social protection schemes, and also addressing violence against children.

Second, the need to standardize and bring to scale family-based models for children without parental care, including kinship models, which are rooted in Indian generous culture and tradition.

Third, ensuring that all child care institutions are registered, and that there is a ‘raise in the bar’ in standards of care and services in institutional care.

Fourth, there was an agreement on the need to support adolescents under State care as they transition in adulthood.

And finally, developing a child-centered national information management system to follow up on children under alternative care.

The conclusions are expected to inform the way forward and priorities for the Government, civil society and other stakeholders.