'Culture of abuse' at India's children's care homes

A series of sex-abuse scandals at orphanages and shelters has sounded alarms over the management of children's homes in India, many of which operate with little or no public oversight.

A series of sex abuse scandals at orphanages and shelters in India has sounded alarms over the management of children's homes, many of which operate with little or no public oversight. AFP Photo / Sajjad Hussain.
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NEW DELHI // A series of sex-abuse scandals at orphanages and shelters has sounded alarms over the management of children's homes in India, many of which operate with little or no public oversight.

Criminal charges against staff at a number of homes have highlighted what activists say is a pervasive culture of violence that begins with carers abusing their wards and ends with older children assaulting younger children.

In a case that attracted national media attention, a post-mortem examination on an 11-year-old girl who died of vomiting and diarrhoea in a home in Delhi last December showed that she had also been repeatedly sexually abused.

Police opened an investigation into the running of the Arya Anathalaya home and requested the assistance of a non-profit organisation, the Haq Centre for Child Rights.

"Our first impression was that it was a clean, big place, with well-fed kids," said Bharti Ali, the co-founder of the Haq centre.

"Then we spoke to the children and many told us they got beaten up regularly by the wardens."

The Haq centre recommended a series of institutional changes, all of which were rejected by the Arya Anathalaya management.

Police have since filed rape charges against a 25-year-old security guard at the home as well as a 14-year-old boy ward. Both have maintained their innocence.

In May this year, a team from the National Council for the Protection of Child Rights inspected another children's shelter just outside New Delhi where they uncovered what their report described as a "reign of terror".

The report detailed allegations of sexual molestation by staff, regular beatings and psychological abuse.

The shelter was closed down and seven people arrested, including the owner and her son-in-law.

India has a poor record of investigating and sentencing those implicated in child-abuse cases.

In the most high-profile verdict, two British men were jailed for six years in March last year - 10 years after charges were filed - for abusing several young boys at a children's shelter they ran in Mumbai.

Anant Kumar Asthana, a lawyer who advises juvenile homes on legal compliance, said India is home to a large number of institutions that operate with virtually no oversight.

"The total number of institutions with children is impossible to quantify, because so many evade classification. They just run things on their own," he said.

India's 2000 Juvenile Justice Act provides a road map for management to tackle abuse taking place inside institutions, but many privately run homes are not registered.

According to Mr Asthana, the problem is compounded by the absence of well-trained and educated staff. "The counsellors, field workers who work with children, many of them haven't even finished high school. They are easily overwhelmed when kids misbehave," he said.

"They think it's good to instil fear or the children won't listen to you," he said. "When a child misbehaves, other kids are encouraged to hit him as punishment."

While many children in the homes are orphans, a sizeable number are also from families with an absent father and a mother who has to work and cannot provide adequate care.

That was the case with the 11-year-old girl who died in the Arya Anathalaya home in December. She was placed in the home four years ago by her mother, Puja, 24 at the time, who, with three other children, felt unable to cope after her husband walked out on the family.

"I was at work all the time and my girls had to go and come from school on their own. I just didn't think they would be safe," said Puja.

Krinna Shah, a social worker for 17 years and a former member of a child welfare committee in east Delhi, said the system was broken.

"There is no effort to protect children at all. And when something goes wrong, the option is usually to displace the kid further. Instead, the management should be removed," she said.

She spoke about a case when she recommended the closure of a shelter in Delhi where children were not given adequate clothing or bathed properly, but her suggestions were ignored by senior government officials.

"The state is happy giving licences to NGOs, because then they don't have to take care of the kids themselves," she said.

Where abuse does occur, the children are often extremely fearful and reluctant to approach anyone with complaints, and critics say current legislation does not have stringent enough provisions to tackle the problem.

In the case of the Arya Anathalaya home, a court-appointed judicial committee comprising a district judge and two social workers visited the shelter.

Their report, filed in May, said the home was functioning well and no further action was required.

In 2009, a five-year-old girl said she had been attacked at Arya Anathalaya and a medical examination established that she had been sexually abused.

Nitinjay Chaudhry, the director of the home, insisted that the allegations were fabricated.

"She was not abused. It didn't happen," he said, arguing that the "fantastical" charges were part of a conspiracy to destroy the institution and take over the sprawling property on which it stands.

* Agence France-Presse