They whistled whenever someone on stage did something funny, and responded with spirited retaliatory exclamations when a small boy, a character in a play, was beaten up by his drunk father.

While little Kalai made a camera out of a piece of paper and imitated photographers taking pictures of the performers, Navin(8) held his nephew Vasanth (3) tightly as he slept amid all the chaos. “He (Vasanth) wakes up very early in the morning to accompany his mother to sell fish,” he said.

The children's fest, organised by the Department of Social Work (shift 2) at Loyola College here on Sunday was a reminder of the many unfulfilled needs of the hundreds of children living in slums, streets and shelter houses across the city.

Of the 180 children who participated in the programme, many earned a living working as domestic help in households, mechanic units and factories, while others had run away from their homes and were living in orphanages.

From April 2008 to January 2011, the Chennai chapter of Child helpline responded to more than 3,500 intervention calls. More than rescuing and rehabilitating these children, experts say that getting them to talk is a major challenge. S

ince most schools that these children go to do not address their depression problems, a lot of it goes unattended, says Arul Mani Sheryll, a student-trainee at Karunalaya, an NGO that works with street children. Talking about a particular instance of a seven-year-old child from Madurai rescued from Koyembedu recently, she says, “His parents were physically abusive of each other and his sole companion was his friend, who died in a lorry accident when both of them were crossing the road on their way back from school,” she says. “He didn't speak for months,” she adds

Trail of abuse

The reason most children rescued from streets keep mum over issues is a continuous trail of physical, mental and sometimes, sexual abuse that they face at homes for years.

“It takes an experienced therapist to know how to approach a particular child because while many are quiet due to anxiety or fear, some don't speak because they are plain angry,” says V. Jayanthini, Department head, Child Guidance Clinic, Madras Medical College.

“They fear the person questioning them might send them back to where they would be reprimanded severely for running away,” she says.

Interactive games

Experts say that while these children should be allowed to take their time, simple interactive games using music, pictures and toys would also keep them occupied, and the counsellor's intervention should not be reduced to interrogation alone.

And, as the children danced to popular numbers, Aadhib (11), rescued from a train some years back, wandered around the hall, uninterested. Ask him about his plans for life, he says ‘military' very excitedly, but keeps quiet when someone talks about Mumbai, his home town. “It is only through singing and dancing with them that we tell them what their rights are,” says Ms. Sheryll, “But it takes time for them to realise you can be an ‘Akka' and not a ‘Miss' alone,” she adds.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012

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