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Updated: February 7, 2012 10:43 IST

Is this how we should treat our children?

Mohit M. Rao
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They need help, not bureaucratic solutions

The alleged suicide attempt by three boys in the Government Observation Home for Boys and Girls in Madivala here on January 31 raises serious questions about the efficacy of rehabilitation and correction facilities.

The incident, unfortunately, is not an isolated case, with this institution as well as the Government Home for Boys (Bala Balakara Mandir) reporting children fleeing with disturbing frequency.

On a visit to the facilities, it seems like there is little lacking in terms of physical infrastructure. The complex is clean, with well-maintained classrooms and toilets. Lunch hours, time allotted for yoga, informal learning and basic exercise seem to be strictly adhered to. In the Observation Home, the boys are provided with board games. In the Boys' Home, classes are held by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on crafts and karate.

Forbidding facade

However, both places bear a closed-off façade — with all windows and doors locked and meshed — and lack of space for physical activities is evident. Even in the Boys' Home, children sleep in locked spaces where grills restrict their movement.

In a surprise inspection at the Observation Home on January 9, Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights Chairperson Nina P. Nayak observed that the place did not have an atmosphere that suited a correctional facility. “There was no specialist to help, guide or correct the children there,” she said.

The jail-like appearance and non-segregation of children based on age groups do more harm than good. “Children need an atmosphere of respect and dignity and these homes don't seem to provide it,” said B. Madhukar, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist, St. Martha's Hospital.

The Boys' Home houses up to 100 children under 15 broad categories, including rescued child labourers, orphans, HIV positive and children with mental disabilities. The Observation Home lodges up to 100 juvenile delinquents facing charges ranging from robbery to murder and rape.

Shockingly, these homes, which are meant to play the role of rehabilitation or correctional facilities, do not have a full-time counsellor or psychiatrist on campus. Officials at the Boys' Home take the youngsters to the nearby NIMHANS in the case of an emergency, while the Observation Home has two NGO-sponsored counsellors visiting twice a week.

Karnataka Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KCPCR) member Vasudev Sharma said that there are very few takers for counsellors' posts as they are not accorded permanent status nor given defined job profiles. “Counsellors are shared between the Boys' Home, Girls' Home, Home for the Mentally Retarded and the Old Age Home,” he said.

With the absence of counsellors or doctors at the Observation Home, it is up to the wardens to fill the void. The wardens, with no training at all in handling children, say that they “learn on the job through mistakes”. That most children here are from other States only complicates the issue.

Even though the Juvenile Justice Act does not specify the staff to children ratio, it is evident that both institutions are woefully understaffed. Only one matron is stationed at the Observation Home. The officials' claim that there are three wardens during the day at the Boys' Home is contradicted by an NGO volunteer who said that usually there's just one warden on duty.

According to officials at the Boys' Home, at least five wardens are needed during the nights to “control” the children. “With so many children sleeping in the same room, it is difficult for the warden to check the drinking, smoking or even sexual abuse (among children),” said an official.

Admitting to the staff crunch, Narmada Anand, Deputy Director, Department of Woman and Child Development, said, “When we have manpower, the problems in the homes will reduce.”

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