Felled by the protectors

The death of a 17-year-old boy ‘in custody’ at the government-run observation home in Chengalpattu is a grim reminder of the gruesome Sathankulam custodial deaths. His death due to alleged torture also exposed the lacunae in the correctional system and rehabilitation homes for children who come in conflict with the law

January 22, 2023 12:16 am | Updated April 13, 2023 01:46 pm IST

The Hindu Illustration

The Hindu Illustration | Photo Credit: R. Rajesh

For the mother of the 17-year-old boy who died in December last after being allegedly beaten by the authorities in an observation home where he was lodged, the grief is unending. He was her only hope after her husband died four years ago. Five other children — two sons and three daughters, aged between 5 and 14 — are dependent on her earning by working as a watch-woman at a pump house nearby.

Her soon-to-be-adult son could not study further and started supporting his family by working at a toyshop at the Kundrathur bus stand. He used to give the family ₹2,000 a month. He was returning home by train after visiting a friend on December 29. The Railway Protection Force apprehended him on suspicion at 10.30 p.m. The mother was informed by the police the next day.

At the police station, she was led to a room. Recalling her son’s last words to her, she said, “He pleaded with me to take him away as soon as possible. He cried that he would listen to me and be obedient. I told him that I would take him out (on bail) after Pongal; we spoke for one and a half hours. At that point, there were no injuries on his body. Again, while being taken to the observation home at Chengalpattu, he told me to take him out (on bail) as quickly as possible.”

Police sources said the boy was secured by the Railway Protection Force, Tambaram, as he was allegedly involved in a theft. He was taken to the District Juvenile Justice Board and then kept at the observation home, housed on the same campus as the special home, at Chengalpattu on the night of December 30.

Call from a warden

“The next evening, I got a call from a person who is a warden of the observation home, informing me that my son had a seizure after having ‘poori’ and buttermilk. The caller said they were taking him in a two-wheeler to the Government General Hospital, Chengalpattu, and asked me to rush there. Before I reached the nearby bus stand from my house in 10 minutes, I got another call informing me that my son was admitted to the emergency ward. Again, after 10 minutes later, the caller informed me that my son had died,” she said.

She alleged that she was not allowed to enter the hospital since it was late at night. When she reached the observation home, a staff member took her on a bike telling her that she could visit her son the next day. She was then forcibly made to stay at the home of a woman staff member’s relative, the mother claimed.

“I was taken by the staff member to see the body of my son in the afternoon of January 1. I was shocked to see the body bearing injuries; he was beaten on the forehead and the cheek, there were blade cuts on the nose and the lower lip, and other injuries on the chest. It seemed that my son was brutally beaten inside the home,” she said.

She said she was forcibly taken by the staff of the observation home to the place where she was staying earlier and kept there against her will. She also claimed that she was threatened to sign on blank papers, which she refused.

She managed to slip away from the hospital and from the eyes of the staff and took an autorickshaw to the Collector’s office to call for an investigation into “foul play” in her son’s death.

After a post-mortem was done three days later, she cremated the body at Chengalpattu on January 3. She said, “They murdered my son. I want to ensure that this should not be happen to any other child.”

“Based on the post-mortem report and the judicial magistrate’s inquiry, we have arrested six of the staff members on charges of murder. Our investigation revealed that the boy was beaten by the staff inside the home,” said Chengalpattu SP A. Pradeep.

The police arrested S. Mohan, 30, superintendent; P. Vidyasagar, 33, assistant superintendent; J. Honest Raj, 29, barber; D. Vijayakumar, 30, warden; M. Saranraj, 36, warden; and R. Chandrababu, 35, house master.

‘A case of custodial torture’ 

I. Aseer, State coordinator of Joint Action against Custodial Torture, said, “Our fact-finding team confirmed that this is a clear case of custodial torture in the Chengalpattu observation home where more than 120 children stay.

This incident can be termed worse than the custodial deaths in Sathankulam reported in 2020. The entire incident shows that the staff believe that violence should be used to reform children.”

Vidya Reddy, of Tulir-Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, elaborated on how the death of the boy in Chengalpattu is different from the deaths that have happened in police custody elsewhere in Tamil Nadu.

“The difference is while one situation involved the police, the other involved personnel who are supposedly employed because they have the requisite knowledge, training and skills to address children in difficult situations,” she said.

Stating that it was largely socio-economically disadvantaged youths that are in the juvenile justice system, Ms. Vidya said there was a lack of a safety net to ensure that vulnerable children did not get into transgressions. This death could not be considered just another unfortunate death, but there was an urgent need to address the systemic flaws.

The tragic incidents expose the lacunae in the management of observation homes meant for temporary reception of juveniles who are in conflict with law. They will be kept at these homes during pendency of inquiry. Later, they will be shifted to special homes which provide for their rehabilitation. Though the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, provides for establishment and maintenance of observation homes and special homes in every district, there are only nine observation homes and two special homes run by the government.

The juvenile justice system comprises agencies such as the police, the juvenile justice boards and institutions such as observation homes and special homes. The police are the first agency which handles a juvenile in conflict with law. The juvenile justice boards are functioning under judicial officers and two social workers. The government has constituted 32 juvenile justice boards covering 38 districts. As many as 2,367 cases were handled during 2021-22.

A senior police woman officer said, “Though we send a juvenile to an observation home for a petty offence, they repeat the offence after learning from peers to commit a more serious offence and keep coming back.”

In the last one decade, there have been several instances of torture, ill-treatment and children running away. The insiders of these homes disclose a series of lacunae in the administration and a lack of infrastructure.

After efforts over the years, the observation homes and the special homes continue to remain a ‘minor jail’ in reality. Though the nomenclature has changed, the attitude and behaviour of the staff at these homes have not changed. The children lack education, entertainment and are isolated from the outside world. Rehabilitation facilities are very poor and psychological counselling and treatment are practically non-existent in many homes, says A. Devaneyan, director of Thozhamai.

No increase in staff strength

All these homes under the Department of Social Defence (DSD) were started much before 1980. So far, the staff strength has not increased and the staff members have not been trained to suit the needs of the current generation.

The activists point out that the observation home for boys is overcrowded in Tiruchi because the authorities did not create additional space. No staff member was deployed to the observation home which was taken over by the government from an NGO; conditions have worsened and juveniles are locked in a single hall like a prison.

Juveniles in an observation home should not come in contact with convicted juvenile offenders in a special home. But, in Chengalpattu and Thanjavur, the observation home and the special home are at the same place.

Former inmates of these homes are given the jobs of matron, sanitary worker, watchman, and guards within the system without training or screening. Former inmates are given jobs as staff members as part of rehabilitation. No trained people are available and the atmosphere there is not congenial for children, said M.P. Nirmala, former chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Commission for Protection of Child Rights (TNCPCR).

Social activist Paadam A. Narayanan said, “There is no dedicated psychologist/counsellor on a continuous basis for those admitted to observation homes to deal with the stress and anxiety of a juvenile; no positive recreation or sports to divert his mind from conflicts and aggression. It needs a lot of patience and understanding to deal with children in conflict with law. Observation home staff are unqualified and poorly trained. They often resort to violence to control the children admitted to observation homes.”

A member of the juvenile justice board said, “In a southern district, a couple of months ago, a 10-year-old boy was brought in for remand at 1 p.m. on the charge that he had stolen a mere ₹10. The boy was chased away by his father as his stepmother did not like him. A priest of a temple where he took shelter for two days asked him to buy a bun for ₹10. Since he was hungry, the boy ate the bun. After a quarrel, the boy was picked up by the police for stealing ₹10. If the child had access to shelter and food, why would he steal? The system will bring him to the observation home where he will meet people who have committed grave crimes.”

With observation homes typically being short-stay homes, activists have wondered whether effective interventions are implemented there.

One day at a home

What does a day look like for children in an observation home? “Children who are dropouts have to attend classes in the mornings and can participate in activities such as sports, music, dance or yoga in the evenings. How effectively these activities are implemented depends on the superintendent there and the efforts made by them at each home,” said an official of the DSD.

In the last few months, the Tamil Nadu government has announced structured intervention programmes for child-care institutions. In November 2022, orders were issued for modernised vocational training programmes which included making of bakery products, air-conditioner servicing, plumbing, fast food preparation, home appliance servicing and tailoring.

In December last, the DSD passed orders for a collaboration with the Tamil Nadu Startup and Innovation Mission (TANSIM) where children of government-run child-care institutions would undergo skill-development programmes.

“The focus going forward would be on mental health literacy and training for staff members in these institutions. We are trying to bring about an attitudinal change among guards, wardens and matrons at these institutions, and sensitise them to the need for communicating better with the children,” she added.

In the aftermath of this incident, a senior official of the DSD said that the periodic monitoring of observation homes and special homes by district officials as well as officials of the headquarters would be strengthened. At the district level, the committees formed by the district administration are required to carry out periodic inspections.

Earlier this week, all observation and special homes in the State were inspected and a report was prepared by the DSD to be submitted to the government. While the Department has suspended all the staff members who were involved in the death of the boy, the others will be shifted, and new appointments are expected to be made.

(With inputs by Poorvaja S.)

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