By Geetika Gautam
“Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” – Preamble of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 (UNCRC)
Dr. Asha Bajpai is Professor of Law, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai writes “Family is the core unit of society and a major source of the development of children. Every child has the right to a family. There are millions of children living in institutions worldwide. The best of institutions cannot substitute the care in a family of the child. In India there is a disturbing trend of young children, although having both parents, frequently being placed in institutional care for supposed education and a better life.
There is proven recognition, worldwide, that institutional care is associated with negative consequences for children’s development. Yet thousands of children are in institutions rather than with their families because they cannot access alternative care systems.
Using national and international law, court observations, and field experiences, this paper argues a case for the de-institutionalization of such children, by empowering the families, thereby protecting their right to a family and preventing abuse and exploitation. “(Journal of the National Human Rights Commission, Volume-16)
India counts approximately a third of its total population as children, i.e. 440 million children, and as per the records, about 40% or 170 million of these children are vulnerable or undergoing perverse circumstances characterized by their specific economic, geopolitical, and social situations.
However, there is no specifically classified data available on the kind of vulnerabilities the children are suffering, approximately 30 million of these children are orphans, and about 10 million children less than 14 years of age are victims of child labor, and 1.5 million girls are victims of child marriage.
A deemed assumption would suggest that there are at least 20 million children in India, who are in a state of serious vulnerability and risk, and therefore likely in need of protection and care. It becomes extremely important to ensure that these children grow up healthy, both in terms of physical and mental health.
It is assessed that a substantial number of children are orphans, without parental support in the country, and destitute. While several of them have been placed in institutional care under the juvenile justice system, including children in conflict with the law, children of prisoners, and children in need of care and protection.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.
The law provides care, protection, and rehabilitation of vulnerable children, who are homeless, victims of child labor, residing with an abusive or exploitative person, residing with someone who is unfit or incapable of taking care of him, those who do not have parents or have been surrendered by their parents, those who are victims of armed conflict or natural calamity, and those who are in the imminent danger of child marriage.
Changes in India’s socio-economic dynamics have manifested in multiple ways. There is increasing disintegration of the joint family system leading to the weakening of the traditional support base for orphan children. Poverty, migration, and loss of livelihood opportunities are pushing children to the margins. Internal conflict and disasters not only make children homeless but also inflict many kinds of trauma, leading to psycho-social disorientation.
“The family being the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth, well-being, and protection of children, efforts should primarily be directed to enabling the child to remain in or return to the care of his/her parents, or when appropriate, other close family members.” (Paragraph 3 of UNGACC)
The child protection system has to be re-looked at and maybe revamped in its entirety and that the basics of family strengthening must always be reinforced to prevent the separation of the child from his/her family and, sending the child to residential or institutional care must always be the last choice always. When separation is clearly in the best interest of the child, such as in cases of death, neglect, violence, or abuse, different Non-Institutional Alternative Care (NIAC) options should be explored, continuously reviewed, and monitored.
Children and their circumstances are not homogeneous. Each Child faces distinctly different risks and specific vulnerabilities. Hence, each child must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The child remains within the family and institutionalization is the last resort.
Undoubtedly, families are best placed to care for and nurture children and keep them safe. But families trapped in chronic poverty, surviving on irregular income or suffering other stresses, domestic violence, drug, and alcohol abuse, face major obstacles in caring for their children.
Families in these situations need support. With so much reliance on non-institutional services, standards must be laid down. There is a need for the development of high-quality alternative care options such as kinship care (extended family), fostering, and adoption. It has been suggested that a set of minimum standards and guidelines for such care be developed.
India must stop making new children’s institutions or homes and move towards de-institutionalization as every major social change, the process of de-institutionalization needs periodic review and independent evaluation to answer questions, such as to what extent the goals have been achieved and are they still valid, and have the planned activities been implemented and how the process shall be further continued. The process could take time, but it needs to be sustained in order to end the institutionalization of children and regain their right to family life.