It has been more than two decades after the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) — acceded by India in 1992 — observed that the primary caregivers for children are their families and that institutions are the last resort. However, in Tamil Nadu, at least 55,000 children, including those in conflict with law and those needing care and protection, are lodged in various homes.
Poverty and dysfunctional family set-up are seen as the criteria for determining who needs utmost care and protection.
The state has one of the highest numbers of children in institutions in the country. There are about 1,263 child care institutions in the state and some of the districts like Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram closer to the capital city of Chennai have as many as 100-odd homes each. For experts in the field, a big worry has been the safety and security of the children as several cases of sexual abuse in institutions have been reported in several parts of the country. Tamil Nadu’s neighbour Kerala too has recently acknowledged the need to de-institutionalise homes to offer a more secure and safe environment for children.
A source from the Department of Social Defence in Tamil Nadu said the NGO-run homes admit large numbers of children. The source added, “With ₹10 lakh allotted for every district for child care programme, not more than 40 children can be taken care of with the funds. We have turned to corporate social responsibility funds and even with that, meeting the demands of a huge number of children is hard.”
Andrew Sesuraj, project coordinator, Loyola Knowledge Hub for Child Protection said funds were available with organisations like World Vision, that can be pooled in systematically with a more proactive role by the state. “The number of homes have grown from the late 80s and these have established infrastructure for child care. They all should be bought on board by the Social Defence Department instead of letting them run homes in different parts. Apart from the funds from outside, Social Defence also receives CSR sponsorship that can be used to take care of the population of children who need care and protection.”
The State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) too is demanding a set up that can help accommodate children needing protection through adoption and foster care primarily. MP Nirmala, chairperson, SCPCR, added, “On the contrary, we now have these institutions looking at them as products. The children are first sent to these homes, rather than exploring other options. The approach will continue as long as child welfare committees have members who run homes and exploit the situation of children in need for their gains.”
Foster care works?
P Manorama, former chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee in Chennai, and the founder of the Community Health Education Society, who has found foster parents for a couple of children who were abandoned by parents after testing HIV+ve says that foster care may not work in India, as the parents tend to get attached to the children a lot. “Foster care is a temporary arrangement and with the cases I have seen, it is hard for the foster parents to not get attached with the children. They resist separation and this makes it hard to promote foster care as means to keep children in a family set up, which can give them care and security,” she said.
One of the best foster care models according to experts has been group foster care by SOS Village that has a foster mother taking care of children in a family set up.
Experts point out that kinship foster care, where extended family of the children can come forward to take care of them, remains unexplored. Added Sesuraj, “Financial benefit in kinship foster care can be a big boost, as many avoid it due to financial implications. We must also have a continuous capacity and counselling mechanism to ensure that it is effective.” He says that foster care is complex and as shown by past experiments in the state, is driven by caste and religious parameters. “Foster parents tend to have a lot of expectations from their foster child. Many had to return to the homes in the past due to this, as they were unable to meet the expectations.”
Experts added that according to Juvenile Justice System in place, only for those who do not have a family, institutions are the last resort. “When deinstitutionalisation happens, these homes should become an activity centre—a community centre or library, like in a country like Albania,” observed Sesuraj.