NEW DELHI: A series of sex abuse scandals at orphanages and shelters in India has sounded alarms over the management of children's homes, many of which operate with little or no public oversight.
Criminal charges against staff at a number of homes have highlighted what activists say is a pervasive culture of violence that begins with carers abusing their wards and ends with older children assaulting younger children.
In a case that attracted national media attention, a post mortem on an 11-year-old girl who died of vomiting and diarrhoea in a home in Delhi last December, showed that she had also been repeatedly sexually abused.
Police opened an investigation into the running of the Arya Anathalaya home and requested the assistance of a local non-profit, the Haq Centre for Child Rights.
“Our first impression was that it was a clean, big place, with well-fed kids,” said Bharti Ali, co-founder of the Haq centre.
“Then we spoke to the children and many told us they got beaten up regularly by the wardens,” she told AFP.
The Haq centre recommended a series of institutional changes, all of which were rejected by the Arya Anathalaya management.
Police have since filed rape charges against a 25-year-old security guard at the home as well as a 14-year-old boy ward. Both maintain their innocence.
In May this year, a team from the National Council for the Protection of Child Rights inspected another children's shelter just outside New Delhi where they uncovered what their report described as a “reign of terror.”
The report detailed allegations of sexual molestation by staff members, regular beatings and psychological abuse.
The shelter was closed down and seven people subsequently arrested, including the owner and her son-in-law.
India has a poor record of investigating and sentencing those implicated in child abuse cases.
The most high-profile verdict saw two British men sentenced to six years in jail in March 2011—10 years after charges were first filed—for abusing several young boys at a children's shelter they ran in Mumbai.
Anant Kumar Asthana, a lawyer who advises juvenile homes on legal compliance, says India is home to a huge number of institutions that operate with virtually no oversight.
“The total number of institutions with children is impossible to quantify, because so many evade classification. They just run things on their own,” he told AFP.
India's 2000 Juvenile Justice Act provides a roadmap for management to tackle abuse taking place inside institutions, but many privately-run homes resist registration.
According to Asthana, the problem is compounded by the absence of well-trained and educated staff.
“The counsellors, field workers who work with children, many of them haven't even finished high school. They are easily overwhelmed when kids misbehave,” he said.
“They think it's good to instill fear or the children won't listen to you,” he said.
“When a child misbehaves, other kids are encouraged to hit him as punishment.”
While many children in the homes are orphans, a sizeable number are also from families with an absent father and a mother who has to work and cannot provide adequate care.
Such was the case with the 11-year-old girl who died in the Arya Anathalaya home in December.
She was placed in the home four years ago by her then 24-year-old mother, Pooja who, with three other children, felt unable to cope after her husband walked out on the family.
“I was at work all the time and my girls had to go and come from school on their own. I just didn't think they would be safe,” Pooja told AFP.
Krinna Shah, a social worker with 17 years of experience, and a former member of a child welfare committee in east Delhi said the system was broken.
“There is no effort to protect children at all. And when something goes wrong, the option is usually to displace the kid further. Instead the management should be removed,” she told AFP.
She cited a case when she recommended the closure of a shelter in Delhi where children were not given adequate clothing or bathed properly, but her suggestions were ignored by senior government officials.
“The state is happy giving licenses to NGOs (non-governmental organisations), because then they don't have to take care of the kids themselves,” she said.
Where abuse does occur, the children are often extremely fearful and reluctant to approach anyone with complaints, and critics say current legislation does not have stringent enough provisions to tackle the problem.
In the case of the Arya Anathalaya home, a court-appointed judicial committee comprising a district judge and two social workers visited the shelter.
Their report, filed in May, said the home was functioning well and no further action was required.
In 2009, a five-year-old girl said she was attacked at Arya Anathalaya and a medical examination established that she was sexually abused.
Nitinjay Chaudhry, the general secretary of the home, insisted that the allegations were fabricated.
"She was not abused. It didn't happen," he said, arguing that the "fantastical" charges were part of a conspiracy to destroy the institution and take over the sprawling property on which it stands.