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Child Care Institutions in India: A Critical Wake-Up Call for Reform Amidst Crisis

Child care institutions in India grapple with significant flaws, including limited oversight and unregistered facilities, as they serve as the last resort for millions of vulnerable children.

By Rachna Mishra
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An Indian child in need of care | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Child care, an essential pillar of child protection and well-being, faces a critical challenge in India. In a world marked by adversity and upheaval, millions of children find themselves without the loving embrace of their parents, with over 140 million globally experiencing the loss of one or both parents. India, bearing a staggering burden, is home to the largest number of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) in South Asia, approaching a concerning 30 million. In the absence of a robust foster care system and other family-based alternatives, Child Care Institutions (CCIs), commonly referred to as 'orphanages,' remain the only viable option for child protection in the country.

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Although the revised Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 allows for several opportunities for non-institutional alternatives for the social reintegration of vulnerable children falling under state protection (in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1990), in cases where family or community restoration is not possible or not judged to be in the best interest of the child, CCIs remain the only viable option. In fact, there are advocates propelling the idea that institutional and non-institutional care models should go hand in hand.

An increasing number of scientific inquiries are emerging within the field to suggest the prominent role of the aspects of care itself as a crucial resource in bringing positive outcomes among young people. The new science of resilience departs from the individualised construction of the concept and goes as far as to place an individual's social context at the centre of the equation in manifesting positive outcomes in the face of adversity.

A qualitative research conducted across nine child care institutions in New Delhi by this writer found structural resources within CCIs to be of primary protective value, far more than individual-level traits and characteristics. The study found that by removing some of the major preoccupations from children's lives, such as having to worry about accessing basic resources, ensuring one's safety from external threats, and having to assist families economically or otherwise, CCIs could enable its children to focus on more constructive aspects of their lives.

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Some of the protective assets within the institution were found to be access to education, a positive peer group, exposure to sources of inspiration, and opportunities to help the children realise their interests and talents. In addition, there were significant positive changes in children's self-portrayals of themselves before versus after their institutional placements. This study also found a potential pathway for achieving resilient outcomes among the resident children. Upon reaching the institution, young children are drawn to the material comforts it provides, in contrast to their homes characterised by scarcity, abuse, and neglect. These comforts can include simple things like sleeping in a bed with a fan, receiving sweets and gifts from sponsors and visitors, having regular meals, and having access to suitable clothing. 

The study found that at this crucial initial stage, guidance by an adult coupled with the perceived advantages of the new residence can markedly assist children in achieving initial adjustment. Later, as children start residing within the institution, the perceived relative advantages broaden in scope to include those which have the potential to upgrade their lives. These growth resources are mostly in the form of access to education and extra-curricular opportunities. Following this pathway, the institution gradually becomes preferable over the home environment. The study makes a strong point in favour of considering the institutional model as a viable option for alternative care for children when others are unfeasible.

It is time that welfare advocates, including the state, acknowledge that a positive contribution can be made by a well-run CCI for our at-risk young population. This would first require coming out of the deep-rooted mindset that demeans the value of these institutions and acknowledging the significance of access to even the most basic resources like food, safety, and education in becoming catalysts for a positive change in the lives of vulnerable children who have hopes and desires for a good life but the absence of a conducive environment to make that happen.

The logical next step will be planning to enhance the quality of these institutions, mostly on the budget allocation front. Some progress has been made in this direction, where the centre has effectively increased the budget for child protection in India, including staff salaries. The way ahead from here has to be on enhancing the assessment and monitoring system, establishing strong protection mechanisms, staff training, and regular capacity-building sessions. Additionally, advocates globally are of the view that strengthening social support networks through mentorship programs for the resident children can go a long way in addressing both socio-emotional stressors while in care, as well as challenges of transition after leaving care.

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Furthermore, it is imperative for the government to see that the child care institutions currently functioning without any legal status are brought under the ambit of the rules and regulations. Frequent and regular inspections can go a long way in improving the efficiency of any substitute care format and are especially required for CCIs, where transparencies can be easily diluted.

According to a report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2018, only 32 percent of the child-care institutions have been found to be registered under the JJ Act (2015), whereas 33 percent did not have any legal status. The children residing within these institutions remain completely invisible and are prone to mistreatment and abuse of all kinds because the conditions are not inspected, staff is untrained, and safeguards are not put in place.

There is ample evidence around the potential for institutional care to bring about respite and positive outcomes among the resident children. Much of the laws for child rights and protection are in place, but the states must make it a point to strictly enforce them. Reaching a similar conclusion, the aforementioned report by the ministry states that it is precisely in the areas of "monitoring, staff capacity building, and establishing protection mechanisms that maximum inputs are required urgently" by most of the institutions. Monitoring and assessment systems are absolutely required for any form of substitute care to function effectively. It is crucial to understand that rather than planning on completely doing away with this format of alternative child care, appreciating its usefulness in the presence of better resource availability is the need of the hour.

Rachna Mishra is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at FLAME University, Pune.

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