The Juvenile Justice Act (Care and Protection of Children), approved in 2000 to reform the 1986 Act, is designed as a comprehensive legal framework by which the Indian government committed to attenuate the devastating impact that underdevelopment, poverty, and crime have on children. The Act spells out the government’s responsibilities in the care, the protection, and the development of neglected children, but also tackles issues related to crime prevention and the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents. The provisions contained in the Juvenile Justice Act apply to two categories of children: those defined “in conflict with the law” and those considered to be “in need of care and protection.” “In need of care and protection” is a relatively vague and ample designation that includes youth who are found begging on the streets, who are homeless, who have parents declared unfit because of their indigence or lifestyle, who have suffered physical or sexual abuse, and who are believed to be at high risk. Virtually all street children fall into this category. Juveniles “in conflict with the law” are instead those who were apprehended following a violation of the Indian penal code.
In need of Care and Protection
The Act sanctioned the establishment of new institutions charged with the care of neglected and delinquent children. Observation Homes serve as temporary holding facilities for juveniles who were arrested by the police or found to be living in neglect.
Juveniles “in conflict with the law” remain there awaiting trial. Children “in need of care and protection” stay there pending the completion of a government investigation aiming to track down their parents and collecting information on their family background. If the parents turn out to be dead, untraceable, unfit, or simply unwilling to take the child back, the Juvenile Welfare Board arranges for the child’splacement in a Juvenile Home, where the government is responsible for providing room, board, education, and vocational training. While it distinguishes juveniles “in conflict with the law” from those “in need of care and protection,” the law effectively criminalizes both by putting them under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. The two groups are generally housed together in the Observation Home for months on end: adolescents who have committed serious offenses are kept together with children — mostly much younger — whose only crime is that of being neglected. In practice, there is no difference in the nature of their detention. The law simply prescribes the confinement of both as the only means by which they can be rehabilitated.
The Government Observation Home for Juveniles of Vijayawada was established in 1954. It is housed in a dishevelled three- storey building near Benz Circle, in the heart of the city. As noted, the boys are brought by the police for minor violations of the law or simply for roaming the railway station and bus stand. Many of the thousands of street children who live in Vijayawada are eligible for confinement in the Home. Historically, a large majority of the children who have been detained there were street children who had not committed any crime.
The Observation Home effectively operates as a children’s gulag – in sharp contrast with the ambitious and noble goals outlined by the Indian government in the Juvenile Justice Act. Life there is horrible. As many as 130 children were kept at all times inside a hall whose size does not exceed 700 sq. feet. They are never allowed outside and do not have facilities to spend their time in a useful way. Many of them spend 8 months or more confined in the Home, as the Juvenile Welfare Board invariably fails to complete its inquiries within the time frame specified by the law.
The health conditions of the children are a major cause of concern. The government, in fact, provides two meals per day,but such meals simply consist of a meager portion of steamed white rice and vegetable curry. Moreover, given that the state government only funds the Home for up to a maximum of 100 children, when the number of boys exceeds 100 (as it often has in the past) the juveniles do not even receive a full ration. Many of them display notable signs of malnutrition.
Hygiene standards are unacceptably low. Before our intervention began, the children “bathed” every day, but all the boys had to share a single bar of soap. Each was provided with an amount of water that hardly exceeded one quart. Also, the boys are allowed to change clothes very infrequently – once a week or less. The guards do not bother to clean the halls and bathrooms, which are infested with cockroaches and lice. As a result, the stench is unbearable. All of the children have scabies. Some suffer from severe cough and fever. The Home, however, does not have sufficient funds to provide medicines or the manpower to take the children to the Government Hospital. A doctor employed by Care&Share visits the home once a week to attend on the needy and administer
vaccines, but our intervention cannot completely offset the consequences of the severe neglect to which the children are subjected.
We have also established that systematic physical abuse takes place in the Home. The guards, who are for the most part solely trained as corrections officers, treat the boys very badly and often beat them with belts, bent telephone wires, and the long bamboo sticks that are found everywhere on the premises. Some of them are forced to stand in uncomfortable positions for up to two hours as punishment for small violations such as laughing too loud or speaking to other boys when forbidden to do so. They are beaten if they fail to maintain the position. Moreover, smaller children are frequently abused by the older boys. Beatings are recurrent and are often aimed to coerce the younger detainees into the performance of sexual acts. Many of these boys, who inevitably suffer from the psychological traumas caused by the painful events – like abandonment or the breakdown of their families – that led them to live on the streets, are forced to not only live in conditions of perpetual listlessness, undernourishment, filth, and overcrowding, but also withstand constant intimidation and abuse.
Care&Share’s intervention in the Observation Home began, upon the request of the Superintendent, in May 1999. Initially, the goal was simply to render the life of the children a little more bearable. Care&Share provided much-needed medical assistance and food, to attenuate the devastating effects of malnutrition and lack of hygiene. For years, our staff has been distributing milk, bananas, and biscuits on a daily basis; in multiple occasions, moreover, it cooked rice and curry meals for all the children. Subsequently, Care&Share has repeatedly cleaned and repainted the locales in order to render them more comfortable and sanitary, and regularly supplied clothing in the hope that the boys would be allowed to wear clean clothes with greater frequency.
In addition to attending to the children’s primary needs, Care&Share has also provided the Home with the materials and the personnel necessary to entertaining the boys and allowing them spend their time in a constructive way. It donated a television and some toys. More importantly, two Care&Share employees spend seven hours in the Observation Home six days a week. They teach the children basic literacy and some manual skills, aside from making sure that the kids bathe daily, that the premises are cleaned regularly, and that their clothes are washed. Care&Share has also contributed to speeding up release and transfer procedures. Three dozen boys were released in 2004. Subsequently, Care&Share assisted the Superintendent in the release or transfer of all the street children that had not committed any crime. Some were taken back to their families. Others were housed in Daddy’s Home (to date, we have welcomed 130 to our campus). Others still were transferred to the Juvenile Home in Eluru, where living conditions are appreciably better (Care&Share is working at the Juvenile Home to improve conditions further). At the same time, we have attempted to persuade law enforcement to entrust NGOs with the care of children found to be “in need of care and protection” rather than take them to the Observation Home. Such intervention has achieved results that may only be considered satisfactory. Today, only 39 boys — all of them awaiting criminal trials — live in the Observation Home.