On January 20, a Delhi court convicted 19 people in the Muzaffarpur shelter home sexual abuse case that had shocked the country when it came to light in April 2018. The main accused, Brajesh Thakur, was found guilty on multiple grounds of rape, gangrape and aggravated sexual assault of at least 34 minor destitute girls living at the Balika Grih short-stay home that Thakur ran with Bihar government funding.

According to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which took over the case in February 2019, the girls were drugged, forced to dance to vulgar songs and raped by guests visiting the shelter home.

This extensive sexual exploitation was exposed by a team of social workers and psychologists from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who had been commissioned by the Bihar government to conduct a social audit of 110 shelter homes in the state. These included shelters for destitute women, children, senior citizens and the homeless. The audit uncovered the prevalence of various forms of abuse, neglect and deprivation in almost all 110 homes.

This was not surprising to social workers in the welfare sector, who have often flagged abuse in shelter homes across India. But the Muzaffarpur case has been unusual for multiple reasons: the scale of the abuse, the media attention and swift investigations, the fact that several people were convicted and the official designations of some of the accused.

Besides Brajesh Thakur – a former Bihar legislator from the Bharatiya People’s Party – and other staff of Balika Grih, the 19 convicts included a member of the district’s child welfare committee and a child protection officer from the district child protection unit, who aided the sexual abuse.

Under the Juvenile Justice Act, child welfare committees or CWCs are judicial bodies meant to be set up in each district to adjudicate cases dealing with children in need of care and protection. They are also one of the official bodies responsible for monitoring the functioning of children’s shelter homes. A district child protection unit, meanwhile, is the key implementation agency for the central government’s Integrated Child Protection Scheme, which aims to create a protective environment for vulnerable children.

The Muzaffarpur case, which exposed a criminal nexus between shelter home management and members of government and judicial bodies, raises larger questions about the systemic problems that enable the abuse of children in homes.

How well, for instance, do CWCs and child protection units run? How are their members appointed? Who monitors them? And what can be done to improve the system?

What ails child welfare committees

As per the Juvenile Justice Act, a CWC must have five members – at least one of them a woman – who could be lawyers, social workers, healthcare workers or other professionals with experience and expertise in dealing with children. Members serve a term of three years, during which they must hold meetings at least three times a week to hear cases about the care, protection, treatment and rehabilitation of minors rescued from sexual abuse, child labour, or destitution.

“But many committees are incomplete, with just three or four members instead of five, and often people with political affiliations are appointed to them,” said Manisha Tulpule, a child rights lawyer who served as a member of Maharashtra’s Raigad district CWC from 2013 to 2015.

Brajesh Thakur, the main accused in the Muzaffarpur shelter home abuse case. Photo: IANS

Across India, political postings to child welfare committees happen even though members are appointed by a state government panel that includes either a retired high court judge or a district judge. The panel usually selects members after putting out public advertisements for applicants and interviewing them.

“But in many cases, the pool of applicants itself is unsuitable and appalling, so selectors have to choose the best from a bad lot,” said Vidya Reddy, the executive director of Tulir, a Chennai-based organisation working with sexually abused children. One problem is a general dearth of qualified candidates. Another is the required time commitment: those with full-time jobs cannot often make time for CWC meetings, so many of the applicants tend to be retired professionals or minor political functionaries. Members are also required to be above the age of 35, ruling out younger candidates who may be experienced and enthusiastic enough to take up the work.

Besides, says Reddy, many people apply for a CWC post for power and status, because it is a quasi-government position. “I know people who come for CWC trainings and the first thing they ask is if they can put a red light on top of their cars,” she said.

Money is also a consideration for some CWC members. Typically, members are paid an honorarium of Rs 1,000 per meeting that they attend. In some districts, where members hold meetings in different shelter homes on different days, this amount is too little to put in the effort of travelling. For others, it is easy money. “A member just needs to show that they have sat in 20 meetings a month to earn Rs 20,000, even if they are not doing anything in the meetings,” said Reddy.

Similar problems exist with the appointment of protection officers in district child protection units. In some states, protection officers appointed to DCPUs are often promoted from within government departments, whether or not they may be suited for the role. “In Maharashtra, they are also employed on a contract basis with very poor pay,” said Tulpule.

Child welfare committees across India are also plagued by a range of other problems that are rarely addressed. Many CWCs are not given adequate facilities to create a child-friendly environment for hearing cases. Some are defunct, others suffer from low attendance by members and many have a high case pendency that directly impacts the children they are meant to protect.

“There can be a lot of political interference, threats and intimidation, and police protection is not always given to members who are trying to do their job,” said Tulpule. “In many cases, CWC members are aware of abuse and neglect taking place in children’s homes, but they don’t act on it because of political interference.”

Monitoring the monitors

So how is the functioning of child welfare committees monitored?

Since they are judicial bodies, CWCs are accountable to courts, and a district judge is supposed to monitor them. “But in practice, I have not seen much supervision of CWC members,” said Tulpule.

In 2015, the Maharashtra government enabled officers from the state women and child development department to supervise child welfare committees, which Tulpule describes as a conflict of interest. “An executive officer should not be supervising a judicial officer, because many times, the judicial body gives orders to the executive,” she said.

Reddy strongly believes that CWCs need to have a judicial officer as one of its members. “We should not just leave the job to a group of do-gooder citizens,” she said.


A different auditing system

Poor functioning and monitoring of agencies that are meant to protect children not only impacts individual cases of vulnerable children but also the monitoring of shelter homes as a whole.

Under the law, multiple agencies have the power to monitor and audit children’s homes: CWCs, state women and child development departments, the juvenile justice committees of high courts as well as the state and national-level committees for the protection of child rights. “But the law does not specify how frequently these audits have to take place, so they don’t take place very often,” said Tulpule.

In 2015, the union ministry for women and child development appointed a committee headed by the ministry’s statistical advisor, Ratna Jena, to study more than 9,500 homes for vulnerable children across India. The Jena committee report, published in 2018, found that 33% of the homes were not even registered, and 76% of them did not have a written child protection policy.

Across shelter homes, the committee found widespread use of corporal punishment to discipline children, a general shortage of staff, and lack of financial transparency: only 57% of the homes submitted copies of audit reports to government authorities.

To ensure that shelter homes are held more accountable, social workers believe two kinds of audits need to be carried out regularly: independent social audits by non-governmental bodies, and monitoring by the direct beneficiaries of the system – the children themselves.

The Juvenile Justice Act does require each shelter home to set up children’s committees comprising inmates from different age groups, so that children have a platform to provide feedback to shelter home staff about the conditions of homes and the way they are treated. But the Jena committee report found that only 25% of homes across India had set up children’s committees, of which just 30% were functional.

In their audit of shelter homes in Bihar, the researchers from Tata Institute found that many children’s committees existed only on paper, which staff members filling in registers on behalf of children. “When CWCs or other agencies come to monitor shelter homes, they tend to inspect only at the infrastructure and these written records, but this system is about human beings, so they need to speak to the children directly,” said Mohammed Tarique, the assistant professor at Tata Institute who led the Bihar social audit team.

This is why Tarique and other activists believe that independent, neutral bodies must be set up to periodically enter shelter homes and monitor them. “Social audits are a very strong tool for ensuring the safety of children, but nothing has been done to institute them at the national level so far,” said Tarique.