“Only a fraction of complaints require police intervention. This can still continue to happen; NGO can always take support of counsellors or police whenever they require. For this the helpline does not have to be merged,”Kavita, Director Advocacy of the Concerned for Working Children
Aiman Siddiqui | With the government publishing draft guidelines for CHILDLINE under the Mission Vatsalya Yojana for Child Protection Services, the ongoing tussle, between the government and the current civil society stakeholders of CHILDLINE, to merge the helpline number with the emergency helpline number, has not reached any resolution yet. After the merger, the helpline will be “integrated” with the Home Ministry’s universal emergency helpline number 112.
Moksha, who works as a child helpline staff in Vadodara, Gujarat, says: “A lot of times kids do not want to tell their problems to even their parents as they may be scared of their reaction.”
According to her, the staff’s continuous on ground efforts as well as their empathetic behaviour to pursue the children in relation to their problems, or in crisis situation, makes the children trust the staff eventually.
“We try to create a safe environment for the children so that they are not scared. We go on the ground and make them understand that they will receive help if they call on 1098 and that no one will judge or blame them,” she said.
Worried that the police attending the child helpline calls, after it comes under MHA, may not be able to handle the cases with the “sensitivity” that the Non-Profit Organisations (NGOs), social activists and counsellors currently do, she asks, “will the police be able to invest this much time?”
“They (the police) have thousand different things to do. Will they be able to prioritise children and their issues, even if they want to?” she wondered.
The first 24-hour telephonic child helpline service, accessible to anyone calling on 1098, was started in June 1996 by Jeroo Billimoria, a former professor of TISS Mumbai and founder of several international NGOs. It was started as a field action project under the Department of Family and Child, TISS.
By the year 2000, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had agreed to fund the project at the national level and committed that by 2002, it would be available in every Indian city.
CHILDLINE was, hence established, under which the workers identified and provided support service at various locations. It served like a link between the Ministry and the NGOs working in the related fields of child rights.
According to Childline India Foundation, as of 2021, CHILDLINE services are available across 602 cities and districts, covering almost 81% of the Indian landscape. The network has 1080 partner organisations and 153 Child Help Desk. CHILDLINE operates from centralised call centres at six places: Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.
“As soon as a call is received on the network, the case is forwarded to the field partner who is operating in the nearest area,” said Moksha. “The team partner then rushes to the child and makes sure that the child is safe,” she added.
Draft guidelines for Mission Vatsalaya published in April this year states, “The Mission Vatsalya in partnership with States and Districts will implement a 24×7 helpline service for children as defined under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 and amended in 2021.”
According to the guidelines, the child helpline under Mission Vatsalya will operate with improved coordination of State and District functionaries and will integrated with 112 helpline of MHA.
The government argued that the child helpline was being merged with the Emergency helpline so that the police personnel were the first interface of the calls made on 1098, instead of social workers.
Senior officials of the Ministry of Women and Child Development asserted that this was being done to make sure that states have interfaces for children’s complaints as well as “data sensitivity”
However, many civil society members and child rights activists have been recurrently questioning the rationale behind the move even when the current child helpline number 1098 is working successfully.
Brinda Adige, Bangalore based activist and Director of Global Concerns India said: “This merger is unacceptable because the people who will be handling the helpline will neither be equipped nor trained to handle these calls.”
Moksha and Brinda both claim that the calls received on the child helpline number are of various nature. “They can range from a child or their parents calling just to seek information, or someone who is calling to file a complaint,” says Adige.
According to Moksha, the extent of calls can be from “social to economic in nature, where the parents had even asked to take care of their children as they could not afford to do so during the pandemic.”
A statement published by ‘The Concerned for Working Children (CWC)’ said: “Many calls are from children who are in mental distress and require immediate or long-term support and counselling.” According to them there are also requests for food, books, shelter etc.
“These calls require experts who understand children and their psychology and are trained to protect and guide the children” form the moment the call is picked, the statement added.
Children make silent calls when they are deeply distressed and the Childline personnel wait until the child opens up. According to the statement, the children ask, “Will Police be ready to do it?” “The police are therefore not at all an appropriate first point of contact for receiving these calls,” concluded the statement.
Adige argues: “The Karnataka government has appointed people who are handling the 121-helpline number at police stations in Bangalore (Makkala Sahayavani Helpline). They are not able to provide any type of immediate counselling.” For example, she adds, “If a woman, locked outside her house along with her children by her husband, has dialled the helpline number, I would first ask her of her exact location, then inquire if she has money to reach a safe place. Arrangements would then be made accordingly.” “Are the police personnel trained to do this management?” she said.
In addition to these factors, statement by the CWC pointed out that when the children complained against sexual abusers or drug peddlers to the police, they “have exhibited bias and discriminated in favour of the abuser or even taken bribes.” Thus, the presence of police increases “ostracism” against the children, claimed the statement.
“There could be cases of child sexual abuse and the child would not want to talk to authorities or be scared of them. Even if they do talk, depending on who is calling, biases and suggestions like ‘could your father really do this’ or ‘do you really want to make this complaint’ could be made,” said Brinda Adige.
According to her, she would ask the child “to meet with mother or if the child is comfortable with the father because the abuser is his/her mother’s brother, then that will be done. Meanwhile, I would also call a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with a trauma crises centre, and ask to provide the child with a counsellor.”
“Are the police trained to do this? The government does not have a trauma crisis centre. Hence, the police are neither trained nor equipped to deal with the kind of calls coming on daily basis,” she reiterated.
In their statement, CWC also flagged a worrisome fact that the children might stop placing calls and put themselves in greater danger or be deprived of the services they need.
Moreover, talking about the rationale of data sensitivity given by the government, the statement added “We are sure that MWCD follows similar protocols for preserving the data sensitivity as the Government and hence instead of shifting this work to MHA, the required measures for strengthening should be done while retaining it within MWCD itself.”
Talking about the same rationale, Adige adds: “There is no guarantee that the calls being received as well as recorded will follow a confidentiality clause. Child and their family’s identities can be exposed to threats, their numbers can be traced.”
“They want to ensure that NGOs don’t have work, or get funding. Most importantly, they don’t want these issues to get out in the public or any complaint to be placed. For this, they will easily be able to tamper with the recorded data and the number of calls that are being placed,” she further stated.
Speaking on the suggestions that can be given to the police to improve their administration of the child helpline, Kavita Ratna, Director Advocacy of the CWC, while hinting that only guideline have been issued by the MHA, said: “Putting it like that may put out an impression that we have already accepted the takeover of 1098 by the MHA.”
“Only a fraction of complaints require police intervention. This can still continue to happen; NGO can always take support of counsellors or police whenever they require. For this the helpline does not have to be merged,” said Kavita.
Moreover, according to Moksha “Even now the police get involved in some of the cases but their manpower is very less, and kids are not their first priority even if the police would want it to be that way. This is because they have a lot of other work to handle.”
“This does not mean there is no scope for improvement in the present infrastructure of the child helpline number. But since the larger scope and priority here is the protection of children, these improvements should be made within the present system,” said Kavita.
According to the activists, the infrastructure, and the ability to access support from other departments working on child related issues for collaborative response have to be integrated into the present system to strengthen the base and effectiveness of 1098, instead of merging it with Emergency helpline 112, which can create a whole new set of issues.
This article earlier published in Daily Pioneer is written as a part of the WNCB Awards for Untold Stories on child labour.
Aiman Siddiqui is a winner of the WNCB Awards for Untold Stories on child labour. Share your feedback on firstname.lastname@example.org
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