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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Childline 1098 stands to help and assist children – not police them

There are very few spaces for children in our society to seek help and Childline revolutionised the simple yet fraught act of a child asking for help. Making police the first port of call for vulnerable minors will undo those gains


Updated: August 12, 2021 10:57:50 pm
Childline 1098 was started in 1996 as a helpline for children precisely to fill this gap -- for being there for children when they needed support. (File)

Written by Khushboo Jain

In the documentary, Wisdom of Trauma (2021), Dr. Gabor Maté, making a connection between illness, addiction, trauma and society, observes “Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you, as a result of what happens to you”. According to Maté, not having an adult or anyone else to share the grief with becomes trauma for the rest of your lives.

Childline 1098 was started in 1996 as a helpline for children precisely to fill this gap — for being there for children when they needed support. Its website states: “…as of March 2015, a total of 36 million calls since inception have been serviced by CHILDLINE service and [it] operates in 473 cities/districts in 35 States/UTs through its network of over 887 partner organisations across India.”

I started research in 2009 to understand why children run away from home. I interacted with children on the streets in the country and asked who they reach out to in times of crisis. Most named outreach staff from Childline.1098 was a number they all remembered by heart. That significant adult, a figure you look up to, feel a connection with, trust that they will support you in the time of need — that adult was most often for them a Childline bhaiya or didi.

The central government though, through an announcement by Smriti Irani, the Minister of Women and Child Development (WCD), indicates that it wants to change this system, aiming to make a police official the first line of contact for children instead of a social worker when they call 1098. This is ostensibly for reasons of preserving “data sensitivity”. The Secretary MWCD is reported as having said, “We will build an ecosystem such that after a complaint is registered (by the police) the call can be handled by NGOs”.

As a troubled teen from a fairly affluent family, I remember learning about a helpline number and nervously calling them, scared to death about what would happen if they traced me and came to my doorsteps revealing everything to my parents. However, the soothing voice on the other side, wishing to hear me out, helping me trust them, gave me time and space to share what was troubling me. It was all I needed then to calm me down. I cannot fathom what it could have been if it was a police officer answering it, asking me what the issue was, so they could transfer it to the NGO they felt could help me, from the list of names they had. The conversation in all probability would have never happened and I would have never managed to deal with the situation I was grappling with.

The types of calls Childline handles ranges from emotional support and guidance, medical aid and disability to sexual abuse, child marriage, child trafficking and child labour, among others. This system has been in place for decades and has worked well for numerous children across the country.

When the announcement was made by the Union WCD Minister Smriti Irani in March 2021 about their plan to move Childline 1098 services to the administrative control of the Ministry of Home affairs, concerned NGOs and individuals under the aegis of the All India Working Group for Rights of Children (AIWGRC) opposed the move. In their statement against the move, they crucially state that,

“The infrastructure, the mandate and the ability to access support from other child related departments for collaborative response (which the police department may be able to provide) have to be integrated into the present Childline system to strengthen its base and effectiveness. So we would be happy to bring in the advantage of infrastructure into the existing system, where police can and should be invoked where required.”

There is no information regarding whether children, Childline supporting organisations or CSOs were consulted by the government regarding the proposed move. The Forum for Promotion of Child Participation (FPCP) in Tamil Nadu therefore reached out to children to understand what children themselves felt about it. Of the 103 children they interacted with, 102 children were opposed to the move. One said, “When children commit mistakes (e.g. infatuation or drug abuse) Childline will offer counselling and look at helping the child. But the police will look at the child as offender.” Another child said, “When we think of police we are only reminded of violence. We foresee many possibilities of police handling children in a violent way.” And this fear of children is not ill-founded. In the 2018 AIWG-RCCR study carried out with over 2000 children in contact with the railways, over 50 percent of children experienced harassment and reported police as the primary harassers.

In a fact-finding study conducted in Bhopal by NGO Muskaan, police bias against the denotified tribes came out strongly. It is no wonder that many of those children feel that,
“Police are biased and discriminatory. If children like us make a call, they will have prenotions about us based on our area, appearance and family background and may not respond to the call.”

In fact they further worry, “If the police come home on receiving the call, neighbours will get suspicious about the character of the child. Police will always look at the children as someone who committed an offence.”

One of the arguments made by the Minister for the proposed move is to preserve data sensitivity, with no clarity on what this means. This argument looks quite untenable and raises questions on data sensitivity in all ministries of the government. Is the Minister really suggesting that barring MHA, data is unprotected in all other ministries of the government? A conversation with any researcher who has tried to get data from Childline can tell you how zealously Childline protects the data and confidentiality of the child.

With the 2015 amendment to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children Act), we have already exposed children to the criminal justice system, forgetting what Dr. Maté observes strongly, “So much of what we call abnormality in this culture is actually normal responses to an abnormal culture. The abnormality does not reside in the pathology of individuals, but in the very culture that drives people into suffering and dysfunction.”

There are very few spaces for children in our society to seek help and Childline revolutionised in many ways the simple yet fraught act of a child asking for help. Let us not take away the little they have. Instead, let’s work towards strengthening these spaces according to the needs of children. There are ways Childline could be made much more effective but moving it to the MHA and under the control of the Police is certainly not one. The Indian state must ensure that children’s issues do not risk being overpoliced – we need to stop the overdrive of policing children treating it as a law-and-order issue – because it simply is not.

Khushboo Jain is a child rights activist and a member of the All India Working Group for Rights of Children (AIWGRC)

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