CHENNAI: With the government announcing its plans to merge the country’s only dedicated helpline for children — Childline 1098 — with the emergency helpline 112 under the ambit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, many stakeholders are, understandably, in distress. Such is the scope of work at what’s considered among the country’s largest emergency response systems, one that handles 50 lakh calls annually. While the draft guidelines for Mission Vatsalya of the Ministry of Women and Child Development promise to provide a detailed Standard Operation Procedure for integration, speculations have been rife about Childline’s possible future. Based on Union Minister Smriti Irani’s statements from last year, the main cause for concern is the direct involvement of the police in handling calls that are now being attended to by social workers.
In the words of children
Virgil D Sami, executive director of Arunodhaya (a Childline partner), points out that this is a concern raised by the primary stakeholder — the children themselves. “Childline has been established as a very helpful line for children, who have been using it regularly. Last year, when the announcement came, we had a consultation with children on the issue. They said that they feel comfortable calling this helpline (1098) but they might not feel so if it is handled by the police; for they are afraid of them,” she shares. Another concern they raised was the bias that police tend to have towards children from the slums.
“They (the children) are always held at fault. In that case, how far will the police take the complaints of the children? Also, will the parents be willing to go to the police? When they take up cases of child abuse or child missing, the immediate reaction of the police is ‘Ava engayavathu poyirupa. Why do you want to make this public? Only your child’s name will be spoiled.’ It’s not the same with Childline,” she explains.
Besides these calls of distress that require careful counselling and relief, Childline also receives help regarding shelter, education and such. There are silent calls, which need extended exchange and trust-building to take to the next step. How much can police personnel help with these needs, questions Virgil.
Of past and possibilities
The last time something like this was attempted in the state, the police department brought in the services of NGOs to augment the care provided. “It was in 2004 that the integrated control room was launched by the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa,” begins retired IPS officer R Nataraj. “We had all the helplines for the first time in the control room. But it was managed by some NGOs. To trace mentally ill people, The Banyan came, Don Bosco Anbu Illam (a Childline partner) came for the children’s helpline and so on. The child helpline mostly handled calls about missing children, child abuse and children in conflict with the law. We have a unit in the police, a special unit with the Crime Branch — that coordinated with these people (NGOs). NGOs handling these calls and being involved, they were able to give a lot of input about what’s happening to children; they are on the ground and know what’s happening. They were also sensitising the police. That way, it was a highly successful effort,” he recounts.
Based on past success, Nataraj points out that what the Ministry of Home Affairs has proposed — an integrated helpline — would be a good concept if it were executed well. For that, it has to be operated by a call centre of trained professionals instead of the police, he points out. “There should be a call centre that receives the calls and channels them to various service providers. Some people have pointed out that the children’s helpline is not only for times of distress but for things such as requests for information, financial help, etc. Based on the need, the call centre should be able to channel the children to the right people. That could be a good system. It all depends on how it is executed,” he points out. He takes the example of 911 in the US, where it is not the police who handle the calls but professionals who are trained in receiving distress calls.
Advocate Sudha Ramalingam, too, takes the example of 911 to suggest that a common helpline number could be a good thing. “If there’s a central board and single number, it may be better than having one for women, one for children, one for physically challenged, one for mentally challenged, another for domestic abuse. Having multiple numbers makes it difficult for people to remember; in the US, everyone remembers 911. And it is also easy for these stakeholders who are receiving the calls to pass on the buck, giving the reason that it does not come under their purview. Instead, they can have extension lines that go to one board; and people receiving the call can pass it on to the department concerned. We should think of fewer helpline numbers that can connect to different branches. A dedicated number, whether you have other numbers or not, is essential,” she suggests. A GPS-enabled system would also help trace the call and offer immediate assistance, she adds.
It goes without saying that the frontline workers taking the call should be trained well enough, point out Nataraj and Sudha. NGOs already in this line of work should be roped in for skill training and capacity-building efforts. Vikas Puthran, head of Resource Mobilization and Communications at Childline India Foundation, says that all Childline staff are trained professionals, equipped in various aspects of the work. “There is a continuous training process. It can’t be that we train them once and stop there for there are new things happening every now and then. So, we have to keep up the training, and have checks and balances in place. We work with probably the largest network of NGOs, with over 1,000 partners; they help provide the training too. We work in coordination with many stakeholders — Central government, State government, district-level officials, police, judiciary; everybody has to be involved in protecting the lives of children,” he details.
Such standards are applied to the organisations that partner with Childline too, says Vidya Reddy of Tulir. “Organisations interested in being a partner have to go through a rigorous due-diligence process. If it’s the state governments who are going to be deciding on partners, I don’t know if they will scrutinise the process as much,” she points out.
The integration of the helplines could allow for better handling of data and better digitisation of the same, notes Sudha. Smriti Irani’s original statement listed the preservation of data sensitivity as one reason for the decision. This is what Vidya Reddy takes objection to. “Please qualify the claim for right now Childline data is off anybody’s scrutiny. They are very, very careful about it,” she reasons. Speculating that the work of this helpline is likely to be outsourced, you might as well outsource it to Childline, she suggests. “It (Childline’s calls) is going to be handled by MHA.
Now, the question is whether MHA is going to devote a whole bunch of police personnel to answer these calls or hire more people or outsource it. If it’s the third, why not outsource it to Childline. To me, this is all a red herring to the fact that they don’t want data to be known that children are having problems,” she reasons, questioning if it’s wise to tear down a system that took so long to build instead of making it better. Even those who see benefit in moving to an integrated helpline insist that it has to come with a proper transition. So, what’s it going to be? We’ll have our answers soon, we hope.
A call away
Besides calls of distress that require careful counselling and relief, Childline also receives help regarding shelter and education. There are also silent calls which need trust-building