Kerala government keen to rekindle kinly ties of care-home kids

De-institutionalisation drive gaining momentum to lower resident numbers by 50% over next five years
Image used for representation.
Image used for representation.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: In a bid to prioritise the well-being of children who fall foul of the law and those in need of care and protection, the state government has launched a comprehensive five-year action plan aimed at reducing the number of residents in its child-care institutions by 50%.

According to official data, Kerala has witnessed a substantial decrease in the number of child-care institutions in recent years, from around 800 facilities housing 50,000 children eight to nine years ago to 515 centres with approximately 11,100 occupants at present. As per the Juvenile Justice Act, institutionalisation must be the last resort and every decision should be taken in the best interest of the child.

The Women and Child Development Department has tied up with Unicef as a consultant for implementing de-institutionalisation and alternative-care programmes in the state. Children land in care homes owing mostly to issues ranging from finances, lack of access to education, and addiction of parents, besides as orphans.

“A process to profile the children in our care homes has been initiated. We need to identify their specific issues and find solutions. We will gather information on how many of these children have both parents, single parents and kin who can take care of them. Around 60% of the over 11,000 children residing in care homes have a family background and identifying the issues and finding solutions and strengthening these families will help keep the children in the family environment,” said the official.

Government Children’s Home for Boys in Poojappura, Thiruvananthapuram
Government Children’s Home for Boys in Poojappura, Thiruvananthapuram Photo | B P Deepu

According to sources, there were nearly 24,000 children in care homes prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. “A family-oriented environment is key for the well-being of these children. The pandemic saw the introduction of strict restrictions and we had to send many of the children home. Then we launched a pilot campaign in three districts -- Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram -- to ensure the children don’t return to institutions. Our team visited and assessed individual family situations. Many children are sent to care homes because of their financial situation and for education. If we can support them financially many of these children can remain at home,” said the official.

Follow up reviewing to ensure the safety of children sent back to families not happening in the state, says a child rights expert

However, many child-rights activists feel that de-institutionalisation alone will not help ensure the well-being of the children.

Former member of Child Rights Commission J Sandhya notes that increasing crime and sexual attacks against children is the fallout of the de-institutionalisation programme in the state. “These children are vulnerable and they come to care homes for protection and care. A lot of children are going through a lot of atrocities including sexual exploitation because we are sending them back home. There needs to be a system to review and regularly follow up on these children which is lacking. Along with de-institutionalisation, the government should take same efforts to ensure the safety of these children at their home,” said Sandhya.

The strategic action plan of the department aims at exploring alternative care options such as foster care, family reunification and adoption. The ministry of women and child development’s Mission Vatsalya scheme, launched in 2022 for the protection of children, also gives thrust to alternative care. “These children need to be integrated into society and they deserve a normal future. There are limitations when these children are raised in an institution. The restrictions are not ideal for a child growing up. So, if an alternative care option exists it should be tapped in the best interest of the child,” pointed out K V Manoj Kumar, chairperson of the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KeSCPCR).

He opined that adoption and the existing schemes and programmes for child welfare should be popularised.

“More financial aid from the Centre and state is required,” stressed officials.

For promoting family-based care for vulnerable children, the central and state governments pay Rs 4,000 and Rs 2,000 per month respectively to beneficiary families as child support. Last year, the state government granted funds to around 1,000 children while the Centre allotted grants to around 730 children.

In 2018, the women and Child Development Department came up with the Balanidhi/Juvenile Justice Fund for the rehabilitation of marginalised children.

But the initiative, which aims to mobilise funds from the public, has yet to gain traction. Recently, the central government hiked allocation for its sponsorship programme but the state government is yet to respond in kind.

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The Balanidhi/Juvenile Justice Fund to rehabilitate marginalised children, aims to mobilise funds from the public. An official associated with it said they have a Balanidhi website through which public can make contributions. They have also tied up with SBI and plan to introduce a QR code to enable UPI transactions.

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