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Care Takers: The Invisible Population

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Sehrish Altaf

She was a criminal justice fellow at Centre for Criminology and Justice, TISS, Mumbai 

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

-Frederick Douglass

‘Family is the safe haven for children’, is a commonplace saying. Even our national law for safeguarding the rights of the children, Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act (JJ act), highlights the importance of bringing up a child in a family. The need for belongingness, comfort, love and a secure space to garner the trustworthy relationships in life is supposed to be provided by a family. Yet the number of children who runaway from their homes or are reported to be abused in those families itself are staggering. At this point the role of state run institutions under JJ act comes into picture. They provide with the state care for those children who find themselves abused and vulnerable within the confines of their own family.

Whilst drawing parallels between the need of the care provided by a family and the system of a state run home for such children, the nearest to care and love giver is that in the form of a Care-Taker in such institutions. Growth and development of the children in institutions relies massively on care takers. These children are mostly from vulnerable backgrounds. They have been pushed to the margins and institutionalization acts as the last resort for them. Distrust, lack of motivation and guidance, and negligence from family members, all reinforce the low self esteem of a child. Thus hindering a holistic growth of a child into an adult.

Care taker is the primary source of contact between a child with this form of institution. As a care giver, showering love and affection to children coming in the institute has to be their basic responsibility. Being the closest and continuous support of a child in the institution, care taker can act as a vital role for progress of a child’s case. Identifying the issues that a child faces, building trust and reliability, a care taker’s role goes beyond just keeping a watch on children.

While considering the roles and responsibilities of a care taker to the children, the notion of their rights and values gets neglected somewhere. A care taker is the most important yet invisible step in this ladder of hierarchy that our systems refuse to take note of.

Children’s Home, Umerkhadi, Mumbai

The Umerkhadi home was established in 1927 by Children’s Aid Society (CAS). It currently houses children from the age of 6 to 18 years. On a yearly basis about 2500 boys and 1000 girls come to the home. On a daily basis average 5-10 children are admitted / released. Children in need of care and protection (CNCP) and children in conflict with law (CCL), both boys and girls, reside here. Boys section and girls section are separate and taken care of by deputy superintendents, housemasters, care takers and guards.

Girls’ section is supervised by a deputy superintendent, matron and a care taking staff of ten women. While the deputy superintendent and the matron live in the premises, the care takers work in shifts. This section has a capacity of holding 150 girls at any given point in time, including CNCP and CCL. The day starts at 6’O clock in the morning with basic morning routine of brushing, bathing and breakfast. The classes start from 9’O clock till 4 in the evening, with three breaks for snacks and lunch in between. Post 4’O clock, children play, watch television and do what they find interest in.

Care takers

Routine

While the children are busy with their schedule, care takers take shifts to cater to their roles and responsibilities. Waking children up, getting them ready for classes, serving breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, keeping note of visitors coming in the section, minding the number of girls coming in and going out, taking attendance, putting them back to beds all form the routine of their work. There are times when they have to attend to more than their routine work. For example, managing the tiffs and huge fights erupting between children, running around to handle the difficult and hyperactive ones, and taking care of needs of children with certain disabilities. While doing all this, they have to respond to the instructions and orders from their superiors. They listen to the abuses by children who are yet to be settled or have certain issues. More often or not, they also come in the line of fire amongst children.

No Value’

All these mentioned issues fall in the ambit of their work. But considering the close knit relationship that a care taker develops with children is somehow limited to taking care only. There is a sense of ‘no value’ to their work with the children. On the trip to SOS Children’s Village, Alibag, one issue which emerged out of the discussion with care takers was that they have no say in the life of a child till they stay in the institution. Under family based care intervention plan of SOS village, they cater to orphans in the age group of 6-12 and provide them with the atmosphere likened to a family and the basic essentials of health, education and care. One housemother looks after ten children, five girls, five boys. They are sent to a nearby school in mornings and afternoons. They have tutorials accordingly for each batch. Varied outdoor activities are provided to them also. Each child has a child care plan developed in consultation with the housemother. Since a house mother lives with the children, she is aware of the development of a child through each day. As such building care plan of a child with the housemother is an appropriate thing. This induces a sense of responsibility and value amongst the house mothers. At SOS, the care takers are backed by the administration and their opinions are sought in the cases of children. All this makes them feel like a stakeholder in the working of the organization and in the life of a child.

The lack of acknowledgement of their work isn’t just attributed to their involvement with children. It has a lot to do with how they are treated by the administration too. If anything bad happens in the institute, they are the scapegoats. With the tie ups of various NGO’s with the institute, many people come in to take various sessions with children. They are the people who come in for an hour or two in a week. They do not live with the children or know their schedule. In such cases, pointing a finger on a care taker who is talking roughly to child is easy. Many such complaints and articles in the newspaper featuring the cruel treatment to children by the staff makes up for a heart wrenching read and a feasible excuse to cry out for child rights. But at that point no one bothers to take a look into the capacity of the staff taking care of these children. At full capacity, there is one care taker for almost 50 children. And we are not taking in account the children who are in school. We are talking of children from vulnerable backgrounds who are in a confined space of institutions like Children’s Home, Umerkhadi. Tempers and emotions run high. Attention demanded and sought by each child has to be met by one individual who isn’t just responsible for them but various other things in and out of that space.

Personal Front

While talking about their responsibilities as care takers, their role outside this space is not considered. Being a mother, a daughter, a wife who acts as an earning hand in a family; has to handle issues besides the routine of children’s home. The life of a care taker isn’t miserable just because of the lack of acknowledgement, inadequate trainings or being made the scapegoat every time something goes wrong in the institute, she is denied a timely salary for her work too. There is no clarity on their belongingness to the government or to the CAS. They are made to work as per the mandates of the government but when it comes to receiving the perks that are due under working with government, they are denied even that. This confusion plays up almost every time when they seek leave, transfer or promotion. The selective treatment on job front creates ripples in their domestic life as well. Frustrations from both ends find misplaced outlets. It plays with their health and inter personal relations. A human being simply cannot be expected to be calm and composed constantly under all conditions. When there are ripples in different dimensions in ones life, its effects are felt throughout.

Trainings

Tackling children and managing them day in and day out has a lot to do with how the staff is trained too. Trainings based on JJ act or POCSO will make the staff efficient in terms of their dealings with children through law. But the aspect of child care with a background of trauma and abuse is not dealt with in trainings. Even though the age group that CH deals with is 6-18 years, they do not have trainings based on dealing with adolescent age group either. There is an evident gap in the working knowledge of the staff. Being aware of one’s roles and responsibilities is not training. It is a refresher course for the staff with regard to their job specification. Trainings should be based on the nature of the job and the subject to be handled. E.g, With zero tolerance for child abuse, the housemothers in SOS village tackle the fights, irrational behavior or any other thing related to a child which can create problems for other children in the house. With the number of trainings that they undergo, understanding a child and how to deal with different phases of a child is also one of the themes that they cover. They need to be well versed in the basics of child and adolescent psychology as well as the concepts of dealing with trauma and abuse, that these kids are mostly subjected to previously in their lives.

The trainings mandated for the staff on yearly basis are also not regular. There is no set module for the training either. There has to be a mechanism whereby the administration knows the gaps in the working of their staff and upgrade their trainings annually. E.g, the issues related to children with special needs, homosexuality, unwed mothers, etc need to be deliberated upon and a discourse has to be started amongst their staff to not just familiarize them to changing child rights scenario worldwide but also make them aware about severat other converging themes in relation to child rights.

What can be done?

When the children first arrive in the institute, care takers are the ones to whom they first open up to. They are the ones who know few things which even the PO’s don’t know at times. If it could be managed in any way, the care takers could be a great source of documenting the first hand information from the children and at later time, it can be verified too as the process goes along. This of course will have to become a part of the annual trainings. There is a need to acknowledge their relentless work on ground zero. It’s about time that the management realizes the need to take on board their ground staff to help them run things smoothly throughout the system. You cannot run a system in a top-down approach and expect the outcome to be satisfactory. A bottoms-up approach has to be taken to help the system cater to child rights to the letter.

With changing world scenario, child rights are widely discussed. With huge number of children crossing international borders as refugees from war struck countries, children trafficked for sex and low wage labour, children employed as child soldiers, etc, it’s time that we gear up our systems to cater to their forlorn childhoods and also take lesson from the upcoming scene of child development that are being followed worldwide. Our children deserve that.

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