On 18 July, after the brutal assault on an 11-year-old girl in Chennai by 18 men in the gated community she lived in, the Madras High Court noted a violation of the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act.
While the violation may have been ignored in the larger scheme of debating and investigating the case, it presents a pitiful picture of a government body that is no longer given any legitimacy by the Tamil Nadu government.
The violation that the high court noted was that of the local police department not having informed the Child Welfare Committee of the crime within 24 hours of receiving information about it. So when did the CWC come to know?
“We found out on the third day, through newspapers,” says Sheila Charles, chairperson of the CWC in Chennai. Police sources say they weren’t even aware that they had to inform the Child Welfare Committee. “That doesn’t add up. So many cases of runaway children and special children come to us from the police, so how can they say that they didn’t know they had to inform us?” she says.
Much of the talk around the police's failure to report the incident to the CWC was around how the police took a tight-lipped approach immediately.
But why is the CWC losing its importance when it comes to major cases like this?
The state of Chennai’s CWC
According to the Juvenile Justice Act, the CWC must have five members and a chairperson with powers of a metropolitan magistrate. The child is usually brought to the CWC, after which the commission decides what is best for the child.
The CWC is also required to provide psychological counselling, and its members must have counselling experience.
But here’s the reality. The CWC has not had a chairperson for five years, and has only three members, as opposed to the required number of five. The commission has 2-3 sittings a month, and handles close to 100 children a month.
“The CWC had just one chairperson from 2011-2013. We have been reaching out to the commissioner, and all officials involved, but they have no answer,” said Charles.
Is the CWC equipped to handle this case? “We met the girl, but didn’t speak to her because her statement has been taken and we didn’t want to traumatise her again. They said they wouldn’t need the CWCs help for counselling. We offered assistance to the father, and he was not convinced. But later, we developed a kind of trust, after which we could meet her,” she says.
When asked what her assessment of the child was, she said, “The child is quite normal. She’s very brilliant and she tops her class. However, she seems to be hearing impaired.”
When Charles and the other members visited the station, no one was aware that a government body vested with the powers of a magistrate existed. The inspector did not know of this either. As per law, the child may be brought in front of the CWC by a police officer, public servant, social worker, Childline, the child himself/herself or any public citizen.
CWC losing trust of people?
When C Manjula* was a member 5 years ago, the CWC used to conduct sessions in a girls’ home and boys’ home for three days a week. In her time, she used to see 100 children a month, but says that the number has dwindled.
“The committee has a lot of powers, and it acts suo motu in many cases. We can even go to the central prison to find out if there are any children being held in custody in an unauthorised manner,” she says.
According to the Juvenile Justice Act, the inspection committee for such institutions should consist of representatives from the state government, voluntary organisations, medical experts and CWC members.
“The CWC in Chennai does not conduct regular visits, and does not maintain records of the inspections carried out,” says an official on the condition of anonymity. “It’s about time that we cut out the government’s role in this and made it ad hoc. There is no point wasting money and time in a body that fails at its job and loses trust among people,” he says.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Updated Date: Jul 22, 2018 07:41 AM