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The uncertain future of young people leaving child care institutions

Aneesha Wadhwa | Updated on October 25, 2019

For children growing up outside the safety net of families, turning 18 means the State and society’s responsibility towards them has legally ceased

If only she could figure out which way to go. Bhumi pulled up a distant memory of a volunteer, one of the many who had streamed in and out of her life in the multiple children’s homes she was shunted between while growing up. Was the story the volunteer had told them called Alice in Wonderland? She struggled to remember what the smiling cat had said. Something about “If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t really matter what road you take”. She wondered where Wendy was now. She had said she would keep in touch. They always did.

Bhumi had just turned 18. Her life’s belongings, such as they were, were all contained in a black garbage bag. These meagre belongings had been her constant companions as she went from one children’s home to the next. Apparently, she had “behavioural issues”. She had heard them say this, read the words in her file. The school said she was “bright”, had “potential”, but needed “direction”.

That direction had been decided for her from the day her mother left after her father beat her senseless. Again. The first three years in a home, and then six years in another — her longest stay ever in one place. Then the last one year in yet another home. The superintendent thought she had too much anger in her. And so here she was. Eighteen years old. Free to go where she liked. She wasn’t their responsibility any more. If only she could figure out which way to go.

Bhumi’s story is one of many that we at Udayan Care, a child and youth rights organisation which runs children’s homes and aftercare programmes in Delhi-NCR, Haryana and Rajasthan, have heard over the last 25 years. We provide long-term residential care through small group homes to children and youth growing up without parental care and have been working with children growing up outside the safety net of families, in child care institutions (CCI), under the Juvenile Justice Act (2015).

On my own

The lucky ones get food, shelter, some form of education, maybe even a kind social worker or warden to share their fears with. The not so lucky ones turn survivors in the face of multiple displacements and hindered attachments, broken child care systems and the ever-looming prospect of turning 18. Lucky or not, adulthood means the State and society’s responsibility is legally over. Adulthood means Bhumi and others who have grown up without a family as wards of the State are once again no one’s responsibility.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 (Section 46) and Juvenile Justice Rules 2016 (Rule 25) define a pathway for the aftercare of children leaving institutional care upon turning 18. State governments “shall prepare a programme for children who have to leave Child Care Institutions on attaining eighteen years of age by providing for their education, giving them employable skills and placement as well as providing them places for stay to facilitate their re-integration into the mainstream of society,” it states.

As an organisation that has given a home and family-like environment to over 1,000 children for up to 20 years of their lives, we have spent the last two years introspecting. What happens to the thousands of “Care Leavers” — all young people who have lived in a State- or NGO-run child care institution and have to leave this care, upon turning 18 — when they exit the system? Do they really have a State-led programme to rely upon? Is there someone to guide them? A roof over their heads? Money in the bank? Hope?

A two-year research study, conducted with the support of Unicef and Tata Trusts, took Udayan Care to the five states of Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan that would allow us into their child care systems. We attempted to understand what goes on in the minds of the youth on the brink and the beliefs of the people who are meant to care for them. The results of our study have left us believing what the reams of international literature on the subject have already posited. That Care Leavers face heightened challenges and poorer outcomes on the journey to independence, not only because of their fractured pasts but also a lack of planned interventions towards preparing them for life outside of the care institutions they are raised in.

Dream vs Reality: The Juvenile Justice Act 2015 is meant to be a safety net for India’s 23.6 million orphaned and abandoned children   -  ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

 

This is not a psycho-social issue alone. India is home to 23.6 million orphaned and abandoned children, of whom 2.1 million are in the 15-17 year age group. Their vulnerability as they reach 18 is evidenced in the fact that we could not even find the actual number of these young people ageing out of care.

Way ahead

The Juvenile Justice Act 2015 is these children’s safety net. Or is meant to be. The law and Juvenile Justice Rules 2016 call for the provision of aftercare for those turning 18 — “Any child leaving a CCI on completion of eighteen years of age may be provided with financial support in order to facilitate child’s re-integration into the mainstream of the society. This aftercare continues until the child is twenty-one years and in exceptional circumstances, for two more years on completing 21 years of age.” Or, they may not, for the rules say that aftercare “may” be provided; it does not say “should”. And which child — especially one who has grown up with the trauma of abandonment — is financially, emotionally and educationally independent at 18?

Published in August, Beyond 18: Leaving Child Care Institutions, A Study of Aftercare Practices in Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan proved what we had already suspected. That Bhumi was not alone. Almost 60 per cent of the youth interviewed did not even know they could avail of aftercare services.

The study developed a thematic framework called the Sphere of Aftercare to define just what these young people deserve after the State and society have invested between ₹80,000 and ₹2,00,000 annually on each child growing up in care. More than a quarter of these young adults had not received even one of the support services that read like a list of basic rights — housing, physical health, education and vocational skills, financial independence, identity and legal awareness, independent living skills, social support and interpersonal skills and emotional well-being. The implications of this can be devastating, most importantly for these invisible youth but equally for each one of us who should have a responsibility towards them.

They are not counted, their journey not followed, let alone assisted. They are simply free to go. And no one seems to know where they go. Less than half of the youth we interviewed received housing support. While 20 per cent of them discontinued their education in child care institutions, the drop-out rate rose to 34 per cent when transitioning out of care. The average monthly salary, for the 52 per cent who were earning, was ₹7,500-8,500, less than most states’ unskilled minimum labour wage. Over 61 per cent faced recurring emotional distress. It is surprising it isn’t much higher.

To understand what these systemic failures mean for young people leaving care institutions let’s go back to Bhumi who rifled through her bag of belongings and found a business card of a travel agency owner who had sponsored lunch at one of the homes she lived in when she was 12. Perhaps she could call him? She hadn’t spoken to a male other than the people who came to inspect the homes.

What would she say? Nothing in her life had prepared her for this moment.

The word orphan conjures the image of a vulnerable child. An orphan is still one at 18. If our neglect continues, so will their vulnerability.

  • The life after care
  • Udayan Care is working through Unicef partners with state governments at various levels to put into effect the recommendations it listed at the end of its research study on aftercare. The biggest actions have been the sanctioning of an Aftercare Suvidha Kendra by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), under the government of Delhi. This will be a pilot programme for setting up a one-stop resource support centre for Care Leavers, addressing their educational, vocational and mental health needs. The DCPCR has also appointed a consultant to map children in all the child care institutions of Delhi in need of aftercare support as the first exercise of this centre. Other states are focussing on training and sensitisation of functionaries in childcare institutions and government on the concept of “participatory transition planning” for each child ageing out of care. Bihar is also believed to be working on a training plan for functionaries and Care Leavers, while Chhattisgarh has proposed to set up two aftercare homes in the state. Others, such as Gujarat, are working towards creating a budget of ₹4,000 for each aftercare youth per month as per their need in the 18-21 years of aftercare period mandated by the law. The Karnataka government has honed in on collaborating with the skill development department to provide employability to aftercare youth, while in Rajashtan, UNICEF field office in partnership with local NGOs and Udayan Care has initiated the process of bringing Care Leavers together on a common platform, where they can form peer networks and mentoring relationships.

Aneesha Wadhwa is executive director of Udayan Care, a child and youth rights NGO based in Delhi

Published on October 25, 2019

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