Building support systems for a child after restoration: Neema's Story
SENIOR PROJECT COORDINATOR
Neema (name changed) is a 15-year-old child, who entered the juvenile justice system in 2019, as a child in need of care and protection. Neema had been rescued from another state with the help of her family members and the police. She had been abducted and kept in wrongful confinement. Neema subsequently got restored to her family and Prerana was given the Support Person order (under POCSOA), after her restoration. The social worker tried to link Neema with various educational and vocational support systems, but she didn’t show much interest. She did not seem very responsive to the counseling sessions that were being facilitated by Prerana either. Neema’s family lives in one of the crowded chawls of Mumbai. There is little privacy between her, her parents, and her four younger siblings. The lack of space makes counseling sessions even harder.
In 2020, a person living in her neighborhood sexually assaulted Neema, on the pretext of marriage. The accused had threatened to harm her if she disclosed the incident to anyone. The family found out about the incident when Neema got pregnant. A case under POCSOA was filed, and a recommendation from the registered medical practitioner was taken regarding Meena’s Medical Termination of Pregnancy. The social worker interacted with the child and the parent to understand what they wanted. Although the mother had consented to her daughter undergoing the pregnancy termination, Meena was fearful and apprehensive of the medical processes involved in the termination of pregnancy. The counselor from Dilaasa Crisis Centre provided timely in-person counseling to the child on health-related risks of giving birth at a young age. Neema consented to undergo Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP).
Neema was in trauma from the incident of sexual assault and subsequent physical and emotional pain of undergoing medical termination of her pregnancy. Around the same time, the legal proceedings of the case began to start. The legal process of recording 164 statements requires the victims to state the incident before a Magistrate. Thereafter, this statement gets included in the charge sheet filed by the police. When the proceedings were initiated, Neema was unwilling to talk about the incident to anyone including the family, the social worker, and the counselor.
It seemed unlikely that Neema would be able to provide a statement before the Magistrate. The social worker then discussed the matter with the Childline social worker, who had been visiting the child, and a member of the Child Welfare Committee. It was decided that Neema could be requested to visit the Childline Office, near her residence, to have a detailed conversation and understand her situation. Neema agreed and was assisted to the Childline office by the Childline social worker.
Due to COVID-19 precautionary measures, Prerana’s social workers work remotely, often undertaking field visits on a case-to-case basis. In this meeting, the social worker from Prerana interacted with Neema through video conferencing. After a brief ice-breaker, Neema was assured of confidentiality and safety. She was informed that the meeting had been organized for the social workers to understand how to support her better, and to help her make an informed decision. Neema opened up about the incident. She further shared that she was scared of speaking up as she feared disrepute. She was also afraid of the accused harming her, or her family. The social workers listened to her, and tried to make her comfortable, and provided the necessary support. Neema was given some refreshments and tea, informed about the legal process, and oriented about the significance of the 164 statement. Neema was asked to make her own decision. She was assured that she won’t be re-traumatized or pressurized during the recording of her statement before the magistrate. Neema shared that she felt encouraged to give the statement in the court. Neema appeared much more relaxed as the meeting came to an end. She shared that she liked this discussion, and would like more such interactions in the future.
Following this meeting, another meeting was organized in the same manner, before the court hearing date. This time, with Neema’s permission, one of the female CWC members was also present in the meeting over video conference, who helped her understand the legal procedure, and the assistance she would get in the process. On the day of the hearing, Neema and her mother were present in the court, and the recording of her 164 statement before the Magistrate was completed. After the hearing, Neema informed the social worker that she was a little scared initially, but she gathered her courage and gave the statement. She was appreciated for her courage and active participation. Neema has since then opened up a lot about her daily activities and has started showing interest in planning for her future. She has shared that she wants to continue her education too.
The above-mentioned limitations and challenges remain true for most of the restored children who the team works with. At one point in time, the social worker and the CWC did consider placing Neema in a child care institution for better rehabilitation and safety. After learning that, both the family and child wanted to stay together, institutionalization was not pursued. This also made the social worker think about how the lack of space due to socio-economic conditions makes it very difficult for children to access rehabilitative measures such as counseling services. In Neema’s case, a place not too far from her home, where privacy and confidentiality were assured, helped her in opening up. This place became a safe space for her, where she was allowed to share without the fear of getting reprimanded or judged.
Many areas in the city may not be considered safe and accessible for children. However, that should not mean that all children should be kept inside child care institutions in the name of ‘safety’, away from their family. It is challenging but the work has to start from one child, one family, and maybe the change will start from there.