One day in Prerana
Project Manager (Sanmaan)
While studying for a bachelor’s in social work I learned the ‘10 Guiding Principles of Social Work. They are the foundation of my ethics, that I follow while working. Among these is the “Principle of Non-Judgmental Attitude’ which can be simply put as – “I as a social worker will not judge a person as good or bad or believe that they do not know what is best for them.” While working with child rights activists, I have frequently come across yet another proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. I agree with this proverb which affirms that for the well-being or development of a child, various stakeholders need to work together.
As a social worker, I have found myself to be the bridge so that the people I work with can access their rights. There is a thin line between what we think the community wants for themselves and what they objectively need. In this communication, I want to share about one day in my professional life that made me understand what it means to be a professional social worker. Although the day is a milestone in my life, I despise the incident. Strange; No?
This incident took place sometime in November 2016 during one of my initial days as a social worker in Prerana. Fresh out of college I was eager to learn new things about the development sector. My project was to work closely with children rescued from begging in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. I was working with a child who was forced into begging by the family members of the child. The latter would physically abuse the child if the child did not go out to beg and in one particular situation, the child was also flogged with a thick wire for not bringing any money through begging.
I had visited the respective Child Welfare Committee (CWC) (a semi-judicial body instituted under the Juvenile Justice Act) with my colleague. Previously the team had decided after an internal discussion that the best course of action for that child would be to refer the case to CWC since the child was a Child in Need of Care and Protection (CNCP)*. A report was submitted to the CWC for the same. I had put forward a recommendation that the child should stay in a Child Care Institute (CCI) like a Children’s Home (CH) till the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) or/and Prerana could work with the family and develop a safety and care plan with the parents for the child. The CWC had read the report submitted by us and after seeking the opinions of all stakeholders involved in the case had passed an order that the child should be placed in a Children’s Home. The CWC had also asked us to help them find a vacancy for the child in a CH so that the needs of the child are addressed.
My colleague and I had promptly visited 6 CHs across Mumbai to find a suitable one for the child. It was disappointing that due to the stigma attached to children found begging none of the CH were ready to accept the child, although they had vacancies. In one of the CHs, the Superintendent denied admission stating that the child will not obey the rules of the CH and will create chaos. There was a clear prejudice the Superintendent harbored and expressed when she had not even seen the child even once. In almost all the CHs I had visited, I heard only negative labeling (notorious, mischievous, runaways, difficult) and remarks about children found begging. When we had asked them the reason for such an opinion about the children they hadn’t even met, one of them had mentioned “I know such children are raised by their parents to steal and be violent”.
The prejudice had left me in utter shock. They never had any children in their CH as they had always denied them admission. This was also a blatant violation of the Juvenile Justice Act (JJA) and the JJA Maharashtra Rules. The Principle of Non-Discrimination was only on paper. It was a tokenistic assurance made by the state to the CNCPs of the country.
On the very same day, my colleague and I had conducted a school visit to understand the educational background of the child because when I met the child he could not read or write. The school authorities informed us that the child was never regular to school and would only attend school for their mid-day meal, once or twice a week. When we asked, what steps were taken to ensure the child is regular to school, they did not have a definite answer.
Towards the end of the day, we were tired and hungry because while traveling across CHs we did not even get the chance to have our lunch. However, our day was far from over. We received a call from the CH where the child was currently staying. On the call, they asked us to come there urgently because the child “was violent”. The staff asked us to either “deal” with the child or speed up the process to restore the child to the family. They said that the child wouldn’t listen to anyone and had even thrown stones at the staff and other children.
A little distressed by the call, we hurried to meet the child. We took a local train to reach there. Along the way, we finally gave in to our hunger and ate one chapati each from the lunch box I had brought from home.
When my colleague and I reached the CCI, the staff seemed upset with us. They concluded that our work will bear no positive results and started telling us that our work was very ineffective. They shared that we should stop spending so much time on the child and just hand over the child to parents as “such children” will never change and it is because of their upbringing. “Their parents have raised them to be violent and criminal,” They remarked.
We started by trying to understand what the child had to say and provide him the emotional support if he needed it. We decided to sit and talk with the child and understand the reason for such resentment towards the staff. The child shared the confusion, regarding how he did not understand what was going all around him and that he wanted to return home. The child had got the impression that he had committed a crime and would languish in jail for the rest of his life. It took us some time to explain to the child that the CH was not in jail and that he would not be here forever. It took us more than an hour to calm the child. Then the child said something that I can never forget, they said that “Didi I just want to go home, I want to be with my parents and family. But no one wants to listen to me.”
See! That day, I had to reflect on both the things I had learned before – the Principle of Non-Judgmental Attitude and the proverb prevalent within child rights activists mentioned above. My learnings through the day led me to question a lot of things and even the proverb itself. The proverb is not complete in itself, it is not the responsibility of the village to just “raise” the child. I realized, it is also the responsibility of all of us and the whole village to “listen” to the child while raising. No matter how many villagers or stakeholders come together for the wellbeing of the child, it’s important to have them understand that the child has the right to make their own choices to be heard, and the adult has the responsibility to support and guide the child.
Secondly, and most importantly, if it takes a village to raise a child, why aren’t we talking about how even if one person in the village fails to do his/her/their part it affects the development of the child. Even if one stakeholder does not do what is supposed to do or let personal biases come in the way, the child faces the consequences. Not only that, the judgmental attitude of the teacher and the CCI staff led them to deny the right of the child.
This is not a standalone incident, this is something we, still face after working in the field for so many years. It’s the same experience over and over again where a certain judgmental attitude of a person decisively affects the well-being of a child. Every day I have to remind myself to understand what is good for a child but also to listen to what is good according to them for themselves. Every day I have to remind myself, no matter how many times I have to begin from the scratch, the castle can be built one day. Who says Rome was built in a day!
* Juvenile Justice Act Section 2(14) “child in need of care and protection” means a child— (i) who is found without any home or settled place of abode and without any ostensible means of subsistence; or (ii) who is found working in contravention of labor laws for the time being in force or is found begging, or living on the street; or (iii) who resides with a person (whether a guardian of the child or not) and such person— (a) has injured, exploited, abused or neglected the child or has violated any other law for the time being in force meant for the protection of the child;….
Documented by Ms. Deepali Mistry
Documentation assistance and editing by Mr. Snehanshu Shome
Reviewed by Ms. Priti Patkar