Re-evaluating best interests

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The month has gone by quickly. During the last two weeks, Chris and I have been interviewing social workers at SBT’s various shelter homes, as well as boys from the DMRC shelter home about their life stories and experiences. All of these interviews, along with the ones we did earlier in the month, help to shape our argument for re-evaluating India’s Juvenile Justice Act, particularly the principle that restoration of the child to the family is always in the best interest of the child.

When a child is received at a contact point, a file is opened and social workers at SBT collect information about the child, such as their family and well-being. The case is then passed onto the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), who decides whether the child should be sent back to their families, their home state or taken into SBT’s shelter homes. From all our interviews, we discovered that quite often the CWC is sent back to their families under the belief that the family is always the best for the child. But when these children come from broken, dysfunctional families that render the child susceptible to forms of physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse, can we still say that returning to the family is the best? It seems that it is not so much about family in the literal sense, but the normative conditions of a family – a healthy, supportive environment conducive to the child’s growth and personal development – which should be emphasised when looking at the principle of restoration of the child to their family. It is about being sensitized to these conditions and contexts during evaluation.

Throughout this project, I realised how important it is to step back and reflect what best interest of the child is. Is it listening to the child’s wishes because it is their own life, and they know what it is they want, and what they think is best for their mental, emotional and physical well-being? Do we as adults decide because we are older, experienced more, and therefore know better what is best for the child? How does one negotiate between these two? Aforementioned, it is a matter of being sensitive to these nuances and complexities as we move forward.

Chris and I will continue working on this advocacy report back in Edinburgh. We will continue polishing our legal argument, and emphasise this urgency of change by highlighting the range of vulnerabilities which street children are susceptible to. Eventually, we, SBT and lawyers will present this report to the government, in hope that change can happen and they can be more sensitized to the issues we raise in our report so that the best, and most appropriate form of support and care is given to street children.

To conclude, thank you to everyone at SBT who has supported us in writing this report, particularly Parvati, Devika and Adam who helped to organize interviews for us, and also to all our interviewees who took the time to share their thoughts, experiences and life stories.

Words by Loritta

 

“Not all stories we know are ours to tell…”

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I attended a talk yesterday by Indian author Gayathri Prabhu about her book ‘If I had to tell it again”. It’s a memoir of her relationship with her father, a relationship which was loving and angry, joyful and sad. During audience questions, someone asked her whether she would call her childhood traumatic as she describes a lot of difficult experiences in her book. “No” Gathathri said. She went on to explain that while there were traumatic moments in her childhood, she wouldn’t describe it as a ‘traumatic childhood’ which implies totality of experience.

This resonated with me in respect to the care that SBT provides children. Many of the children have experienced unimaginable loss and trauma during their short lives. Salaam Balaak Trust recognises this, but also sees the joyful freedom of childhood and, I believe, fosters that in every child. I think perhaps Salaam Balaak Trust might be the difference between a ‘traumatic childhood’, and a ‘childhood with traumatic moments’, for many people.

As we come to the end of our trip, I would like to thank everyone at SBT, especially Shikha and the mental health team for their generosity and warmth during our time here. I’ve tried my best to listen carefully and I hope I’ve understood some of the nuances. I’ve been quiet on the blog recently because I’ve had a lot to take in and I’m not sure that I’m ready to share all that I’ve heard and seen, some of it is not mine to share anyway.

But I’ll tell you what I feel to be true: Salaam Balaak Trust provides an essential service in Delhi. The mental health team work tirelessly to restore children to the ‘world of childhood’ and, I believe, they do.

Some of you may be interested in project updates so here’s what I’ve done: I’ve drafted a report about the mental health program encompassing a description of the service and some of the challenges. I plan to continue working with the mental health team to co-author 2-3 academic papers which I hope will draw attention to the value of their work and help other NGO’s working in similar circumstances. I hope to continue working with Shikha and the team for a long time.

Thank you for taking the time to read our blog, we greatly value the support you’ve shown.

                                                                                                                                                               ~ ~Alice

Dance your soul out

When I first came to SBT, I had learnt that the performing and creative arts was significant in the organisation. Many of the children were involved in the annual play production, and also pursued careers as artists, dancers even production directors later on in life. I had wondered why the creative arts was so prominent in SBT, and thought it might have been due to influences from its Trustees such as Sanjay Roy, the man behind Jaipur Literature Festival, Anubhav Nath, director of Ojas Art, and of course, Mira Nair, world-renowned film maker and daughter of Praveen Nair, Founder of SBT. It was only a few weeks later after a casual chat with Gaurav* and Arjun*, two SBT graduates, that I realised the creative arts was not just an extracurricular hobby for SBT children.

It was so much more.

The creative arts improves your confidence, your social skills and your English. It is also a discovery of yourself. You find out things you did not know you could do. You learn more about yourself in this process.” quoted from Gaurav*

Gaurav* explains that in the annual play production, and the performance opportunities at SBT, the children are given a chance to play different roles and adopt different identities. They learn about the behaviours, attitudes and world views of the different characters they try to play. In this process, they find qualities and behavioural traits they wish to adopt, and slowly begin to shape a new identity for themselves. Gaurav* and Arjun* shared that their friends who were shy became more confident through the performing arts and saw it as a way of expressing themselves through characters.

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Sheroes – SBT’s Annual Production Play in 2017

It was a thought-provoking conversation that made me realise just how holistic the creative and performing arts was. To quote from an article after becoming curious about the connection between self-discovery and the performing arts:

We say that the body does not lie, so if you know how to observe and work with bodies you can discover things that words do not reveal…the story arises from within the body and when you place a new story upon a body, it leads to change.” (from ABC Net)

Not only was dance, arts and theater a way of self-expression, a catharsis of the thoughts and feelings they keep within themselves. It taught them how to work cooperatively with others, and to fulfil the responsibility and role they were given. It opened them to new experiences, to new ways that brought them somewhere they didn’t realise they would be. Dance, arts and theaters was like a realm that allowed them to explore the possibilities – more importantly, anything was possible.

Every year, SBT has an annual play production on an array of themes related to street children and their lived experiences. Two years ago, their play “Anokha Safar” was about the story of three children in a time machine, reflecting upon the changes in the landscape of Indian society. Last year, their play was called “Sheroes”, the female heroes of society. All of the actors/actresses, dancers and production directors in the play are former and current SBT children. As for what it will be about this year, come to Delhi in November to watch it and find out yourself!

Words by Loritta

Filming for Our Women’s Talk

One of our plans for our time in Delhi is initiating a “Women’s Talk”. Salaam Baalak Trust already runs a City Walk focusing on the lives of the street children, but the lives and experiences of women and girls on the streets can be very different from those of the men and boys. We want to illustrate these specific “women’s issues” with a walk complementary to the City Walk, highlighting the specific vulnerabilities of women. Unfortunately, even the streets of central Delhi are not safe enough for a walk led by girls. Hopefully one day they will be but for now we will convey the stories of these women and girls through a talk instead of a walk.

We want the talk to be as powerful as the existing City Walk and we felt the best medium was film.  The first step was learning about film making. An ex- University of Edinburgh student Shiva, living in Delhi, volunteered to run a workshop, teaching a group of young people from SBT about filming, editing and creating a narrative. We hope that getting the girls, as well as the boys, to use the immersive medium of film will convey both the feeling of a walk, but also crystallise their experience of the chaotic and dangerous streets in the minds of those who attend the talk.

 

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Learning how to make a movie

 

We discussed and planned the stories we wanted to tell and the locations we wanted to show. We decided on areas around Connaught Place, a place where at every step you are confronted by tiny children selling balloons and roses or begging while holding even tinier children in their arms.

The girls we work with know some of these children living on the street, as some are girls who used to live with them in the children’s home before they returned to their families. We wanted to film where they live, where they wash, the temples that serve them meals and speak to them about their experiences and opinions.

Having decided what to film the next step was creating the film for our Woman’s Talk, Shiva accompanied us into the streets to do the filming while the girls led the interviews.

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Filming in Connaught Place

 

With the filming complete we will pilot the talk in the coming weeks.

 

 

Words and pictures by Rachel

…gang aft agley

Days in Delhi often start feeling too real, but end up in the surreal. For one, the heat paints everything into itself, it becomes like a shouting offstage character, an unspoken actor in every drama, adding a layer of consideration to the already fragile structure. Second, it is the nature of big cities, and our work in them, to throw up surprises, add additional stresses, or create havoc with the best laid plans.

One morning started as real as the rest – Assam tea, bananas and sugary peanut butter in our peaceful flat. Then Loritta and I packed off the to the offices of the Commission for the Protection of Child Rights to interview a functionary with whom we had made contact. The offices were on Janpath, a somewhat storied street, permanently in the shadow of Connaught Place to the north and Rajpath, with its huge government edifices and Lutyen’s designed imperiousness, to the south. Janpath provides the liminal space between them, with huge, and variously designed, office blocks sprouting on either side of it, stuffed full of the minor offices of a government gallantly attempting to serve a billion people, commercial enterprises large and small, and the chai-wallahs who serve them all. 

The building we were heading for was Chander Lok (literally ‘people of the moon’… no me neither)  a strangely bulbous affair of stacked blocks. Inside it was dingy, a welcome respite from the sun, but apparently constantly being cleaned by an army of peons. We had the interesting experience of waiting for the lift up amongst a group of functionaries, who treated the opening of the lift door like the opening of metro carriages – everyone barrels toward it, with little regard for the poor souls trying to exit. However, on reaching our destination it turned out I had misread the signage, and we were directed to another floor. 

On meeting our contact, and inevitably signing in the visitors book, we were immediately conveyed to the Joint Secretaries office to talk with ‘sir’. This was an expected privilege, but also added to the surreality of an already weird venture. I imagine that he had caught wind of foreigners coming to his fief, and wanted to judge us for himself. And to be clear, he couldn’t have been more helpful, but this was his domain: he had attained the kind of “bureaucrat” (self-ascribed, and a mark of true distinction in India) status akin to minor godhood – people came into the office during our time, received a nod and a word, and went off to complete whatever opaque task. Our contact would agree with his every statement, and repeat his own words back to him. This is not to cast aspersions, as his words were fascinating and, eventually, relevant, but this was not a man to be challenged. 

Steering the conversation was like course correcting a super-tanker, and over the course of around an hour, we talked of his travels, received a crash-course on “Indian philosophy”, particularly Vedanta and the Upanishads, before finally weaving that into a discussion of the Juvenile Justice Act, our focus, and the general socio-economic situation of India, about which he was very gloomy. After initial probing, he was thrilled to have some foreigners in front of him who understood the concerns of both modern India and ancient thought. Talking the nature of self with a government bureaucrat in a stuffy Janpath office was weird enough; to have him appreciate our (short) answers, even more so. 

We did, however, find our useful information. The Commission sees the Act as very well drafted, but very poorly implemented, which could be the commonest refrain in Indian law. Enforcement is difficult, as it requires the sensitisation of police and government social workers to the problems, concerns and voices of children, not their usual dismissal as either unimportant, or negligible. Changing that means changing an entire government culture. Likewise, on the issue of justice he offered two startling insights. First, the clause in the law which caused the greatest ruckus was the ability for Indian courts to try 16-18 year olds as adults for “heinous crimes” in contravention of established international norms. This provision was widely seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the presence of a juvenile among the gang-rapers in Delhi’s infamous 2011 Nirbhaya case, however, ‘sir’ offered the perspective that this provision was due to demographic shifts in India: with an increasingly younger population committing more and more sexual crimes, rehabilitating them through counselling, short incarceration, and other juvenile measures, would not cut it, as, even if they remained unrepentant, they would have to be released on their 18th birthdays. 

The second insight was that ‘sir’ believed the socio-economic transformation of India was responsible for a fundamental shift in the character of youth, which was leading to an uptick in crime. While a bit too conservative for my taste, this observation does seem to ring consonant to similar observations from sources as dispersed as Weber, to a recent Guardian op-ed by Rana Dasgupta; the retrenchment of moralities promulgated by nations, religions, charismatic political leaders, is a result of the dissolution of morality by the atomisation of market forces, individualisation and homo economicus consumerism. That so many of these young men who commit offences remain unrepentant is a curious function of the warping of established moralities, where self-justification can come from many sources. An excellent fictional account in an Indian setting is Aravind Adiga’s somewhat depressing and well written The White Tiger (2008, London: Atlantic Books). ‘Sir’ lamented the loss of “moral and social leaders” who could steer youth toward understanding and away from crime.

‘Sir’ promised to continue our moral education, at least, by providing copies of his own travel essays and translations of the Upanishads at our convenience.

After taking in some tea and ice cream to escape the midday sun, we took the blissfully air-conditioned metro back to head office, and were, instead of writing up our interviews, roped into helping conduct a sexual health workshop for shanty-dwellers in central Delhi. The dovetailing of this with our morning interview was an irony not unnoticed, but no less surreal for it. My work will be with boys particularly, an area that, of course, bears particular relevance to the above mentioned moral-warping. SBT’s graduates are well adjusted young people, despite some of the stories from their pasts. Working with them makes me feel that these individuals are perhaps the “moral leadership” that India, apparently, so severely needs. Their backgrounds give them a cachet of experience that allows them to speak to others in similar situations, were the pronouncements of governments and foreigners would be ignored; their education and communication skills allow them to speak back to those governments and foreigners about the experiences of the poor and destitute that otherwise just cannot be comprehended. And I, for one, when I hear them speak, in stronger and stronger voices, cannot help but be moved. Their voices fill this foreigner’s heart with hope.  

Words by Chris

The world of childhood

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“For children with no home, life is a fast train to nowhere, Salaam Balaak Trust works to restore them to the world of childhood”

                                                                                                                                                                                               ~ ~ Salaam Balaak Trust.

In an academic journal article entitled “Street Children in India: A Non-Government Organization (NGO)-Based Intervention Model” published in 2009, Dr Amit Sen closed by dedicating his article “to the millions of street children and their indomitable spirit and resilience.” For those of you who haven’t read the hundreds of articles required for doctoral studies, let me tell you this: It is highly unusual to see such a dedication from a senior clinician in an academic paper.

To me, Amit’s words and their appearance in such a context sum up SBT entirely.

SBT’s vision statement is as follows:

“For children with no home, life is a fast train to nowhere, Salaam Balaak Trust works to restore them to, the World of childhood, take for a lonely dead end, to bonding, learning and the joy of a professional life.

Salaam Balaak Trust works towards a creation of a just and equitable society, which respects the rights of the child to education, health & nutrition, family environment, recreation & constructive participation.”

SBT’s mental health program nestles within the organisation’s values and vision.  As outlined in Amit’s paper, the program maintains a psychological model of trauma and mental health with an emphasis on prevention and early intervention alongside cultivating a sense of hopefulness. So what does this mean in ‘real-world’ terms? I can’t say for sure having only spent two weeks here, but to me the emphasis on meeting the needs of young people and creating a resilient community is evident in the warmth, chattiness, confidence and kindness of the kids and adolescents in SBT’s care. I’ve observed teenager’s patience with younger children, gentle teasing among children, and young people supporting each other with school work. There is a sense of caring and connectedness throughout the whole organisation, including graduates, staff and volunteers.

Of course, things aren’t perfect – how could there be with so many young people to care for and few adults. These are structural limitations that won’t change. Also, CPD opportunities for staff are expensive and the training on offer in India is not always of a high quality. This is where I’m hoping I can help. With my research and clinical contacts in Edinburgh, I hope to help SBT staff build their knowledge and confidence around the following themes:

  • Preventing and managing bullying in residential homes
  • Diversifying therapeutic models and techniques
  • Thinking about trauma and how to help support children who have experienced complex trauma

I’ll be working closely with Shikha over the next couple of weeks towards these aims and will keep you posted on the project as it develops. For those who are interested, I highly recommend reading Amit’s original article:

Sen, A. (2009). Street children in India: a non-government organization (NGO)-based intervention model. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics30(6), 552-559.

I hope you are finding our work here in India interesting to read about. If you are, please consider supporting the project by following us on social media or giving a small donation. There is a link to donate in the ‘support us’ tab.

~Alice.

 

World is suddener than we fancy it

“World is suddener than we fancy it.”

~Louis MacNeice, Snow.

 

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Our balcony on the evening we arrived

I can hardly believe we are already half way through our month in Delhi. Time has passed by quickly and it feels too soon to be at the halfway point! But let’s not be hasty, we still have two more weeks and as I reflect I realize we’ve achieved a lot in the past fortnight:

  • Loritta and Chris are well underway with their qualitative research project examining outcomes for young people who stay with SBT compared to those who return home to their families. So far they have interviewed key stakeholders including legal experts, SBT staff, parents, and of course the young people themselves.
  • Meanwhile, Rachel and Yogita* have been busying themselves with the shopping delights of Delhi. Yes really, this pair are the proud owners of new underpants for girls and a laptop. Why I hear you ask? Rachel and Yogita have put an incredible amount of energy and attention towards planning a workshop on growing up and sexuality for young women. From shopping, to workshop planning, movie making and location scouting – it seems there’s not much these dedicated people won’t do for the success of this project!
  • As for me? Yesterday I met with Shikha, the mental health coordinator at SBT. Believe me when I say that I was genuinely astounded by the thoughtfulness that has gone in to designing a mental health program that works. It deserves a blog post of it’s own, so watch this space.

You may be wondering about the plans we have for our last two weeks in Delhi…

Hopefully by now you’re suitable impressed by the hard work and effort we’ve put in and agree we can take the time off to sun ourselves on a beach in Goa…

Just kidding!

We’re absolutely engrossed in our various projects so the beach will have to wait. Chris and Loritta still have lots of work to do in order to produce a report that can be used by SBT to help advocate for the rights of the children at a national level. Rachel and Yogita are now well stocked up on pants but still have to buy sanitary pads to go with the new underwear, they’re also expanding the workshop to help educate boys and young men about issues such as consent, as well as planning public engagement events about the workshops with the dual goal of fundraising … no big deal for those two, especially with an impressive team of SBT young people and staff alongside them. Meanwhile, I will have my hands full helping to build the resources of the mental health team.

We hope you enjoy hearing about our projects, please comment and follow us on social media to get involved in the conversation. If it wasn’t for our connections and support networks back home, we wouldn’t have been able to make the most of this opportunity as we have been, so thank-you for your energy and interest. Special thanks to Javita whose warmth and knowledge has been invaluable.

~Alice

*Name changed for confidentiality reasons