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

 

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

 

The importance of education

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As I write this blog post, I notice a quote on the cover of an English textbook that belongs to a former SBT kid: “A child without education is like a bird without wings“.

Indeed, this is the sense that I get from interviewing and meeting former and current SBT children during the past few days. To them, education is the way to make a change in their life, to live a life they want and to become the person they wish to be. When asked about the future, SBT children aspire to be professors, doctors, tour guides, performance directors and many more. Ajay*, a young man from SBT who is about to start university, shared that education taught him that attitude is everything:

“While studying, I learnt what it means to be a man, and I mean a gentleman. If one does not know how to respect others, it is not good.”

As the children reflect back, they share with a soft smile, lost in their thoughts at their disbelief of how much they have achieved, and how far they have come – from a life on the streets without knowing whether there will be a tomorrow, to today, a confident individual who has dreams to catch, has the desire to help others and be a role model. They are proud of who they are.

But they do not forget their past.

When they walk on the streets and come across street children and families, they still connect with them, and urge them to come to SBT’s shelter homes. Some of these street families do not recognise the importance of education, and continue to relish the freedom of the streets, even if it means a daily struggle of earning enough money for food and medicine. Young girls have to marry early as their husbands will protect them from the dangers of the street, especially at night. Some of these families use the money to take drugs without realising the long-term health consequences. With the government “cleaning” the cities by ridding homeless people, these families struggle to find shelter too. The situation is especially dire in the biting cold during the harsh winter, with no shelter, no warmth and not enough food. The effects of this life rests not only with the current generation, but also the next – it becomes a tragic, vicious cycle.

Because of their past, SBT children recognise they have a shared experience with current street families. They know what it is these street families want, what they are thinking, and what exactly they need to say to persuade these families to leave street life for a more sustainable future in education.

The situation is urgent.

As the quote at the beginning of this post goes, indeed in India, a life on the streets without education is like a bird without wings. It takes a lot of time, patience, and persistence. However, when one bird in the family finally recognises the freedom of flying, soon after, we will see in the sky, the other birds flying along.

* Name changed for confidentality

Instead of buying a cup of coffee, donate your £2 to support street children’s education at SBT: https://www.friendsofsbt.org/#

Words by Loritta