In June 2018, a 10-year-old girl in Kerala was sexually abused in broad daylight inside a movie theatre in Edappal, Malappuram.
The shocking case which was exposed after the theatre owner submitted surveillance camera footage of the abuse, revealed that the minor's mother was fully aware of her child's abuse. The visuals showed a 60-year-old man- identified as Moideen Kutty Pattambi - engaging in sexual acts with both the mother and child who were seated on his either side.
More than 1 year after the police named both Moideen and the child's mother as accused in the case, the Manjeri Additional District and Sessions Court has granted the minor's custody to the mother's father, sparking outrage among child rights activists and the authorities concerned with the protection of these children.
The designated Special POCSO court has allowed the child to go back to her family. In its order, the court added clauses which prevent the accused from meeting with or influencing the minor in any manner. However, district authorities have maintained their reservations against the court's ruling.
"Both the mother and Moideen are out on bail in the case and roaming around freely. We have serious concerns for the safety of the child and fear that the accused might influence the the minor into changing her statement. This could influence the trial. Since the child is with her maternal grandfather, the mother has increased access to the minor and can attempt to influence her," a Childline official based out of Malappuram told TNM.
Not just one case
It is not just the Edappal case. On the same day, the court ruled similarly in 2 other sensitive POCSO cases where close kin of the minors were accused of sexually abusing them. The children were sent back to their families.
Hearing an appeal for custody in the 2018 POCSO case in Mankada where two girls aged 7 and 12 were sexually abused by multiple people with the knowledge of the parents, the court allowed their custody to the paternal grandfather. The girls' mother has been named an accused in the case for allowing the abuse of the children, while their step father has allegedly abused the kids himself. Both the accused, among others, have secured bail in the case.
In another case from Areekode, the court granted custody of a 10-year-old girl who faced sexual abuse from her sister's husband and a neighbour to her parents.
According to Childline officials, the immediate family of the minor did not support the child and sided with the accused men in the case. They also attempted to coerce her to return with them from the care home where she was sheltered and even kidnapped her once.
"As per the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children Act), minor victims should be kept in care/shelter homes only as a last resort. This is called the Principle of Institutionalisation as a last resort. However, in such cases where close and blood relatives have been accused, how does the CWC give a report allowing the child to go back to the family?," asks the Childline official.
Threats, coercion and mental harassment
In all the 3 cases mentioned above, the victims are below the age of 12. This adds greater risk to the safety of these minors, as experts believe, that the accused may go to any lengths to protect themselves.
"These children's lives could be under threat. They could be blackmailed, coerced or influenced in other ways to turn hostile during the trial. The families of the accused could plead before the child to not testify against the accused. I have also seen several children having to undergo teasing, insults, jeering and comments from neighbours and others in the locality once they return home. This could cause them extreme distress," a Malappuram based psychologist who works with child sexual abuse victims told TNM.
He also added that cases where there is no scientific evidence or abuse, the accused could easily be acquitted if the minor turns hostile in court during trial, even if he/she had submitted a secret statement to the magistrate earlier.
Experts allege lapses from prosecution, CWC members
"The District Child Protection Officer and the CWC are responsible for the children's safety. Even if the district court rules in the families' favour, it is their duty to appeal the High Court to reverse the order or take other measure to ensure the safety of the child," the Malappuram based psychologist added.
Former CWC Malappuram chairman Manikandan added that the state officials had taken extra care to not let the family gain custody of the children in the 3 cases
"In the Mankada case, the paternal grandfather had filed a Habeaus Corpus in the High Court seeking custody of the children. The HC directed the CWC to take a call and the majority of the 5 member committee allowed the children to go with the grandfather. However, the shelter home where the children were put up intervened and the district collector stayed the handing over of the child to the grandfather," he said.
All the 3 cases were investigated by IG rank officials after the initial probes were botched up by the police. The court granted the custody of the minors to their families despite police reports by the current investigation teams highlighting the risk of sending the children with their families.