In August 2018, a year after Tiruvannamalai Collector KS Kanadasamy took charge of the district administration, he chanced upon a disturbing sight while inspecting a children's home. A government approved private home was housing both male and female children under the same roof, clearly against the rules. Raven* home that was only permitted to accommodate nine children, had 23 minors, including 11 boys.
The district authority immediately removed the children from the premises and shifted them to a government home but what came next was more shocking news.
"When we sent the girls for medical examination, we found that several of the minor girls had been sexually abused both by minor boys and staff at the home," says the Collector. "A case was booked against two of the staff but they are roaming around freely because they got anticipatory bail," he adds.
What followed next, was a series of surprise checks at multiple homes in the district and within six months, the district administration was forced to seal three children's homes on charges of alleged sexual abuse. The second incident was in November, when based on a tip-off, the Collector visited the Mary Missionary home* run by 65-year-old Luban Kumar and his family.
The Collector initially only suspected lack of infrastructure to be a problem in the home - no doors on bathroom stalls, lack of privacy for girl children and the presence of only a male security guard. The 50 children who resided there were shifted to a government home while the necessary changes were ordered to be made. But days later, when Kanadasamy visited the rescued minors, three of the girls told him in confidence that they were sexually abused by Luban Kumar.
"He had purposely removed the doors of all the bathroom stalls where the girls bathed. His room was attached to this bathroom and he would open a window to see the girls showering. In addition to this, he had set up a CCTV camera in the hall where they changed and would watch from his room," Collector Kandasamy had told TNM. "These girls were made to go to his room to give him 'massages,' and he sexually abused them," he added.
Both Luban's wife and brother-in-law were aware of his alleged activities and the children said they were beaten up if they complained. Luban, his wife and brother have been apprehended by the police and booked under the POCSO Act and the home was then sealed. But the girls were reportedly abused for eight years, before this intervention took place.
After this incident, Collector Kandasamy realised that merely surveying these homes and talking to the children there was not enough to solve what was clearly a rampant problem across children's homes.
'Decided to conduct workshop'
"When we go there and talk to the children, they are not very forthcoming about the issues they are facing. Most often, these culprits target orphans because there will be nobody to question them," explains the Collector. "Even when the children complain to the administration, efforts are underway to silence them rather than address the situation, and several times even parents are aware of the abuse and keep quiet about it," he adds.
In order to come up with a long term solution, the district administration decided to start the 'Big word' campaign to monitor the safety of the residents of these homes. The administration decided to bring children in batches to the government reception home in Tiruvannamalai. Here they were educated on juvenile law, safe and unsafe touch and about various forms of sexual abuse. In addition to this, survivors of sexual abuse who were rescued by authorities were made to address the children and explain how reporting it has made their lives better. On January 26, the first such camp was conducted.
"It is a two day camp and when it ended, children were asked to write down the problems they were facing. That is when a young girl from Asha* home wrote that the manager of the home, Vinod Kumar, was exposing her to pornography and molesting her," says Deputy Superintendent of police (Tiruvannamalai Town) K Annadurai. "We immediately inspected the place, sealed it and have booked Vinod under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act," he adds.
Vinod allegedly made the girls watch pornographic videos and enact the scenes shown. While only one child has come up to share her problems, authorities suspect more girls have been sexually abused. All 15 children from the home have been shifted to a government home.
"We are hoping that these camps which we are conducting will put an end to this menace. Each home will come up in the cycle every four months, and this will be a safe space for children to share their grievances," says the Collector.
The police meanwhile is mulling the setting up of complaint boxes outside these homes, which will be checked every week.
"The department can then directly intervene and take action without delay," says the DSP.
What were child protection systems doing?
Non-governmental organisations that work to prevent child sexual abuse point out that the district administration has been both tardy and irresponsible in the manner in which it has approached the entire issue.
"How is it even possible that all this is suddenly happening in Tiruvannamalai? It just shows that all the systems in place failed. If these homes were not fit to host these children, why did the government even grant them registration in the first place?" asks Vidya Reddy of Tulir. "An all India mapping of children's homes was conducted by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development. Why didn't these homes come under the scanner then? There was clearly no monitoring system in place," she adds.
A member of the District Child Protection Services, on the condition of anonymity, admits that the lack of a proper monitoring system is the cause for the trauma faced by the children.
"Till 2016, it was the Social Welfare department that was handling these homes. 60 homes were registered without any proper checks. Each child must have 40 sq ft of space but this was not even specified during the time of registration. After that too, no monitoring system was in place to check these homes," says the officer.
Even after the Child Protection Services took over, a home management committee that was formed allegedly only visited the homes during the day when the children were not around, and failed to glean the real picture regarding sexual abuse. They, however, managed to revoke the registration of 30 homes over the last two years for not fulfilling the necessary requirements.
"There was no active programme to address child sexual abuse till now," admits the officer. "We are hoping that this new initiative with the assistance of the Collector will help reduce this crime."
*Names changed to protect identity