The man, who reportedly had a previous child sexual abuse case against him, was allowed to foster another 14-year-old in 2014 until she became an adult.

Screenshot of man in white shirt Image courtesy: Asianet News
news Child sexual abuse Thursday, January 14, 2021 - 19:55

The Kerala police on January 9 arrested a 60-year-old man from Kannur for allegedly sexually assaulting a minor girl who was under his foster care for five years, which also resulted in a pregnancy. The incident, which took place in 2017, has exposed serious cracks in Kerala’s welfare initiatives for children, particularly minors under state care. 

According to the Kuthuparamba police, CG Sasikumar, a 60-year-old man living in Kannur’s Kuthuparamba had taken in a teenage girl under the state government’s foster care program in 2015. Sasikumar had got the child from a foster care centre in Kakkanad, Ernakulam, after being permitted to do so by the Ernakulam Child Welfare Committee (CWC).

The then 14-year-old girl moved to Kannur and lived with Sasikumar, a tabla artist, and his wife Ratna Kumari (62), in their Kannur house. Here she was allegedly sexually abused by the accused and became pregnant in 2017. The incident came to light recently when the girl’s sister, who is in Ernakulam, revealed the incident during a counselling session with the CWC, three years later.

“The survivor told her sibling that she faced sexually abusive behaviour from Sasikumar when she visited her sister during her holidays in 2017. This was the starting point of investigations which led to the accused’s arrest,” an officer from the Kuthuparamba police station told TNM.

The police have arrested Sasikumar and his wife, who was found to be complicit in her husband’s abuse of the minor. They have been booked under various sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and section 376 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code. But why did the incident only come to light nearly four years later? Further investigation into the case reveals more rot in the system and reported negligence by the state’s child protection officers.

An alleged repeat offender

According to investigating officials from Kannur, the minor was in class 10 when the incident took place, and the accused had threatened to kill her if she revealed the incident to anybody. Moreover, it was found that Sasikumar is allegedly a repeat offender. Back in 2012 and 2014, he had apparently fostered two minor girls. According to Kuthuparamba police officials, there is a POCSO case against him for sexually abusing one of the girls. TNM could not independently confirm the same.

“The accused had fostered a minor from Iritty in Kannur, and the Iritty police had registered a case against him for sexual assault,” the Kuthuparamba police official said.

Further, Sasikumar is said to have lied in his application to CWC to foster the child in 2015. While police say he is a tabla artist, he wrote in the application that he was a retired army man.

Sasikumar was also married thrice, Ratnakumari is his third wife and lives with him in Kuthuparamba. In his application to the CWC, he had also lied that he was a retired army man.

A system in place, but not followed

With regard to the Kannur case, it is unclear if inquiries were conducted by Child Protection Officers and if the DCPU(District Child Protection Unit) had demanded feedback reports. For instance, Sasikumar was in his third marriage. This should have naturally made it difficult for him to be a foster parent. However, Sasikumar’s alleged criminal history and family life were either overlooked or did not come to the notice of the DCPU and the CWC, and did not appear in the investigation report, which seems to indicate negligence and/or lack of thorough investigation.

Further, the accused and his wife were also allowed fostering rights to the minor for four years – from 2015 to 2019 – after which the child moved out of the house of her own volition, after she turned 18. However, ideally, short term fostering should not exceed a year. As per the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Model Rules, 2016, long term foster care beyond the period of a year can be periodically extended by the CWC till the child turns 18, on the basis of assessment and the child’s compatibility with the foster family of group foster care setting. If a child has remained with the foster family for over five years, the family could apply for his/her adoption.

India has a system that lays down guidelines for foster care, under the Juvenile Justice Act as well as the Model Guidelines for Foster Care 2016. Per the Kerala Social Justice Department fostering is “an arrangement whereby a child lives, usually on a temporary basis, with an extended or unrelated family member.” 

In line with the Women and Child Development Ministry’s Model Guidelines for Foster Care, 2016, the Kerala Social Justice Department also deems only certain categories of children fit for fostering: “This arrangement shall cater to children who are not legally free for adoption, and whose parents are unable to care for them due to illness, death, desertion by one parent or any other crisis.”

According to the WCD ministry’s guidelines, foster parents are required to be Indian citizens willing to foster the same child and should be above 35 years of age in good physical, emotional and mental health. To be a foster parent, a woman has to be within the 30 to 60 age bracket, and the father can be up to 65 years of age. However, if the child is being given to extended family for foster care – which is preferred – no age limit is prescribed. Apart from having the basic facilities, adequate space and income to care for the child, the parents must also be without criminal conviction or indictment. 

The CWC, which reviews applications for fostering, is a quasi-judicial body and hence, does not conduct background checks on the field. However, it issues orders to the District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) to investigate the prospective foster family and file a report termed as a Social Investigation Report (SIR). Based on this, a non-institutional care protection officer under the DCPU (District Child Protection Unit) conducts the background check and submits the SIR. 

According to the law, a Foster Care Assessment and home study should be done within a month by a Protection Officer or another officer entrusted for the same by him/her, after which a report should be prepared as per the Juvenile Justice Rules, 2014 to be sent for approval.

“The goal is for these children to experience a safe and loving environment offered by a normal family. With this in mind, the CWC does not allow individuals or couples who have family disputes, previous criminal cases, relatives with criminal cases etc. to foster children. A person who has married more than once may not be allowed to foster a child. The idea is that the child should not risk exposure to any vulnerabilities that the family may have,” says Anwar Karakkadan, who works with the Childline in Malappuram. 

Speaking to TNM, the current Ernakulam District Child Protection Officer stated that lax investigation resulting in a misleading SIR could have been the reasons for the state handing over the survivor to Sasikumar. “There was no mention of his history of sexually abusive behaviour in our files here. All that was mentioned was the name and address of the man, his wife and details about a studio which he was running in Kannur,” an official from the DCPU office stated. 

Further, several checks are supposed to be carried out even after the child is handed over to the foster family to spot red flags, says Anwar. 

“Within the first week of handing over the child to the foster family, the DCPU has to inquire how he or she is coping with the family. Regular inquiries are to be made regarding the child’s welfare. The DCPU has to place a field worker in-charge of supervising the child and the family. This can be an ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) supervisor, a Child Development Protection Officer (CDPO), an ASHA worker, an Anganwadi teacher etc. who has access to the family and can inquire on the ground. They can then report to the DCPU if they find the child facing any issues,” says Anwar. 

However, in Sasikumar’s case, “it is also unclear if any follow up was done on the child,” a DCPU office personnel said.

Authorities’ response

Sicily Joseph of the Kannur CWC told Asianet News that these days, they check the background of those who apply to be foster parents for police cases and such. However, Sicily added, she is not sure of what the earlier system (when Sasikumar took in the survivor) had been.

According to Sicily, after the 2017 incident, the accused had once again expressed interest in fostering a child and had submitted an application. However, the CWC rejected the application as the man had specifically asked for girl children.

After the case came to light, Minister for Health and Social Justice, KK Shailaja teacher, has asked the Women and Child Development director to submit a report on the incident. The report should also find out if there were lapses on the part of the former CWC of Ernakulam in the case. Strict action will be taken against those who are found guilty, the minister said in a press release. She also asked to ensure protection and treatment for the survivor.

With inputs from Cris 

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