Tamil Nadu: POCSO survivors hit by ignorance regarding ‘Support Persons’

Rules framed under POCSO Act 2012 clearly state that a Support Person may be appointed by the Child Welfare Committee but many stakeholders are unaware of them.
Image for Representation
Image for Representation
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Two child sexual assault survivors in Chennai, who were under the state’s care for a period of one month on orders of a Protection Of Child from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Court, were handed over to their mother by the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) on March 5. The children, who had undergone counselling and were ready to be reintegrated, nearly ended up in the streets as the family had been evicted from their rented home and were living on the footpath near a bus stand since February 18. 

The children were saved from the vulnerable situation only because the corporation school that the survivors attended, took cognisance of it and reported their plight to the CWC, which then took custody of the girls.

When TNM asked the CWC why they handed the girls over when their family was staying on the roads, they blamed the mother, Anita (name changed), for not informing them. But, Anita told TNM that she being uneducated was not aware of the fact that she could report the situation and ask the committee to take custody of the children. She wasn’t asked any questions by them either.

This situation would not have arisen if the family had assistance from a Support Person, as per the POCSO Act 2012. The rules clearly state that a Support Person may be appointed by the CWC. But, the CWC representative who was following this particular case of child sexual assault from the beginning was not even familiar with this. “Who?” the representative asked when TNM asked about the support person, exposing the lack of awareness around the rules that were formulated 12 years ago.

Who is a Support Person?

Since child survivors of sexual abuse and their families require the support of an external entity – a Support Person – who can act as a buffer between them and the other parties in the system, including medical staff, the court, the police, the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) and the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) among others, Section 39 of the POCSO rules 2012 and 2020 emphasises on the need to institutionalise their appointment. 

They are expected to provide information about the legal process and explain the provisions for the child as per law to the survivor and their family, address their concerns, ensure the well-being of their family, maintain confidentiality, file regular reports to the CWC if required among other things. Their roles and responsibilities begin from the time the case gets reported.

Vidya Reddy who works at Tulir – Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse in Chennai, said, “A Support Person must ideally know how the system works and how to work in the child survivors’ best interest.” 

This Support Person can be assigned by the CWC under POCSO Rules 2012, rule 1(f) and Rule 2020 2(f). They may also be assigned if requested by the survivor or their family. The District Child Protection Office (DCPO) from each district will make a list of Support Persons and they provide the CWC with the same for the appointment process.

If there was a Support Person involved in Anita’s children’s case from the beginning, the police and the CWC would have been informed by that person about the eviction and the family would have received the state’s support instantly, Vidya said.

Survivors without Support Persons

Child activists said that there have been several such cases where the survivors and their families have had to suffer because a Support Person wasn’t appointed. Kanya Babu, a child rights activist from Chennai, said, “In one case that was heard in 2019, the accused were the child’s parents. The court proceedings were over and the child was moved to a government home. But in March 2020, the home had to be closed due to COVID-19 pandemic and the caretakers of the home sent all the residents back to their parents, including this child without even taking cognisance of the fact that the parents were the accused in her case.” Kanya added that in such cases, a Support Person would ideally ensure that some alternative, as per the law, is found.

Child activists who TNM spoke to, alleged that the CWC does not appoint support persons unless the court directs them to do so or the survivor and their family asks for a support person themselves. This is despite it being the CWC’s responsibility to appoint them. “I have been working in this field for almost eight years now. Not once has the CWC asked me to be a support person on their own accord after assessing the needs of survivors. They only ask me to be a support person if the POCSO court orders them to do so or if I go to the ground and get involved in the case and by seeing my involvement the survivor and their families ask for me to be their support person,” Kanya said. 

This issue was also addressed by the Supreme Court (SC) in August 2023. While hearing a petition regarding the issues related to protecting child survivors as per POCSO, Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Aravind Kumar said, “...the mandate for a “support person” as envisaged under the POCSO Rules remains unfulfilled.” The bench also held that unless there are compelling reasons with the CWC, the appointment of support persons should be made “mandatory.” 

According to the e-courts data, the number of POCSO cases that were pending in Tamil Nadu courts, as of September 2023, was 11,280. The question however is whether the state can provide enough number of Support Persons who are trained and equipped to handle these cases.

Although the bench also said that all the states must come up with an effective Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for Support Persons, along with an assessment of the support persons ecosystem in the state, Tamil Nadu is yet to release both.

Existing system for Support Persons

Even in cases where support persons are appointed, they find it difficult to carry out their roles and responsibilities. Tulir's team, who have been working as Support Persons, told TNM, “Most of the parties involved in POCSO cases, barring the court, are always hostile towards Support Persons. We have written to the concerned police and hospitals multiple times at the capacity of a Support Person. We always sent letters with registered post acknowledgements but they never responded to our letters.” 

Another Support Person, under the conditions of anonymity, said, “I had introduced myself to the police when I was appointed as the Support Person for a survivor.  But when the prime accused in the case applied for a bail the police failed to inform me or the family. We only found out after he came out on bail. The family, if known, could have opposed the bail application.” 

Another Support Person said since the medical officers are unaware of the fact that they can be present during a medical examination with the survivor, she was not allowed to stay with the child. “There was no parent or guardian with the child. The survivor was perplexed during the test and I couldn’t be there with her,” she said.

Stegna Jency, Director of Centre for Child Rights and Development (CCRD), said that this problem occurs because there is no clarity nor awareness across different parties when it comes to Support Persons and their roles.

“The CWC members themselves are sometimes unaware. The state should therefore, send notifications to each of the concerned departments. If it is not already in their SOP, it should be added,” said Kanya.

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