Failed, Jailed & Forgotten: The Pains of Delhi's Juvenile 'Justice' System

Children failed by the institutions of care are subjected to a system that sets them up for failure

10 min read
Failed, Jailed & Forgotten: The Pains of Delhi's Juvenile 'Justice' System

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Disclaimer: The names, addresses, and other indicators of identity of all the children interviewed for this study are anonymised in compliance with section 74 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.

Disrobe my son, disrobe him in front of this entire courtroom. His wounds will speak for themselves, and will tell the truth that the medical report conceals.
A father pleading the Juvenile Justice Board to conduct medical examination of his minor son, claiming he was tortured by the police

Santosh was only 14 years old when 3 policemen barged into his house in Delhi's north district. The chaos, the screaming, the image of his elder brother Ravi (17) being dragged by the collar escaped his comprehension. All he felt was fear, as he hid behind his mother who was begging the police to let go of her son.

While two policemen dragged Ravi out of the house, one stayed behind. Few minutes later, a voice called out - "woh doosre ko bhi le aa" (bring the other one also). His mother could not protect Santosh; he followed his brother's fate. In that moment, he ceased to be a "child'; he became a "juvenile" - a "child in conflict with law".

Santosh and Ravi were taken to a police station where they were kept for two days. In those 48 hours, two children, caught in the net of India's criminal legal system for an alleged crime, were ripped off the virtues of their childhood. They were physically and psychologically assaulted, their lives altered, their conscience scarred, for reasons they never understood.

The Quint interviewed many children like Santosh and Ravi in an attempt to document the pains of navigating our criminal justice system as "children in conflict with law". We also interviewed lawyers who represent such children before juvenile courts, as well as child rights activists. We also visited juvenile homes in Delhi to grasp the perils of institutional response to juvenile delinquency.

Our research laid bare a system that sets up children, already forgotten by avenues of care, for irredeemable failure. We saw an "implementation gap" between what the juvenile justice system sees as its purpose, and how it actually ends up impacting the lives which are "snared" by it. The law reads "care and protection", but practises punishment and indifference.

The Scarring Spectacle of Violence 

Just recalling what happened that evening at a police station in Delhi's north district made Santosh visibly distraught, but he remembered all of it. He calls it a "nightmare", a "scar" that will never heal. The visuals of violence, the grimacing face of his brother, the fear, and the sounds - silence interrupted by shrieks of pain.

I was taken to a small dark room, it had no window. My father later told me it was a remand room. My brother (Ravi) was there, on the floor, sobbing. As I entered, the police started thrashing Ravi's back with dandas. I tried to leave, I didn't want to see that. I felt helpless, scared. Then one cop slapped me, pushed me to the floor and made me watch my brother getting beaten up. "Watch carefully, you're next".
Santosh, a 14 year old boy who was subjected to custodial torture

The police made Santosh (14) read the dandas they beat him up with. On the front it was written "aao milo sajna" (come meet me, lover), and on the back, "phir kab miloge sajna" (when will you meet me next, lover).

Graphic: Shruti Mathur/ The Quint

Every second spent in that remand room, the violence, the screams, what he saw, has been imprinted in Santosh's mind - the spectacle of police brutality, extreme trauma from which there was no escape.

I remember the dandas they used to beat me up. They mockingly asked me to read the inscriptions on them. On the front it was written "aao milo sajna" (come meet me, lover), and on the back, "phir kab miloge sajna" (when will you meet me next, lover). They laughed as I read out the words.
Santosh, a 14 year old boy who was subjected to custodial torture

After over 48 hours of torture, Santosh was finally produced before the Juvenile Justice Board. Despite visible signs of police abuse, the presiding Magistrate remanded Santosh to an 'Observation Home' - a custodial institution for juvenile offenders.

The police took us to a court (Juvenile Justice Board), where the judge sahiba (Magistrate) glanced at some files, asked the police few questions, and sent us to jail (observation home). When I entered the courtroom, I was limping, I had a swollen arm. My brother had a swollen forehead, he also had wounds. But the judge sahiba didn't say anything about that, she didn't ask us anything.
Santosh, a 14 year old boy who was subjected to custodial torture

Acting upon the orders of the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB), Santosh was taken to an Observation Home in Delhi's north district. He said that he was not even medically examined and was made to sign two "large sheets" of paper, the content of which he could not comprehend.


Policing "Conflicted Children"

The law on juvenile justice in India is founded upon the principles of "care", "protection", and "rehabilitation". The purpose is to ensure that children who are found to be in "conflict with law" are subjected to an institutional system which is aimed at guarding them from the trauma of an adult criminal justice system.

The law, however, has fallen considerably short of these desired goals, to the point of almost failing. The involvement of police and correctional institutions have led the idea of 'punishment' that underpins the adult criminal justice system, to seep into the juvenile system as well.

The starkest reflection of this is in policing. Despite the provisions in law for sensitivity training, separate juvenile units, and different procedures and use of language for apprehension of children - the police, in reality, often see a child in conflict with law, simply as a "criminal".

The perils of policing children in conflict with the law is further aggravated by the inherent biases in the psyche of the police personnel.

Afsana was detained several times and produced before the Juvenile Justice Board as an "addict", "rogue", and "beyond the control of anyone".

Graphic: Shruti Mathur/ The Quint

Afsana's story is testament to such perils of policing. Aged 15, she was "arrested" multiple times by the police for consumption of drugs. She was repeatedly thrown into the vicious cycle of poverty, detention, days in police custody, and then release back to the same streets.

It was only after this cycle played out several times, that the police finally decided to produce Afsana before the Juvenile Justice Board. Before the Board, the police officer presented her as an "addict", "rogue", and "beyond the control of anyone".

Ye ladki kaabu se bahar hai (this girl is beyond our control)... humse nahi sambhal rahi, isse nasha mukti kendra bhejiye (we can't handle her, send her to de-addiction centre)... ye nasha karti hai, gaali galauch karti hai, kai baar bhaagne ki koshish kar chuki hai (she does drugs, she abuses, she has tried to escape multiple times).
Police officer who produced Afsana before JJB in Delhi
Abandoned by her parents, forced to flee home and come to Delhi due to repeated abuse - the painful past that had led to Afsana's present condition was not explored when she was produced before the JJB. Instead, the police simply held her responsible for her resistance, her drug addiction, her delinquency, and crippling mental health.

Afsana was directed to be transferred from police custody to a de-addiction centre in Delhi. During the legal proceedings she had no lawyer, neither was there any social worker present for her assistance. She was moved from one institution to another, while the causes that led to her present state remained unaddressed.


Children Failed & Forgotten

“Child delinquency is not intentional, it is forced by circumstances,” says Ashish Kumar, Advocate, Director: Legal interventions, HAQ Centre for Child Rights.

Graphic: Shruti Mathur/The Quint

Our interviews with lawyers, NGOs, officers at juvenile homes, and the children themselves revealed what makes the children most vulnerable to the net of criminality. Who is "getting caught" and why? Our research highlighted that mostly it is the collective failure and apathy of the institutions of care and informal social control - family, neighbourhood, and school - that pushes children towards delinquency.

An overwhelming majority of cases are of theft. In most cases, the crime was committed under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or under the orders of a "dada" (petty crime gang boss). The common denominator in all such cases is a marginalised socio-economic background.
Child delinquency is not intentional, it is forced by circumstances. Drug abuse propels them to crime. They have no idea about the consequences of their actions. There's a difference between "committing crimes" and "being criminals".
Ashish Kumar, Advocate, Director: Legal interventions, HAQ Centre for Child Rights.

Another set of cases that frequently come before the JJBs are "eloping for marriage" cases. These cases involve minor couples leaving their households for marriage, fearing their families' disapproval.

Complaints in eloping for marriage cases are mostly motivated by seeking redressal through the criminal justice system against consensual relationships that go against established caste and religious endogamy rules. Such is the gendered nature of these cases, that even when the Prevention of Child Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) is a gender-neutral law, the complaint is invariably filed by the girl's family against the boy for "defrauding" or "kidnapping" their daughter.

We also found that government-run schools often give up on such children, turn them away as "undesirables"; subjecting them to unaddressed feelings of hopelessness, frustration, and resentment.

School was never a welcoming space for these children. Government-run schools ignored the learning disabilities of these children. I've heard some school administrators saying, "In kanglo ko kyu lekar aa gaye" (why did you get these beggars here). These children were heavily impacted by such exclusion, alienation... they were consistently abused. I believe that the school system failed these children.
A doctor and a Head of a juvenile de-addiction centre in Delhi

Child-welfare workers and experienced juvenile lawyers informed us that a "strong culture of violence" within the family paves the way from children to act out, escape abusive households, and once chronically out on the streets, they learn how to "survive another day".

Most of these children come from socially-uprooted, economically deprived immigrant families. They've seen their mothers routinely beaten up by their fathers. Many are subjected to repeated sexual abuse.
An emapnelled lawyer working for juvenile offenders before the JJB.

Failed by every possible avenue of care, these children are caught in the "revolving door" of delinquency. For them, turning aggressive, turning to substance abuse, is the only coping mechanism, and crime, the only option when "survival itself becomes the biggest challenge".


A Law Failing in Its Purpose

Children routinely refer to juvenile homes as "jails". Even the police call them "Bachon ka jail" (jail for children).

Graphic: Shruti Mathur/ The Quint

The personal accounts of trauma faced by those subjected to India's juvenile justice system, paints exactly the picture that the juvenile justice law intended to avoid. The actual institutional response to juvenile delinquency, versus how these institutions were envisaged to run, expose a disturbing "implementation gap" between the law and the ground reality.

Children routinely refer to juvenile homes as "jails". Even the police call them "Bachon ka jail" (jail for children).

Many states, including Delhi, are yet to fully comply with the requirements of the Juvenile Justice Act in letter and spirit. Moreover, requirements that have been met on paper, lack sensitivity in practice.

Child Rights lawyer and member of National Human Rights Commission's Core Group on Children, Anant Kumar Asthana, showed The Quint how the mandatory legal requirements are taken for granted.

The Juvenile Justice Act requires all district level Special Juvenile Police Units to have two social workers in it. Delhi does not do this. But on paper, it is shown as being complied with. In Delhi, instead of having a police unit exclusively dealing with children, there is a "Special Police Unit for Women and Children." This is contrary to the mandate of the JJA.
Anant Kumar Asthana

Every police station is mandated to have at least one police officer designated as Child Welfare Police Officer who has to exclusively deal with cases of children. Ashish Kumar, a lawyer with the legal aid cell of JJB, told us that this is also not complied with. "All Child Welfare Police Officers are having multiple duties , contrary to the legal mandate", he said.

Most often, when children are held by police, their parents are not told. The parents have to run around searching for their children. Most of the JJBs also don't insist on presence of parents when the children are first produced by police. The Police does not comply with the clear direction of Section 10 of the Juvenile Justice Act.

The mandate and intention of law also gets defeated by inadequate resources and superficial management of the existing ones. Much of the 'compliance' is done just to "tick off the boxes".

The head of Delhi's de-addiction centre for juveniles informed us that the institution is finding it extremely difficult to sustain rehabilitation efforts with a constrained budget. Further, a steep rise in the number of juveniles being sent to custody, has made matters worse.

Children in de-addiction centres are getting the bare minimum, while being deprived of proper education. Children told The Quint that they are only taught to "write their name" or "how to sign", nothing more. The only time these children sit in front of a computer is when they appear before the JJB for their hearing via video-conferencing.

Redemption, a Lost Cause

Children in de-addiction centres are getting the bare minimum, while being deprived of proper education.

Graphic:Shruti Mathur/The Quint

These children fail to see themselves beyond their immediate confines, and see themselves as the police portrays them, as criminals. This simply means that the law and its promise to rehabilitate, has failed. Punishment, packaged as "protection", is what these children experience, and so, they are not helped nor empowered to escape the net of criminality.

How the institutions of care envisage "rehabilitation" also reflects how little hope they hold out for these children. Jobs such as plumbers, carpenters, electricians are the only "skill development" deemed appropriate for them. Officers running the institutions often feel that a juvenile home is just a "temporary stay" of "broken children".

Post-release monitoring of the child is also absent. Acute understaffing in the probation department along with budgetary crunch results in "leaving released children to their destiny". Caught in the "revolving door" of penal institutions, they are often back again, and eventually end up in adult jails.

System is not capable of providing the required rehabilitative intervention. There's zero probation, probation officers do very little. There's no proper community rehabilitation of released juveniles. The provision mandating police to inform probation officers at the time of arrest is often violated.
Anant Kumar Asthana, child rights lawyer and activist

The system focused on addressing "children in conflict with law" is swift on criminalisation, but slow on meaningful rehabilitation. The state has found it convenient to let its 'adult' criminal justice system to kick in. The tougher task of addressing the socio-economic issues that force children into the net of criminality is ignored.

Till we continue to see them through the looking glass of a retributive (as against reformative) criminal justice system, these children will continue to be failed, and eventually, forgotten.

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