Drafting Effective Child Protection Policies for CSOs

Parinaz Madan

On paper, India has some of the most comprehensive child abuse laws in the world, but in practice, their implementation remains a challenge. This has become especially evident during the current COVID-19 crisis which has highlighted the growing child abuse epidemic in the country.[1]

Interestingly, a 2019 report published by the Economist Intelligence Unit evaluated the response of sixty countries to the scourge of child abuse and ranked India the highest amongst all the surveyed countries in terms of the strength of its legal framework for protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation.[2] However, unless legislative efforts are matched in equal measure with attitudinal and policy shifts across all government and non-government actors, including Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) that deal with children, the mitigation of child abuse will remain an elusive dream.

Necessity of a Child Protection Policy

Drafting and implementing a robust Child Protection Policy (CPP) is one of the most constructive ways for a CSO to contribute towards the goal of child abuse alleviation in India.[3] Typically, all kinds of organisations which deal with children, whether directly by way of physical interactions with them or indirectly by way of accessing their personal data (including their photographs, medical records, case files or contact details), should frame a CPP. This covers a wide breadth of CSOs ranging from those providing shelter, education, training, counselling or medical care to children to those involved in researching or reporting on child rights.

A well-drafted CPP would aid in streamlining the procedures for dealing with child abuse, therefore also reducing the legal risk exposure of the CSO. By ensuring that the CSO’s management is not caught off guard when a child abuse case surfaces, it will act as a compass steering the organisation in the right direction. Crucially, such a CPP would instil confidence in the children interacting with the CSO about their concerns being addressed fairly and in accordance with the due process of law. In times of emergencies, such as the current pandemic, a well-thought-out CPP will enhance the CSO’s preparedness in safeguarding the children under its care and weathering unforeseen events.

However, devising and executing such a CPP comes with its own set of challenges. A CSO needs to dedicate financial and human resources towards the prevention and redressal of child abuse and evolve consensus amongst its members for such allocations. Sensitising its staff, consultants and partner organisations to comply with the CPP is another uphill task.

Ingredients of a CPP

The specific contents of CPPs will differ from one CSO to another depending upon its structure, resources, nature of work, type of interaction with children and location.[4] While there is no one-size-fits-all template for drafting an effective CPP, some of its critical elements are decoded below:

Key defining terms

“Child abuse” is perhaps the most important definition of the CPP and should be construed as an all-encompassing term. It is imperative that various facets of child abuse are covered under its ambit including physical, emotional, sexual and online abuse as well as neglect and exploitation.[5] All acts regarded as offences against children under various child-related laws in India also fall within the scope of this definition.[6] Apart from this, the definitions of “child”, “organisation’s representatives” and “organisation’s workplace” should also be clearly set out in the CPP. [7]

Objectives of the CPP

The overarching objective of the CPP should be providing a safe and conducive environment to all the children covered by its scope. The CSO’s unequivocal commitment to dealing with child abuse firmly, in accordance with the relevant child-related laws in India and by giving primary consideration to the best interests of children, must be clearly demonstrated in the CPP’s objectives. While the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 constitutes the centrepiece of the CPP, a raft of other child-related laws will also have to be accounted for, while devising it. These include the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 and the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017.[8]

Scope of the CPP

The CPP should apply to all the organisation’s representatives and the children who interact with them. All interactions (including those occurring in the organisation’s workplace, online or telephonically) between the organisation’s representatives and the children should be governed by the CPP. Additionally, certain provisions of the CPP should also regulate the conduct of persons who are not the organisation’s representatives but come in contact with children under the CSO’s care (such as the CSO’s visitors and collaborators).

Measures for child abuse prevention

An illustrative list of the preventive measures that a CSO should undertake to avert child abuse have been summarised below:

  • Conducting background checks, police verifications and pre-screening of its staff candidates and obtaining self-declarations from them about a lack of conviction history for sexual and child abuse offences.[9]
  • Organising periodic training for its employees, consultants, volunteers and interns on the CPP, child abuse laws and support services available for children.[10]
  • Developing age-appropriate modules on personal and online safety for children and conducting workshops with them and their parents/guardians on the CPP.
  • Taking steps to ensure that corporal punishment, bullying, child labour and any other forms of abuse towards children are prevented.
  • Ensuring the use of ID cards by every adult coming in contact with the children at the organisation’s workplace.
  • Placing a suggestions box in the premises of the CSO to facilitate children and their parents/guardians in voicing child abuse complaints effectively.
  • Displaying the relevant details of the CPP and the contact numbers of the child protection officer and child helplines (such as CHILDLINE 1098) at prominent places in the CSO’s offices and on its websites.
  • Whenever the CSO undertakes any research on children or collects data on them, ensuring that its research staff follows ethical practices and child-friendly procedures.
  • Developing policies for safeguarding the privacy and safety of children such as policies on excursions, external visitors, first aid, photographing children, information technology, social media, internet use and creche facilities.
  • Creating a barrier-free environment in the CSO’s premises so that children with disabilities are able to operate with dignity and autonomy.[11]

Constitution of the child protection committee and child protection officer

It is imperative that accountability for implementing the CPP rests with an identifiable body of persons within the CSO. Towards that end, the CSO may consider forming a child protection committee comprising of individuals who are well versed in child-related laws, a majority of its members preferably being women.[12] One of the committee’s members could be designated as the child protection officer for the purpose of acting as the first point of contact for dealing with child abuse incidents. Ideally, an external child rights expert such as a social worker, counsellor or lawyer should also form part of the committee. The committee should be tasked with redressing child abuse complaints, maintaining CPP-related records, conducting regular meetings, implementing and reviewing the CPP and coordinating with various government and external agencies, as may be necessary.

Crafting the reporting and redressal mechanism

The reporting mechanism of the CPP must enable any person who observes, suspects or becomes aware of any child abuse incident to report it immediately to the child protection officer, verbally or in writing.[13] The child protection officer must then be empowered to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the child, depending upon the nature of the abuse. Such steps could include providing counselling, arranging medical assistance and reporting the incident to the child’s parents/guardians, CHILDLINE 1098, the police, the Child Welfare Committee, the cyber-crime portal or other authorities. Besides, the officer should also gather evidence of the incident, if any, and prepare a preliminary report based on it.

The child protection committee must convene a meeting in a time-bound manner upon the incident being referred to it for action by the child protection officer. It must investigate the complaint and take such disciplinary or other action as it deems fit against the offender, if the allegations are substantiated.[14] While dealing with a child abuse incident, the committee must ensure proper documentation of the complaint and maintain complete confidentiality of the incident.

Pertinently, under section 19 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, every person who suspects or has knowledge of the commission of a sexual offence against a child is required to report the offence to the local police or the Special Juvenile Police Unit. A failure to report the sexual offence constitutes an offence punishable with imprisonment or fine or both under section 21 of the Act.[15] The redressal mechanism of the CPP must reflect this position unambiguously by requiring the child protection officer to mandatorily report such sexual offences to the concerned authorities.[16]

Forming a code of conduct

Typically, the code lays down a set of rules governing the conduct of the organisation’s representatives in their interactions with children. Some of these rules include:

  • Following all the child protection laws and the principles of non-discrimination, equality, respect, empathy and confidentiality while dealing with children, regardless of their age, religion, disability, gender or identity.
  • Abstaining from developing or supporting physical or exploitative relationships with children and all other forms of child abuse.
  • Avoiding any language or behaviour that would be culturally inappropriate, harmful, intimidating or demeaning to children.
  • Refraining from exposing children to intoxicating substances and pornographic, violent, criminal or other inappropriate content.
  • Ensuring that all interactions with children are always conducted in visible settings, as authorized by the CSO’s management, with at least one other adult or child present.
  • Obtaining permission from children before taking their photos or videos and following cyber safety norms and the CSO’s policy on the use of such photos or videos.
  • Reporting every child abuse incident as directed under the CPP and maintaining complete confidentiality about the incident.

The organisation’s representatives must sign a declaration agreeing to adhere to such a code of conduct, the provisions of the CPP and the other child-related policies of the CSO. In order to give teeth to the CPP, the code must expressly state that its breach will entitle the CSO to take the necessary disciplinary or legal actions against the violator.

Conclusion

It is commonly observed that organisations without a CPP deal with child abuse cases haphazardly and arbitrarily, often causing gross prejudice to the interests of children and a miscarriage of justice. Sometimes their actions and omissions also fall afoul of various child protection laws, leading to the imposition of stringent penalties and irreversible reputational loss.

The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a staggering increase in the number of child abuse cases in India, which is home to one of the youngest populations in the world. Increased online exposure during the lockdown has rendered children particularly vulnerable to a multitude of cyber-crimes.[17] To cope with the current pandemic scenario, CSOs should ensure that their CPPs enable conducting child safety training (with a sharp focus on cybersecurity, social media use and peer-to-peer abuse), counselling, child abuse reporting and resolution of complaints through digital means. Additionally, the CPPs must reflect the evolving government guidelines on the pandemic for safeguarding the health and well-being of children. This is, therefore, an opportune time for CSOs to create or revisit their CPPs.


Parinaz Madan is an independent corporate lawyer by profession, who also advises Civil Society Organisations on various legal matters as one of iProbono’s panel lawyers in Mumbai. She obtained a law degree from the Government Law College, Mumbai and qualified as a solicitor from the Bombay Incorporated Law Society.


Notes:

[1] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-lockdown-govt-helpline-receives-92000-calls-on-child-abuse-and-violence-in-11-days/article31287468.ece (last visited on April 30, 2020).

[2] The report also underscored the need for improving civil society, industry and government engagement towards preventing child abuse and exploitation in India. The complete report titled “Out of the Shadows: Shining light on the response to child sexual abuse and exploitation” can be downloaded from https://outoftheshadows.eiu.com and India’s performance report is available at https://outoftheshadows.eiu.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/IN_INDIA_PROFILE.pdf (last visited on April 30, 2020).

[3] While some CSOs prefer drafting one consolidated CPP, others may choose to divide their child protection measures into separate documents, for instance, a CPP and child protection guidelines.

[4] Rule 3(5) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Rules, 2020 mentions “The respective Governments shall formulate a child protection policy based on the principle of zero-tolerance to violence against children, which shall be adopted by all institutions, organisations, or any other agency working with, or coming in contact with children.” CSOs must consult such government policies as and when they are notified in the states in which they operate, before drafting their CPPs.

[5] For a detailed explanation of the various forms of child abuse, see the “Report of the consultation on child abuse prevention, WHO, Geneva, 29-31 March 1999”, available at https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/65900 (last visited on April 30, 2020). To learn more about the various kinds of cyber-crimes against children and the manner of reporting such crimes in India, see the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal available at https://cybercrime.gov.in/Webform/crmcondi.aspx (last visited on April 30, 2020).

[6] Committing child trafficking, child labour, child marriage, corporal punishment, female foeticide, child sexual assault and harassment, child pornography, atrocities against a child with disabilities and giving intoxicating substances to a child are some examples of punishable child-related offences in India.

[7] A “child” means a person below the age of eighteen years; the “organisation’s representatives” mean persons acting for or on behalf of the CSO including the CSO’s trustees, employees, consultants, contractors, volunteers, interns and service providers; and the “organisation’s workplace” should not only include the office premises of the CSO but must also cover all the other places where the CSO’s activities are conducted.

[8] Needless to say, the provisions of the CPP would also need to be guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, the Constitution of India, 1950, the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and other laws.

[9] Rule 3(4) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Rules, 2020 states “Any institution housing children or coming in regular contact with children including schools, creches, sports academies or any other facility for children must ensure a police verification and background check on periodic basis, of every staff, teaching or non-teaching, regular or contractual, or any other person being an employee of such Institution coming in contact with the child. Such Institution shall also ensure that periodic training is organised for sensitising them on child safety and protection.”

[10] Such support services include CHILDLINE 1098, Special Juvenile Police Units, Child Welfare Committees, child care institutions, one-stop centres, drug rehabilitation centres, hospitals, mental health care providers and other related services for children.

[11] Installing CCTV cameras in its premises, maintaining visitor registers and ensuring adequate security at its gates are some of the other preventive measures that the CSO could undertake. Additionally, various preventive measures are also mandated by certain state governments and the CSO must comply with them.

[12] For CSOs with a pan-India presence, the constitution of a child protection committee in each city of the CSO’s operation and a national level child protection committee, supervising the functioning of such city level committees, could be considered.

[13] It would be instructive to lay down the format for reporting child abuse complaints, in the form of an Annexure to the CPP.

[14] Such other actions may include reporting the incident to the relevant authorities, directing the offender to a counsellor and requiring the offender to suspend contact with the victim. The nature of action taken will depend, among other things, upon the severity of abuse and whether or not the offender is the organisation’s representative. Where the committee concludes that the allegations of abuse are unsubstantiated, it may, after recording its reasons, close the case.

[15] Notably, as per section 21 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, any person in charge of a company or an institution who fails to report the commission of a sexual offence in respect of a subordinate under his control shall be punished with imprisonment and fine.

[16] From a practical standpoint, CSOs often report such offences to CHILDLINE 1098 for guidance on taking further steps.

[17]https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/closure-of-schools-due-to-covid-19-may-lead-to-online-child-sexual-abuse-warns-ijm/article31245221.ece (last visited on April 30, 2020).

Resources:

  1. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, (last visited on April 30, 2020), available at: https://indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/2079/1/201232.pdf#search=protection%20of%20children%20from%20sexual
  2. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Rules, 2020, (last visited on April 30, 2020), available at: http://egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2020/218601.pdf
  3. The Draft National Child Protection Policy, (last visited on April 30, 2020), available at: https://wcd.nic.in/sites/default/files/Download%20File_1.pdf.
  4. User Handbook on the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, (last visited on April 30, 2020), available at: https://ncpcr.gov.in/showfile.php?lang=1&level=1&&sublinkid=1289&lid=1514
  5. The Karnataka State Child Protection Policy, 2016, (last visited on April 30, 2020), available at: http://dwcd.kar.nic.in:8080/Documents/Children%20Protection%20Policy-%202016.pdf

This article originally appeared on iProbono’s website. The author would like to thank iProbono’s team and particularly Gitanjali Prasad, Advocacy Lead, iProbono for their editorial support on this piece.

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