When home is not enough, a perilous journey begins

Runaway kids

Representative photo. (Pixabay)

Outside Balakara Bal Mandira, a government-run care and protection facility for children in the city stands a couple who has travelled from Hyderabad to take their only son home.

“I work as a coolie and my husband breaks stones, we wanted our son to go to school,” Ramakka said, her eyes welling up as she recalls the day her son went missing. But how did the 10-year-old get to Bengaluru and what motivates others like him to run away from home?

According to officials at Childline 1098, a helpline for children in distress, and other organisations working for the care of children, reasons for running away include academic pressure, desire to see the city, family problems, poverty and a different gender identity from their biological one. Kids hide in public transport if they are travelling to big cities, sometimes in bathrooms, to avoid being spotted.

Childline 1098 comes under the purview of the Directorate of Women and Children and is executed by selected NGOs that work closely with state governments. Data accessed from Childline 1098 shows that in the Bengaluru Urban district, 110 cases of “child lost and found” and 127 cases of “parents asking for help” were reported between April 2018 and March 2019.

Vasudeva Sharma, Nodal Director, Childline 1098, said a lot of children run away from mutts, hostels, madrasas and religious institutions. He noted that such kids should be referred to as ‘driven away children’ and not ‘runaway children’ as there are several factors that influence a child to be driven away from home.

An official at the Bal Mandira identified fear as an important underlying reason. “Some children run away citing reasons like parents or teachers scolded them or beat them up for exam marks. A boy told me that his mother drank a lot and in the inebriated state she would beat him up and that’s why he left home,” she said. Then there are the cases of children from North India who land up in Bengaluru.

“A lot of children from the North are running away and coming to Bengaluru because of the poverty that they experience, they want to make a living here. They come on their own or they are brought by people for child labour,” said Father Mathew, Executive Director, Bosco Bangalore. To track such kids and help them, NGOs, Childline officials and railway police are on a constant vigil. But once they have been found, reuniting them with their parents has to follow a legally-mandated procedure.

Procedure to be followed

Sharma elaborated about the procedure saying each case of a missing child is considered a possible kidnap. The case must be reported to the Missing Children's Bureau. When a child is found, it must be recorded as a ‘found child’ and the child should be produced before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). Kids who give away the contact details of their parents and those whose parents can come within 30 minutes after being informed of the child being found by police or other organisations, are not produced before the panel.

Sharma said the rate of such unifications is high. Those kids whose parents failed to turn up within 24 hours are produced before the CWC. It’s not always an open and shut case and officials have to be on the look out for instances of sexual abuse or other issues that may fall under the Indian Penal Code.

"If there are children who have no one to look after, they are sent to open shelters, one among them is Bosco,” the official at Bala Mandira said. An open shelter is an institution where children without support will be looked after, including their education, until they are old enough to fend for themselves.

The official also admitted that there weren’t enough counsellors to meet the needs of children in Balakara Bala Mandira “The building has a capacity to house 300 children but there are about 150-160 children at a time [on an average] and there is just one counsellor. We have asked for more... At least one counsellor for 50 children would be great.”

The need for counsellors becomes even more prominent in cases where children in their late teens are coming to terms with their gender identity. Many who experience this also face violence and are prone to committing suicide. “They have lots of confusion in their minds because of gender identity and sexual orientation. They are faced with discrimination and don’t wish to continue with their education....They search for acceptance and some run away,” said Uma from the Jeeva Foundation, which works for the well-being of sexual minorities.

For Ramakka and her son it’s still a happy ending – they will soon be reunited. But there are many others, such as a father who desperately awaits news about his son who has run away from a madrassa, and a couple from Cooch Behar, working as construction labourers in Bengaluru, unable to find their eight-year-old son, for whom the trial of waiting goes on.

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