In the last year and a half, after expanding our ambit to include providing comprehensive care to children in need of care and protection, we took the opportunity at iProbono’s 10-year anniversary celebrations to discuss an important facet of our work – psychosocial support for children in POCSO cases.
We brought together Support Persons from four different states for a session titled, ‘Role of Support Persons: Interventions for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors’ to discuss the role they embody and the difficulties they encounter.
The panellists included Vaidehi Subramani, Chairperson, Child Welfare Committee, Lajpat Nagar, Delhi; Uzma Parveen, Program Officer, Mental Health Intervention, HAQ – Centre for Child Rights, Delhi; Kushi Kushalappa, Head, Rehabilitation and Reintegration, Enfold Proactive Health Trust, Bangalore; Kashina Kareem, Assistant Director, Prerana Anti-Human Trafficking, Mumbai; Jayashashi Sharma, Social Worker, Rajasthan. They proposed several recommendations on streamlining the process of appointment of Support Persons, the roles and responsibilities laid down in the POCSO Rules, 2020 along with the challenges faced in the implementation of the rules. This session was moderated by Aishwarya Sinha, Social Worker, iProbono.
During the course of the session, the panellists discussed a number of issues that regularly arise in the course of their work, despite their widely different jurisdiction-specific practices. Some important takeaways are:
The Role of Support Persons
The panel explored how other stakeholders in the child protection ecosystem view the work of Support Persons.
The concept of Support Persons was first proposed under the POCSO Rules, 2012. During the initial days, their role was not acknowledged by other stakeholders in the child protection space, especially the courts, and it was not clear what their function entailed. Most of the Support Persons back then were not trained and qualified social workers, however, things have changed substantially since.
Currently, there are high expectations from Support Persons, which makes it challenging for an individual who is serving in this capacity. Child Welfare Committees (CWC) now anticipate that Support Persons will go above and beyond for the child, taking on tasks like obtaining disability certificates or assisting the family with relocating which is a herculean task for just one person to accomplish on their own.
The panel agreed that even after 11 years, the Support Persons cadre is disorganised and underappreciated, and it is time we consider ways to balance our resources and only appoint Support Persons in cases where their support is required.
Appointment of Support Persons – Seeking Consent of Children and Their Caregivers
In most cases, families are informed after a Support Person has been appointed to them, without being asked if they require support. Support Persons frequently face scenarios where after their appointment, they realise that the child has already dealt with numerous stakeholders, and are at times resistant to interact with another stakeholder asking them questions which may result in re-traumatisation. Without proper guidance on the benefits of having a Support Person, they at times refuse the support offered to them. That said, the idea of taking consent before appointment has its downsides – it might be challenging to obtain a family member’s consent in situations where the family actively encourages the child to engage in commercial sexual exploitation, or in cases of incest where the family is not interested in pursuing the case.
Another important issue that was raised is the stage at which Support Persons are brought into the system. Children are only brought before the CWC after enduring the trauma of registering an FIR, getting examined by a doctor, having their statement under Section 161 and Section 164 of CrPC recorded, etc. A Support Person could have helped substantially at all these stages, but that opportunity passes before the appointment even takes place.
Support Provided by an Organisation vs. an Individual
Support Persons who are associated with an organisation receive financial support as remuneration and reimbursements for expenses incurred on travel, allowing them to work additional hours. They can also rely on the organisation for financial support required to perform their duties which is not an alternative available to individual Support Persons. While it is important to lay down guidelines specifying standard tasks and responsibilities for Support Persons across the country, the capacity to be kept in mind should be that of an individual who is providing assistance as a Support Person, so that it is not overly onerous. Anything an organisation does in addition to this is subjective and may vary from organisation to organisation, based on their capacity.
Remuneration for Support Persons
It is important to ensure that sufficient financial support is provided to Support Persons to ensure that their work is sustainable. In large cities, it is expensive to travel to meet a child, or to take them across great distances to hospitals, courts, CWCs, etc. Currently, most jurisdictions fail to provide a basic fee to support persons, let alone covering such costs.
The POCSO Rules, 2020 mandates payment of fees to Support Persons which shall be at par with skilled workers as per the Payment of Minimum Wages Act in lieu of the notifications issued by Labour Departments of each district, or with funds maintained by the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) as per Section 105 of the JJ Act. Yet, these clauses are scarcely implemented.
Takeaways: Recommendations for the Next 10 Years
The panellists shared their suggestions for the way forward. Here are some substantive takeaways from this session:
- There should be a uniform understanding or a uniform training curriculum of minimum duties of Support Persons, so that all individuals acting as Support Persons know what their responsibilities will be.
- Stakeholders need to understand the role and importance of Support Persons; this can be explained to them during relevant training sessions that they are mandated to attend under existing protocols and laws.
- Safety Protocol or guidelines in place to ensure security of Support Persons, particularly given that their work often requires them to travel to unfamiliar areas at odd hours.
- A platform for Support Persons to deal with vicarious trauma resulting as a consequence of their work.