It had been over a month since 16-year old Dhruv* was reported missing by his mother and aunt in Varanasi. The police had also called off the search. The latest National Crime Records Bureau (2018) data reveals that about 40 percent of the 1,15,656 children who were reported missing in India were not traced. Dhruv's family knew that. With each passing day, it became increasingly difficult for Dhruv’s family to accept the closing reality— they may never see Dhruv again.
Then one day, out of the blue, Dhruv’s aunt received a call informing her that Dhruv had been found in a faraway basti in Wadala, Mumbai.
Of all the places in the country that Dhruv could have ended up in, it was a fortuitous stroke of luck that brought him to Wadala, a place where for the last eight years, community women and adolescents have been deeply engaged in the practice of keeping children safe with the NGO Aangan. "I was out emptying the trash can when I noticed Dhruv sitting near the dumpster. But it didn’t raise any alarm bells the first time that I saw him, so I went about my business and forgot about it until the very next day, when I saw him again at the same spot," said Sunita, a trained child protection volunteer with NGO Aangan.
Sensing something was amiss, Sunita went to talk to him. She found out that he had run away from his home in Varanasi and was alone in Mumbai. Her years of training immediately alerted her to the myriad safety risks that he would be exposed to, if not taken to a safe place right away.
Sunita then asked her son to dig deep as she felt that Dhruv was not forthcoming. Recalling the whole incident, Akash, an alumnus of a community peer safety network, said, "When I found out that he had run away from home, I decided to help him, because I knew that if he is not sent to a safe place then his chances of getting into dangerous activities-- drug peddling, stealing, alcoholism, or in the company of criminal gangs is very high. Our community poses immense risks to young boys. I didn’t want this to happen to him and besides, the streets are no place for a child to be."
Akash’s mother asked him to reach out to Aangan to get Dhruv to safety, thereby firing up the next cog in the network to liaise with officials of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Mumbai Police, Varanasi Police and David Sassoon (shelter home) to ensure that Dhruv was immediately transferred to an institution until his family arrived to pick him up.
In the interim, Dhruv needed a safe place to stay and food to eat. Akash’s neighbour, who is also associated with the safety group in Wadala, offered the keys to a local workshop that had become inoperative due to the lockdown. Meanwhile, women from the community offered to serve him food until Dhruv was connected to a food bank. "I had made arrangements for his food and stay so that he doesn’t leave from this place, otherwise it could have become very difficult for me to trace him again as he was desperately looking for a job and that could have taken him anywhere. I didn’t want to take that risk," said Akash, as he succinctly underscores the importance of keeping Dhruv safe at any cost.
The baton was then passed from Mumbai’s safety network to Varanasi’s, where Dhruv's family was waiting for him.
An end-to-end safety network
The police force is up against an organized network of traffickers, designed to run like clockwork, who clandestinely prey on missing children. Uncovering the underlying causes that seal the fate of a missing child to a life full of exploitation, Aangan’s Executive Director, Atiya Bose said, "Thousands of children go missing every day – government statistics say it’s one child every 8 minutes. That’s a terrifying number of children, and it is complicated to find them because they could be anywhere. We know that child is most likely trafficked, abused, exploited in some way. So it’s very urgent that we find solutions. But that child is a needle in a haystack, rendered quite invisible in our adult world."
Highlighting the role that active communities can play here, she further added, "This is where we, citizens, can play an enormous role, by being aware of the children we see all around us, stopping for a moment to understand that child’s circumstances and committing to act if we apprehend that child is alone, endangered. Yes, this will take a few hours out of your life, but your action can ensure that one child is saved from a brutal fate."
What we can do?
• Ask children (kindly - interrogation will only drive them away)who they live with and where do their parents know where they are. Do they want to contact their parents?
• If you realise they are quite alone, let them know you are going to help, and call Childline (1098)
• You can also call the police (100) or go to the nearest police station
• Use your privilege and status to insist these authorities respond. Stay with the child until help comes. Remember, she/he is terrified, be gentle.
• Follow up is crucial and forces accountability on the authorities you have activated. Tell them to inform the CWC (child welfare committee) and to register the child as missing on the government ‘khoya-paya’ portal. It’s possible the authorities won’t know what you are talking about- here’s when you must insist.
Therefore, mounting a serious attempt to trace a missing child requires the whole child protection system to run like a well-oiled machine, a daunting task that was accomplished when, a community primed to keep children safe, worked in perfect harmony with all the stakeholders by following all the instructions listed above to rescue a missing child to safety.
Akash, members of the Wadala community who came forward to help with food and accommodation, the women volunteers in Varanasi, all these community members were once part of safety networks in their respective communities. They had been trained to identify early warning signs of harm and develop strategies to address them, so it was easy for them to understand the risks to a child’s safety and the need for securing Dhruv’s safety immediately. They had been trained to engage with local stakeholders, so it was easy for Akash to comfortably walk into a police station and report the case. All the officials of Police, CWC and Aangan had to do was coordination work.
Dhruv's case is a perfect example of what can happen when community safety networks are allowed to interact, not through mere coincidence, but through channels established and embraced by the Police, CWCs, NGOs and other stakeholders within the child protection system.
*The name of the missing child has been changed to maintain confidentiality.
(Mizan Tejani works as a Communications & Advocacy Associate at Aangan, a nonprofit committed to preventing child harm in India.)
Unsafe child abandonment is illegal and puts children’s lives and future at risk. A child can be legally and anonymously surrendered at a specialised adoption agency. To find the nearest authorised and specialised adoption agency, call ChildLine at 1098 or go to http://cara.nic.in/Stakeholders/India_map.html and select the state in which the safe surrender needs to take place.