Patna: Fourteen-year-old Sanjay stood in the market place near his home when a violent fight broke out between two groups. When the police arrived on the scene, he was thought to have taken part in the fight and was arrested. For two months from Diwali, Sanjay's days and nights were dark and gloomy. He was kept in custody in a State run institution (called special home) near Patna in the East Indian state of Bihar.
Thanks to the intervention of the Patna High Court under an initiative supported by UNICEF along with the Juvenile Justice Board and the Government of Bihar, Sanjay was reunited with his parents. "I am so happy to be free. I had not done anything wrong," he says as joy rises to his face. In November 2006, 62 children were absolved of their charges and set free. Out of these, 40 children were in custody in the Special Home while the other 22 were out on bail and were reporting to local police stations.
Sanjay was lucky. Thousands of such children continue to languish in special homes because of the delay in justice. A study conducted by a non -governmental organization, Bal Sakha revealed that over 6,000 juvenile cases were pending in various Juvenile Justice Boards, of which about half were pending for more than three years and in some cases, still unresolved even after 10 years. It also revealed that often these juveniles with parents were produced before authorities 30-40 times over 3-4 years. In some cases children appeared before the board for more than 100 hearings.
Bal Samvad Adalat
The need for a special process to fast track such cases was initiated by Bal Samvad Adalat (Interactive Children’s Court). This is a unique process initiated only in Bihar.
The first step in the process was short -listing petty offences from the relatively more serious ones. Later, parents of the children were contacted and invited to the Adalat, where they were provided legal awareness and also advice on rehabilitation of children. One to one counseling was also provided to children and their parents. Anxieties, dilemmas and worries of the families were duly addressed. Many a time, the parents met with their own children after a gap of many years or for the first time after their child came into custody.
The UNICEF State Representative for Bihar, Bijaya Rajbhandari says, "Many of these children had such petty charges that they did not need to be in the special home. They should be with their parents and going to school. That is why UNICEF partnered with Government and Bal Sakha so that the children are heard and set free at the earliest." Assessing cases and doing the necessary paperwork so that they come up for hearing; organising the special court and providing counseling to parents and children were part of the process adopted in this initiative. Such Courts and interactive sessions are now expected to take place regularly.
Speaking with the parents and children brought out some stark realities. Most of the children come from poor families who do not understand the law or have no means to get legal help. Many of them are known to have sold their goats and cows, even land, to get legal support. "I am glad we could step in prevent that sort of thing from recurring," says Mr. Rajbhandari.
When asked, most of the released children said that they wanted to resume studies and make up for the lost time. Their faces and expressions conveyed their profound joy and happiness and a sense of satisfaction to be with their families and loved ones. A sigh of relief came from each parent as they were once more united with their children.
(Name of the child/parent changed to protect identity of the child)