“What are the best interests of the child?” is a question that is often thrown out in many of the countless discussion that my office staff and I engage in at work. My host organization is Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ), a non-governmental organization (ngo) that works to empower child* victims’ of sexual assault by adopting a collaborative, long-term approach with government and other stakeholders. CSJ provides lawyers and social workers to the child to assist them throughout their court proceedings. At CSJ, we often use this question to guide us when dealing with our cases.
Although straightforward, this question can raise many complications especially when working within a small NGO.
A memorable case that brings this question to the fore is the case of Anjali.* Anjali was ten when her father started sexually assaulting her. Anjali’s father was also very physically abusive to the mother and kept Anjali separated from her brothers.
The child confided in a non-governmental organization, X*, about her abuse. X decided to contact the authorities, however, they were not able to do it that day as the mother was unreachable. X contacted us and together the two ngo’s decided to wait until the next day to call the authorities. Together, the two NGOs also decided to have individuals from my CSJ to accompany the child to the police station and hospital. X feared that if the father discovered that the authorities were called then he could fatally injure the mother.
The next day when the child returned to X, and the mother was safe, ChildLine was called. The child was eventually rescued. Soon after the rescue, the discovery was made that the child was assaulted the night before. Discovering this fact shook our organization to the core. Yes, the mother’s safety was important, but the child’s interests were violated.
This discussion was circular and required many debates. In the alternative if the child was rescued on the day of the notification, then the mother’s life would have been severely compromised resulting in the child becoming a ward of the state. Additionally, this would have resulted in distrust between the two different organizations. Working in this field is constantly requires judgement call such as these. So what are the best interests of the child to call the authorities immediately and possibly sacrifice the child’s mother’s life or wait and risk the child being abused again. Hopefully, these two alternatives will be not the only options we will have in the future. Only through heated discussions and a thorough reflection of ourselves, can we come upon an answer and prevent these type of atrocities from taking place. In our case, X decided that in future cases, they will contact the authorities immediately.
Another issue that comes to the fore when raising the best interests of the child is whether to place a child in a shelter following a reported abuse. With child sexual assault cases, it is often desirable to keep the child in a home, without the abuser, to offer continuity for the child and to avoid disrupting education. However, after an assault, societal stigma can make living at home for a child very hostile. Societal factions such as neighbors, school children, even family members often blame the child for not confiding sooner or for losing the “honor” of the family. The child then faces the issue of further re-traumatization. When faced with this alternative, a shelter seems to a better option for abused children. However, there are very few shelters available in Delhi, and they are severely underfunded. Moreover, often the shelters do not allow the child to leave to attend school and few vocational centers exist within the shelter thereby resulting in severe isolation for the child. This also results in some children becoming even more withdrawn or engaging in harmful practices like cutting themselves.
These complications are demonstrative of just some of the reasons behind victims often hesitate to ask for help as it is not always easy to get them help immediately. They are no answers for these difficult questions without structurally challenging and shifting societal norms and policies. But these questions need to be asked.
* a person below the age of eighteen is considered a child*
*to protect the confidentiality of the child, a pseudonym is used.
*to protect the confidentiality of the NGO, it is referred to as X*