For the past five years, 13-year-old Vishal (name changed) used to remain under the influence of drugs for most of the day and begged or sometimes even picked pockets on the streets. He was rescued from Aligarh railway station as part of Operation Smile launched by the Ghaziabad police. His family in Alipur village was contacted, but neither Vishal, nor his family, want to be reunited.
Vishal is one of the 25 boys being taken care of at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Shelter Home for Boys in Sector 1, Vasundhara who do not want to go back home to their families.
The shelter home started in 2012 as a day boarding school for children who were rag pickers, beggars and petty thieves. After tying up with the local police, the home turned into a hostel for dislocated children.
“In the past three years, 256 children have been registered at our shelter home who have either stayed for a while or used to be brought here for teaching. Currently there are 25 children here, out of which 15 were brought by the police under Operation Smile,” said Omkar Singh, who runs the shelter home.
He said that there is a general perception that if a child is missing, he/she must be lost or kidnapped. However, there is a larger story behind children missing from their homes.
“Most of the children who have been brought here have similar stories of running away from their homes. They have suffered mistreatment at home because of broken families, alcoholic fathers or poor financial backgrounds. Here, they stay happy and hence do not wish to return,” added Singh.
Vishal, who was rescued from the railway station in January, was diagnosed with epilepsy. He is undergoing treatment and is being taught mathematics and English at the shelter home.
“I like it here since I get food at time and also have a lot of friends to play with. Though I don’t like studying, I like the music classes and playing the harmonium,” he said. According to his caretaker, Vishal faces difficulty in learning.
During counselling, it was revealed that Vishal’s father died when he was six years old and his mother remarried and relocated to Gujarat leaving behind him and an elder daughter in the care of his aunt. However, the aunt left Vishal and his sister at a railway station after her own husband’s death.
“The elder sister started working at a tea shop at the railway station and its owner adopted her. Vishal got involved with a gang of men who used to get children addicted to drugs and make them beg and pick pockets,” said Harendra Kumar, one of the caretakers at the shelter home.
In April, the shelter home contacted Vishal’s family but his aunt refused to take him back citing her own poverty.
According to child rights activists, if a child does not want to go home and the family also refuses to take him/her back, the child’s responsibility falls on the state government.
“It is very obvious that children would not want to return home if they are mistreated there. Moreover, if the family also doesn’t want them back, there is no point in sending them back because they will run away again and end up on the streets. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the government to keep the child at a child care home,” said Dr Mala Bhandari, a child rights activist and founder director of the Social and Development Research and Action Group (SADRAG), Noida.
According to Dharmendra Singh, senior superintendent of police (SSP), Ghaziabad, who launched Operation Smile, police make all possible attempts to contact the families of such children.
“If the children do not want to return, they are repeatedly counselled and told about the joy of being in a family. However, if they still refuse to go back, they continue to be kept at the child care home,” he said.