Fellow Since 2009
This profile was prepared when Suparna Gupta was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
The New Idea
Suparna is bringing about systemic change within India s Juvenile Justice Homes with a tool that measures compliance with the provisions laid down in the Juvenile Justice Act. The tool translates the child-friendly spirit of the Act into actionable terms thus making it relevant and usable at the ground level to those running the homes as well as children. This monitoring allows action under the Act through a 100-point criteria of activities. It is non-confrontational and inclusive of all actors: The government, the home staff, and the children. The crucial aspect of the tool is the fact that it ensures state authorities who run the homes hear the childs perspective regularly and can plan around it.<br/><br/> Suparnas idea begins with examining, through non-threatening participatory processes, the existing working environment and attitudes within institutions. The core of her innovation lies in being able to work creatively from within, drawing the authorities in as partners and sharing the ownership of positive change with those responsible for drafting as well as implementing the provisions at various levels in these institutions.<br/><br/>By working with outside actors, such as the police, child rights and citizen organizations (COs), Suparna has designed an institutional cycle that juveniles, both those who have committed offenses and those in need of care, go through; including pre-admission, stay and exit, to create a continuum of care.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, passed nine years ago, is in keeping with the guidelines in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and is meant to safeguard the rights of children. The primary legal framework for juvenile justice in India, it has also been amended. The law covers care, protection, and treatment of neglected and under-observation juveniles. It instils a child-centered rehabilitation and family-restoration focused system. Its approach toward the treatment of juveniles includes their health care, diet, education, vocational training, recreation facilities, and even personal requirements of clothing, toiletries, and so on. The Juvenile Justice Act refers to two categories of children: Those who have committed offences or children in conflict with the law and runaways, orphans, and beggars who are classified as children in need of care and protection. The intention and objective of the law is to extend relevant guidance and then rehabilitation to both groups. In reality though, the distinction gets blurred and there is hardly any segregation of the two. Both categories of children end up being in close contact in the same home. The children are not a priority to the authorities, and so they get by with providing inadequate facilities. The feeling that they deserve what they get is rampant. The visionary provisions of the Act remain unrealized. The Act has established two bodies, the Child Welfare Committee to specifically address the children in need of care and the Juvenile Justice Board to look into matters concerning those who have committed offenses.Children are brought to the observation homes either by the police or a child right s organization. For those in need of care, the board assesses the situation and either releases the child on bail or recommends that she/he be lodged in an observation home until the board decides. Until such time, the child is entitled to adequate care so that she/he is able to lead as normal a life as possible. However, the recommendation of an observation home and where both categories of children may eventually meet is debatable. There are supposed to be three categories of institutions based on the childs status: One for children accused of crimes and remanded to custody while their cases are being decided, and other kinds of homes for children in need of care. Quite often however, even concerned authorities are unclear about which classification or combination fits a home. Children detained in observation homes are typically from poor families, with few opportunities to attend school, interact with children their age, or have access to books and toys. Many have faced abuse, exploitation, or neglect. Therefore, the objective of the Act is not only to remove the stigma inherent in labeling a child delinquent, but also to change the labeling of child offenders. Non-delinquents are put under state care due to reasons such as trafficking, exploitation, neglect, orphaned, runaway, or other such issues. These children are not offenders and their cases are meant to be taken up for enquiry and resolution. However, the process of institutionalization is full of pitfalls. The homes are grossly overcrowded and lack basic facilities like toilets. As a result, the levels of bullying, mental and sexual abuse is high. A lack of coordination between various juvenile justice agencies causes the whole system to fail the physical and emotional needs of the children. A report released by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights exposes the pitiful conditions of juveniles languishing in reform homes in India. Apart from delayed justice, these children are victims of improper care. Over 5,000 cases against juveniles have been pending in the courts, many for more than 12 years.Once the children arrive at the homes, they are given a number, thus, losing their identity. Over 50 percent of the juvenile homes do not provide counseling services, and more than 80 percent of the caretakers are not trained. In 70 percent of the juvenile care centers, physical punishment is the primary method of discipline. Although there have been sporadic efforts to provide better educational and recreational opportunities at the observation homes, they have largely been unsuccessful.When discussing children in need of care, international agreements generally emphasize the importance of preventing the juveniles from coming into conflict with the law and look forward to complete rehabilitation by the time they leave the juvenile justice system. For some girls, protection is no help. A hundred girls may be made to spend their entire day inside one small room in the name of protection. Though the police are often the first to interact with the children, the police generally are unaware of the provisions of the Act and treat both categories of children as petty criminals. They may be beaten in order to force them to confess to a crime. Add to this the fact that members of the home staffs are also not familiar with the law. Sociologists and social workers are of the opinion that the situation cannot be reversed unless there is a change in attitude at all levels. For those children who have committed crimes and have suffered a broken home, or a painful past, they are at a very impressionable stage. If conditions are bad, they often come away hating society and ready to commit more serious crimes. Rather than unmaking a delinquentthese homes are contributing to them. And for those children who were originally not offenders, the traumatic experience may turn them into one.
Suparna began her work in 2005 by conducting a study on the Childs Perspective of the Home. There was a huge mismatch between the staff/government perception and that of the children. While the children simply asked to be treated as human beings, the staff complained about low budgets and poor infrastructure and salaries. While most children thought of the homes as jails, the staff attitude reflected resentment at being posted in a home, usually referred to as a punishment posting.Hence there was a lot of anger taken out on the children.Suparna helped implement a child-friendly law by creating a monitoring tool. The tool is a 100-point criteria of activities to check on the spirit of the Act and to make it possible to score performance and act on care. This brought everyone s expectations onto one platform. The tool, an easy-to-use score card of must-haveshelps the authorities track strengths areas of challenge, and aids in goal-setting and tackling problem areas. Beginning with Asias largest observation home in Mumbai, housing 500 children, and then extending her intervention to all 12 homes in the city, Suparna facilitated dialogue between the children and the staff; sensitizing all concerned.The methodology is partnership-based and adopts a cooperative rather than a critical watchdog approach. Suparnas strength lies in being able to work from within the homes, something that no CO had been able to do successfully. The authorities are suspicious of new ideas, new practices, and new activities. Suparna has taken advantage of the fact that the government is also trying to be more child-centered. Child protection is now a priority for the government, which is more inclined to allocate funds for standards monitoring. Aangan s work inside the homes is essentially three-pronged. The entry intervention provides coping strategies through counseling, information, and discussion on issues relevant to the survival of the children. For example, it is now mandatory to have a cheerful reception unit for which Suparna, through the tool, has designed interventions. She requires a simple procedure of explaining to the child why he or she has been taken there. This serves to address the childs first level of fear and trauma. At the next level, the intervention is focused, changing from supportive therapy to constructive work relating to survival inside and outside the homes. Aangan offers psychosocial support through counseling using the arts to help children express their anger, fears, and needs. Another example is Aangans Garden Project, in which each child has his/her garden space to design and care for. In focused intervention, since they do not know how long the child will be available, they work fast.The last stage is the exit intervention, which takes the child through decision-making and handling of stressful situations they may face in the outside world. This is also being developed to seamlessly connect with probation programs. At the same time, the staffs are included with a support and orientation program, followed by regular workshops. They feel underpaid and overused, with a lack of resources and information.These are simple techniques that make a huge difference in everyday interaction. The push is toward transparency and breaking barriers of fear and lack of trust. The staffs are also realizing that they can work successfully with partners even in the absence of adequate budgetary allocations. A staff incentive program has been launched in partnership with the government. This includes staff recognition awards, such as a Special Mentor and even Best Cook, for hygienic cooking and introducing special menus for sick children and so on. Over the past year, Suparna has started the Youth Pathway Project; a prevention program for at-risk youth in five of Mumbai s most deprived neighborhoods. The challenge has been to ensure that the youth centers attract the appropriate population (i.e. those engaging in offending, dangerous, and anti-social activities) in partnership with the police, and local community organizations. Aangan now reaches over 2,500 children and intends to focus on special programming for children out on bail. There is no existing model for probation, though the 11th Five-Year Plan mentions it. Suparna plans to take the probation program to the government after the pilot and demonstration, and stress the need for community-based probation officers.Appointed by the state government to monitor Maharashtra s 100 homes in 34 districts, substantial changes have been brought about by Aangan ensuring the provision of four meals a day, creating sick rooms, building toilets, improving hygiene, increasing child participation, and providing recreation and education. A hundred superintendents have been trained in creating happy homes. Based on this progress, the expansion into other states with UNICEF and state departments under the Ministry of Women and Child Development as partners has been aptly named Change is Possible.Suparna plans to set up phone helplines for children in the homes, for complaints and reporting abuse. She will also set up a help desk for staff to deal with problems such as difficult children, and so on. She is creating a toolkit to train master trainers, who in turn will train the partner COs when the program is replicated across other Indian states.Since there is little data available on the status of these homes, data collection and documentation is an important focus area. Suparna has published an operations manual Ghar Ho to Aisa (Home Away from Home) on the daily issues of running a home effectively, meant for institutional staff, covering every stage of a child s institutional life from pre-admission to exit; Jeena Isee ka Naam Hai (This is Called Life), a story to assist and orient children on institutional life; monthly monitoring, and vigilance reports about institutions across Maharashtra. These are sent to state authorities, and the government has begun to trust other COs to do the monitoring as well.Suparna also plans to collect and document data on the condition of the children of women prisoners, both inside and outside jails. She has therefore started a program in two Mumbai prisons, focusing on the rights of women prisoners and their children, which includes support groups for mothers and therapeutic groups for children. Suparna and her team of 26 full-time staff at Aangan Trust work in ten states with over 400 juvenile homes in UP, MP, Punjab, Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, and Delhi. She has partnered with UNICEF since mid 2008 to replicate the program at a national level. Suparna has expanded the program to reach 19 further states by the end of 2012.
With a degree in psychology and a diploma in social communication media, Suparna began her career in media, working in two of the country s top advertising agencies. But her volunteering experience at various shelters and homes from her childhood, made her realize the strong need for the rehabilitation of institutionalized children. In 2001, driven by her desire to work with this neglected population, Suparna left advertising to found Aangan. Her training as a communications specialist has helped her create a shift in deeply-rooted attitudes that pervade all levels of the existing system. Suparna acknowledges the influence of Ashoka Fellow and 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, P. Sainath, teacher of her social communication course, as deeply shaping her thoughts through a combination of compassion and sharp analysis.Her mother, a teacher for hearing-impaired children, has been a role model, inspiring her to focus on the child while envisioning the defining parameters of the success of a project. These two people helped her realize how important it was for a good idea to come alive.Suparna lives and works in Mumbai.