I have watched Spotlight—the acclaimed movie about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the systematic sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy—three times in the past few weeks. Oddly, the experience of watching this disturbing film has been a kind of therapy for me, reminding me of the cost of silence, the importance of standing up for children, and the compounded damage of inaction.
I am the director of a foundation in India for children with disabilities. According to a report released in January, children with special needs are three times more likely than other children to be abused. And this is something our foundation has always been vigilant about. In a country where beatings and other forms of corporal and verbal punishment are common and culturally acceptable, our organization has established a reputation for being different. Violence of any kind is expressly forbidden in all our centers, and all our staff know that we have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse.
But as strict as I thought we were, when we reviewed our child-protection policy a year ago with a consultant who is an expert in the field, we found it was full of gaps. Training was sketchy, reporting procedures were poorly understood, and documentation was weak. We began a long and exhaustive process of improving the policy, closing its gaps, and making it something our staff could adapt in situations that can’t be anticipated.
The immediate result was that child-protection cases suddenly began to emerge from all directions. It was like an epidemic. Were we conjuring them up with our new hyperawareness, or had this abuse always been happening and we just hadn’t noticed? Either way, it was unsettling. We discovered that one boy was being exposed to pornography and possibly photographed for the same. We learned of a girl who was probably being raped. Another child told us he was beaten regularly. A young man with an intellectual impairment had been forced to marry a young woman who was also impaired. Because he was incapable of consummating the marriage, his father had taken on that task, and there was now a baby.
All these things were happening in our students’ homes, not in our centers. Given the paucity of social services in India, it was all but impossible for us to respond effectively for the protection of the children involved. When we learned about the forced marriage and the repeated rape of the young woman, for example, we called the police. But while the cop who took the report was sympathetic, he said he was powerless to act. By law, both the young man and the young woman were adults; unless one of them made a formal complaint, there were no grounds to investigate. In the other instances, we were legally required to inform the police, but we did so knowing not only that nothing would be done, but that nothing could be done. India has no effective system in place to protect a child who is being abused by a member of his or her own family. In cases where the violence is too extreme to be ignored, the child ends up being put in the same institutional care as juvenile delinquents. So a six-year-old child with an intellectual impairment who has been raped by her own father could be kept in a locked ward with teenagers arrested for assault, drug use, and armed robbery.
Wherever there is evidence of abuse, we have to involve the police, but it is a terrible feeling to know that the authorities will almost certainly subject the children we are trying to protect to dangers far worse than the ones they already face. It is frightening to realize that there is no safety net for these children except us.
Because we aren’t a system. Our foundation has no residential center in which to house children in distress. We have neither standing, nor authority, nor backup. We are just a few unimportant people who must, in many instances, work outside the law to protect children from the very system whose job it is to protect children. So we inform the police when we must, but then we work with a family to oust an uncle who is molesting their impaired child. We teach parents that there are better ways to manage their child’s difficult behavior than by beating them. One child at a time, we make things a little better.