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When long-term shelter is not the best option: restoring children to their family

At any one time there are several hundred children, the ones without any suitable home to go back to, living in SBT’s shelter homes on a long-term basis. But a far higher number will be restored to their families, when that is what the relevant Child Welfare Committee deems best.

Where families are in or around Delhi, they can be summoned to an SBT centre to be reunited with their child and if necessary given some counselling. But hundreds of children every year come from the poorer states to the north and east: Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar and Jharkhand.

Friends of SBT co-founder and Trustee Nick Thompson spoke to Sonu Kumar, a long-term member of staff whose job it is to oversee this child-to-parent restoration on a daily basis.

In 2022 a new programme started to improve the follow-up of those children restored to their families. It forms part of the large education budget, because a key component is trying to ensure that every child who goes back to a village has the means of going to school. This is a real challenge in cases where there is only a primary school in the village.

To assist on the ground, one field officer has been appointed in UP and one in Bihar.

Sonu explained the most recent trip to Bihar he had just come back from, taking ten children to two districts: eight to Muzaffarpur and two to Dharbhanga. Both of these are over 700 miles away from Delhi.

Many of the villages are not just distant but remote, and Sonu recounts stories of train travel, then bus and finally walking through isolated areas far from the nearest hotel. But, as recorded by a brief page or two’s summary, the staff’s work begins sometime before the journey and, if needed, will carry on long afterwards.

One child, Sonu explains, had never been to school, being one of nine children of a manual labourer. He wants to be a motor mechanic. For this to be possible, in addition to speaking to his parents and the local sarpanch or village head, SBT will need to arrange his admission through the open learning system. Many of these children are first-generation learners. So, parents who have not been to school themselves need to have explained to them some of the benefits and opportunities that may be available.

The system is far from perfect. There is no guarantee of success. But, faced with the task of implementing the decision that a child should go back to his or her family, and within the limited resources available, it is clear that the SBT staff are going way beyond what is required of them and striving to do the best for each child.


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