The Hon’ble Chief Justice constituted a special bench on 8th April 2020 to hear a Suo Moto writ petition under Article 226 (Power of High Courts to Issue Certain Writs) and Article 227 (Power of Superintendence over all courts of the High Court) of the Indian Constitution. The Suo Moto petition is in connection with the contagion of COVID-19 in Children Protection Homes. On 3rd April, the Apex Court has passed various directions of the State Government and nodal departments requesting them to keep superintendents informed of all the relevant information being circulated regarding the lockdown. Moreover, the Juvenile Justice Committees (JJCs) of every High Court has been instructed to make sure all orders are followed to the letter.
Advocate General’s Report to the Court
The Learned Advocate General, Mr Kishore Dutta was requested to be present during the time of hearing through video-conferencing. He submitted that as soon as the pandemic was declared, the following steps were taken by the government:
- All Child Welfare Committees (CWCs)were instructed to function through video calls and online sessions.
- Department of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare issued advisories in both English and local language to all districts and Child Care Institutions (CCIs) as well as distributed Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials.
- All the CCIs have been directed to maintain social distancing measures including washing hands and other necessary personal hygiene guidelines.
- Regular disinfection with the help of District Authorities and Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
- Food has been stocked up in all the CCIs.
- Telephonic Discussions with each CCI have been arranged every alternate day to identify loopholes in the system and address them within 24 hours.
- Regular video conferencing through Zoom have been conducted with all CCIs and CWCs.
- An online workshop for creative writing has been organized in the CCI with the help of the West Bengal State Child Protection Commission (Child Commission).
- Regular counselling and health check-ups have been arranged.
- All new entrants have been kept in isolation for 14 days with regular health check-ups.
The Advocate General also submitted a report regarding additional steps taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in CCIs. The report was made based on oral communication made by the member of the JJC. There are 51 NGO-run CCIs in West Bengal which is government-funded and 19 government-run CCIs. The following steps were taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Child Care Institutions (CCIs):
- CCIs have introduced hand washing and other personal hygiene maintenance methods.
- Each inmate is provided with separate soap and hand towels.
- Medical teams have been visiting the homes regularly.
- Regular supply of fresh vegetables and fish.
- An advanced fund has also been released to buy food and other essentials.
- No visitors have been allowed from 16th March 2020 onwards.
- The Specialized Adoption Agencies (SAAs) are also following the guidelines and not allowing any visitors.
- Children are being introduced to prospective parents through video calling.
Instructions Circulated by the Government of West Bengal
The Learned Advocate General has forwarded the general instructions issued to the Registrar and the message suggests that the following measures to be immediately adopted:
- The inmates/children whose families/parents have been identified should be immediately restored after the preparation of the Social Investigation Report (SIR).
- Unnecessary crowding has to be minimized in the CCIs.
- As all the educational institutions are closed, all wards living in cottage homes should be returned to their homes and all the guardians should keep them home till the educational institutions are reopened.
- Only in cases of dire necessity should outsiders be allowed into the CCIs.
- The maintenance of health and personal hygiene was declared mandatory for children and staff alike; clothes of the children are to be washed every day; the drying of wet clothes indoors is strictly prohibited.
- If any new wards or children already living in CCIs suffer from symptoms like cough, fever or difficulty in breathing, then medical professionals have to be immediately contacted.
- One of the rooms in each CCI may be converted into an isolation room after proper sanitization and cleaning.
The said general instructions were taken on record.
Court’s Issues Further Instructions
As part of the Juvenile Justice Committee, Justices Harish Tandon, Soumen Sen and Sampati Chatterjee had passed various instructions on March 12th 2020 before the directions passed by the Supreme Court.
The Court has directed the Principal Secretary, Child Welfare to guarantee that the superintendent attached to the Homes will not leave the home until the lockdown is over. Moreover, the superintendent has to ensure the cleanliness of each home and hygiene of all children. They have to take due care of the mental of the children.
Court stated that
“the superintendent must remove fear from the minds of the children and change the channel of their thoughts from corona worry to joy through dancing, art, music, gardening, yoga, meditation, etc. We should expect all stakeholders to be compassionate to the children”
The security personnel stationed at all Homes are not allowed entry inside without the prior permission of the superintendent.
The Court has instructed that the senior-most Additional District Judge in a sub-division of a district to visit the homes and the condition of the homes should be filed by the visitors on or before the next date of hearing.
Also, in the report to be filed by the principal secretaries of the respective departments must also file a detailed plan and measures taken to take care of the mental health of the children. Child psychologists, clinical psychologists and counsellors shall be deployed in all the Homes and ensure that children do not suffer mental distress.
The Court also directed that the following steps require immediate attention:
- Video conferencing in JJBs, CWCs, and Children Homes.
- Release of children to their families if possible.
- Periodical Visits.
- Maintaining isolation rooms.
- Monitoring children and staff for any symptoms.
The Court also highlights that due to the exodus of migrant workers, the children of the said migrants may need care and protection. The rights of such children who have arrived are to be protected. In the report to be filed, the names of the children of said migrants identified as Children in Need of Care and Protection (CNCP) should be disclosed. Also, the report must indicate the steps taken to protect such children.
The Court directed that the Principal Secretary of the Department of Women and Child Development and Welfare and the Principal Secretary of the Health Department, Government of West Bengal should submit a comprehensive report concerning the steps taken in terms of directions passed by the Supreme Court on 3rd April and the Calcutta High Court on the 8th April 2020.
Finally, the Court reiterated that
“A time has come when we have to make compassion go viral in months ahead so that together we wither the storm and emerge stronger. The children need our compassion, attention and support.”
The Next Date of Hearing of the matter is 21st April 2020.
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