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The “distressed” child

Author: Anubhuti Patra, Advisor, StratComm Consulting

Children in distress, orphaned and vulnerable children, children in difficult circumstances, etc. are the several ways in which we have addressed children who grow up in exceptionally difficult circumstances. For those of us who work directly or indirectly with them, our concerns are about their safety, their rights, need for learning, etc. But what really happens when you meet such a child? There is no amount of reading or talking to field workers that can actually prepare anyone to meet these children. I can say this with certainty about children living and working on the streets.

Most of my working life in this sector has been with programs that intend to rescue and rehabilitate children before they end up making streets their home, or with those who have already made the streets their home. These children spend their lives in the open or in a temporary shelter (many go back home for the night). At night they are at railways yards, in empty trains, platforms, roadsides/pavements, and parks. Mostly, they move about and sleep in groups as it offers protection from older men and boys, as well as the police. They offer each other affection. It is not uncommon for two boys to call each other brothers without anyone doubting their kinship or bond with each other.

Journal notes

I had been “invited” to join night outreach in New Delhi Railway Station by one of the partner organizations that we work with. We started at 9 pm, and after covering all the platforms we started walking towards the areas in the railway stations that passengers normally do not access. These spaces offer a cover to the street children. While walking towards the parcel storage offices in the utter darkness of a December night, the two outreach workers who I was accompanying stopped. I thought that they were going to climb on what looked like a rock. A minute later, when my eyes adjusted to the movements in the dark, I realized that the rock was a plastic cover, and underneath were three little boys and six puppies huddled together for warmth.


They make a living by sorting through waste either in railway stations or landfills or wherever in our colonies the waste from home gets collected. Their mornings and afternoons are literally a scavenger hunt—moving from one locality to another to look for those items that scrap dealers will pay the most money for. Children involved in such work obviously fall sick repeatedly with skin infections and minor cuts and bruises.

Journal notes

It’s scary, this whole exercise of holding a census of street children. While designing the survey, my biggest fear was that we would end up counting the same child three times over. That should have been the least of my worries, I think. After two days of training, the investigators have no idea what a hotspot was. After we found children with whom we could test our questionnaire, the investigators came to me to ask where they could “sit” and ask children the questions. I saw them wincing as I sat on a heap of old cardboard in the scrapyard to start off the interviews.

Most investigators on the team were not used to interviewing an urban segment, let alone those in cities who live on the fringes. In villages, poverty and lack of sanitation are more prevalent, so are open spaces which makes it easier to shut out surroundings where the sparseness of poverty is evident. In this closed setting of a scrapyard, there was no escape from the piles of garbage or from the reality that the children we were supposed to interview had handled the garbage with their hands and carried it in their sacks. The boils on their face and arms, their sun-bleached hair, and their unwashed bodies and clothes were hard to miss. I could sense discomfort and judgement amongst investigators…most of them were cringing at the surroundings and at the idea of spending time in the yard.

There are fights over which area belongs to whom for sorting. Very often younger children are bullied, beaten up, or cut with razors by older boys and men. For these kids, the sack on their back becomes their most prized possession. Can our cities function without this army of young and unrecognized sanitation workers? Their labour in recycling, especially when it comes to glass and plastic bottles, metal scrap, wrappers of various kinds, etc. is largely ignored. Since child labour is illegal, it’s easier to ignore rather than acknowledge and address the problem.


Older boys, scrap dealers, tobacco shop owners (who sell them the correction fluid which is the cheapest form of drug available to them) form the new set of abusers when children start inhabiting the streets. They befriend them by showing them the ropes of living on the streets, they get them addicted to life on the streets by introducing them to correction ink.

Journal notes

Every journey to the drop-in shelter in the Railway Station is a revelation. I must ask to meet this “Khala” soon. What does one make of her? The kids speak of her so fondly—she offers first aid when they come back after their rounds of collecting scrap and bottles in and around the station. She gives the young ones a safe space to sleep in her yard. And yet, she is the one who screens porn and charges the boys Rs.5 for an hour of screening.

Very often, one can see children in discreet corners of railway stations holding a rag to their mouth. If you come close enough, you will realize that the groups reek of something, obviously a chemical. Drug use reaches its peak during winters in north India when children spend whatever little money they earn on “solution” rather than buying food. Many children die on the streets or railways platforms during this time due to overuse.

Both boys and girls are easy prey to sexual assault in addition to all the other forms of abuse they face. For many NGOs addressing sexual abuse is a discomfiting as well as an uncomfortable space. Working on other forms of violence and deprivation is so much easier as it can be done within their own organizational space with somewhat lesser contact with other institutions. Often frontline workers, neither have the understanding nor the capacity to deal with depression, self-harm, anxiety, etc. as they are not trained in these issues. There are very few referral centers for children. Their workloads are so overwhelming that the individualized attention that a child who has suffered sexual abuse requires is harder for them to take on. Thus, while they might work hard to get treatment for deaddiction or get first aid they often do not actively rake up sexual abuse and assault.

Journal notes

The exercise was to draw a map of the locality. Three girls barely 8-10 years of age, huddled around the chart paper trying to draw. Their squiggles showed either delayed mental development or maybe it was just the unfamiliarity of the activity of drawing…Later I asked while pointing to the things in the drawing, “So what is this, xxx?”

“This is the flyover behind this building.”

“All these cars…do you like cars?”

“Cars are scary?”

“Because they move fast?”

“No, people in cars kidnap little girls like me, girls are raped inside cars.”


It is worth remembering that there are nearly 70,000 such children in a city like Delhi alone and many more across in cities across the world. We offer them food, money, and at times a kind pat on their back. Sometimes we walk past them in a hurry to complete our chores, or just so that an eye contact does not wrack us with guilt. When we work with them they become numbers, we measure how their poor developmental outcomes pull down national averages. What exactly does living life like theirs mean? If we reflect on this question, the answers might surprise us and lead us to build a world where fewer children are in distress.


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