By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dhanalakshmi was 14 and pregnant when she was rescued from a children's home in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
She had been entrusted in the care of the unregistered institution by her mother, a ragpicker who could no longer afford another mouth to feed.
But instead of receiving protection, the teenager was raped for months by staff in the home, according to a report by a committee set up by the local social welfare department to investigate the matter.
"Her story blew the lid off something we have known for a long time," said Zaheeruddin Mohammad, a member of the committee that also fought for the rights of the girl to be protected.
"Inside unregistered homes, there is rampant abuse and little care for the needs of a child."
State authorities have closed 500 homes since 2011, citing mismanagement, a lack of registration and misconduct but human rights groups say abuse is rife across the 1,500 government and state institutions in the state.
Rights groups have long complained that children's homes in India are poorly regulated, not inspected often enough, and that many privately-run institutions are able to operate without a licence leaving thousands of children open to mistreatment.
The scope of the problem was outlined in a petition filed in Chennai's High Court by A. Narayanan, the director of advocacy group CHANGEindia.
"Not a week passes without news of neglect, physical violence such as torture and branding with iron, sexual abuse including rape, murder and suicides in child care homes in Tamil Nadu," the affidavit said.
"PULL OF GOOD EDUCATION"
Child rights campaigners estimate that 200,000 children in Tamil Nadu are residents of private orphanages, state-supported care homes, Islamic madrassas, temples and hostels.
Many children are not orphans but placed in institutional care by their parents too poor to feed, clothe and shelter them.
"An increasing number of these children are from marginalised families," CHANGEindia's Narayanan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The parents are lured by the pull of good education and promise of better care for their children. They are relying on institutional care."
Various reports submitted to the government in the past five years have warned of shoddy conditions in children's homes - from poor lighting and cramped accommodation to violence.
In the majority of reported cases, the perpetrators of abuse have been wardens, watchmen, cooks and other staff.
Tamil Nadu government officials have said in court that they were looking at the recommendations made by campaigners, which include better monitoring of homes, individual child care plans, more counsellors and encouraging the idea of foster care.
In one of the latest closures, state authorities shut down after another privately-run institution housing 32 children near the port city of Chennai last month after complaints of mismanagement.
"These organisations have become organised rackets," Narayanan said.
"There are many organisations which have a valid registration but no child care plan, no counsellors and no expertise on how to fulfil a child's emotional needs."
Children rescued in a separate operation on June 30, from an institution in Tambaram, near Chennai, described being made to clean toilets and eat "unpalatable" food, according to R.N. Manikandan, chairman of a local child welfare committee.
He also said the children shared the same space as residents of a nursing home run by the same organisation, which also caused concern.
Child welfare committee members also raised questions about the babies they found in the premises during an earlier inspection, who are now missing.
According to Narayanan's affidavit, many children from poor families were shown as destitute orphans in the records and "paraded" before potential adoptive parents and donors funding these homes.
In December, an unregistered home in Tiruchy was taken over by the social welfare department after a court directive.
The home had 90 children in its custody but no records with any government agency.
A wave of claims by people saying they were the children's parents prompted a local court to rule that all the children should undergo DNA testing to establish their real families.
"Not all children in these homes are in need of the care they promise," said Andrew Sesuraj, a director at the Tamil Nadu Child Rights Observatory.
He said there was no need for so many homes.
"Foster care or support for the families to enable them to send their children to school is what is required."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)