489 children were released between May 12 and July 10, and 460 of them were handed over to their parents
Sumon (alias), a kid of approximately 11 years age, used to roam around the Barishal launch terminal with some of his friends.
A maternal uncle of some sort is all he has as a guardian. With no food or guidance at home, the boy ended up in the terminal. Sometimes, he offered to carry baggage for commuters. Sometimes, he simply begged for money.
One day, he was captured by police, a general diary was filed in his name, and he was then sent to Shishu Unnayan Kendra (children development centre) in Jashore.
After living there for a year, he was released by court two weeks ago because of the coronavirus pandemic. At that time, 300 kids were residing there against 150 seats.
Not just Sumon, a lot of other kids are being released from development centres to contain the spread of coronavirus as those were overflowing. Some of these kids commited no offence at all, some were accused of petty offences like pickpocketing or fighting, and some were involved in major offences like drug abuse, carrying weapons, smuggling etc.
But the virtual courts in operation during the pandemic have decided to return kids to their parents and guardians for safety reasons.
The deputy director of the Department of Social Services, MM Mahamudullah, said they were able to release 489 children from the country's three development centres between May 12 and July 10, and 460 of them were handed over to their parents.
They still have more than 800 children in the three centres. They plan to release more kids in future.
This correspondent asked Mahamudullah whether there were charges of serious offences against the kids that were being released.
"Many of them were waiting for trials that were halted for the shutdown. The trials are being held virtually and the courts are deciding what to do with them. Other than that, judges can grant bail to any children they feel like," he said.
The flipside of releasing kids
Advocate Zannatul Ferous, district project officer at Jashore office of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, said releasing kids from the centres was not the end of the work.
The rule is to hand them over to their guardians. However, the guardians often refuse to take them back. As most of the children are from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, the guardians lack the financial capability to take back the children.
Sometimes, it turns out the kids do not have any guardian at all. This is why many kids feel at home in the development centres.
Right now, Zannatul has five kids who do not have any guardian, and a few more whose guardians cannot come to take them. Those kids will probably be sent to Sheikh Russel Shishu Proshikshan O Punarbasan Kendra (Sheikh Russel Children's Training and Rehabilitation Centre).
She is trying her best to help them and urges other organisations to come forward to help such kids.
What is Shishu Unnayan Kendra?
Children sometimes commit offences without realising the consequences or gravity of their action. These children, in line with law, are kept in children development centres to revise and rectify their actions and behaviour.
The centres focus on rehabilitation of these kids.
Currently, there are three such centres in the country, and these are directed by the Department of Social Services with the facility of primary education and vocational training.
The ones in Jashore's Pulerhat and Gazipur's Tongi are for boys while the third one in Gazipur's Konabari is dedicated for girls. These three centres collectively can accommodate around 600 children, but were accommodating 1,147 before the virtual court decided to release them.
According to child protection specialist of Unicef Shabnaz Zahereen, children are supposed to be given chances to rectify their behaviour before they are sent to these centres.
"But here, we sometimes fail to follow the steps. This is why a number of kids who were just wandering on the streets end up in the centres, causing those to overflow," she said.
As coronavirus demands physical distancing and hygiene, it was getting hard for children to maintain the health protocols in the centres under the present circumstances. This is why virtual courts decided to release them.
In Bangladesh, virtual courts were introduced on May 9 after President Abdul Hamid passed an ordinance. The virtual court for children has been functioning since May 12. Unicef is providing technical support to the Department of Social Services to collaborate with the court and release children from development centres.
The officer-in-charge of Kamalapur Police Station, Rakibul Hossain, said when police capture street kids, they either try to return them to their parents first or contact the non-governmental organisations working for children.
"There are kids who do not know their address properly or fail to name their parents. They get involved in begging or child labour. Sometimes they end up consuming substances at a young age. This is why, to prevent them from ending up in such situations, we take them and produce them before court. The rest is decided by the court," he said.
Why the centres became overcrowded?
Faria Selim, communication head of Unicef Bangladesh, said one of the main reasons was stagnancy in the judicial system because of the coronavirus shutdown.
The regular process of releasing children was hampered, she said.
On the other hand, Advocate Zannatul thinks the centres are always a little overcrowded as only three development centres in the entire country is quite inadequate.
Children from Dinajpur or Cox's Bazar are also referred to any of the three centres. This is why those get a little overcrowded even during regular times.
Zannatul urged the authorities concerned to introduce child development centres in every division to ease the pressure.