Qayam Masumi of the audit team that blew the lid off bone-chilling horrors at the Bihar home says the children were too afraid to speak up and used sign language to communicate

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Two years after the TISS team he was with uncovered sexual abuse at a children’s shelter in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur during a routine audit, Qayam Masumi still clearly remembers the sense of dread at the home.

“When we started talking to the children, we could feel that there was a climate of fear. It raised our suspicions,” said Masumi, hours after a Delhi court on Monday convicted 19 people for the sexual assault of several girls at the shelter.

So frightened were the children that they did not initially speak of the harassment directly. “They communicated in sign language. They tried to express it in a storytelling format, such as something happening to a friend and so on,” said Masumi.

At the time, the seven-member team, led by TISS professor Mohd Tarique, had no idea about the scale of exploitation. “We only knew that there was a problem and raised concerns accordingly in our report,” said the Bihar resident who graduated from TISS in 2012. “The details that emerged after we submitted our report left us equally shocked.”

The team, as part of the Koshish-TISS project, visited the shelter for a day in November 2017 after being commissioned by the Bihar government to conduct a social audit of 110 homes, including children’s shelters, old-age homes, adoption centres and rehabilitation centres for beggars. The entire exercise lasted six to seven months.

The team’s findings opened a Pandora’s box: horrific details emerged of the sexual assault of the Muzaffarpur shelter and of the deplorable conditions in which they were kept.

It said in its 100-page report, titled ‘Grave Concerns — Institutions requiring immediate attention’ and submitted to the Bihar government in April 2018, that the Muzaffarpur shelter “was found to be running in a highly questionable manner, along with grave instances of violence”. “Several girls reported about violence and being sexually abused. This is very serious and needs to be further investigated promptly. Immediate legal procedure must be followed to inquire into the charges and corrective measures must be taken,” said the report. It said the girls had no access to any sort of open space and “were literally locked up in their wards, except for when they went to the dining hall to take their meals”.

The report became the basis of police and CBI investigations that led to the convictions on Monday.

The team didn’t raise red flags at the Muzaffarpur shelter alone; its report chronicled grim details of sexual and physical violence at14 homes across Bihar.

Masumi stressed on the need for periodic social audits. “We need to open institutions to scrutiny. An institution is not a good place to live. Its residents should also be participants in the audit process. It is also important that their rehabilitation is done soon.