Helpline for kids gets bigger, smarter

Cover story, November 2012 – Civil Society

The Flyover on Tulsi Pipe Road runs along the western side of Dadar station, one of the busiest rail depots in Asia. Beneath it, within shouting distance of the station’s fifteen platforms and the teeming elevated pathways that connect them, a pair of rooms serves as the local field office for India’s first and largest helpline: Childline.

“[Our] centers are centrally located, so in one center you’ll see every type of case,” says Carl Pereira, Childline’s Head of Special Projects. The office here, which sits at the juncture of the Central and Western railway lines, is not just central – it sits at the point where all of Mumbai converges and, on the worst days, practically implodes.

The space belongs to YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action), an organization that first partnered with Childline in 1996 when Jeroo Billimoria, a social worker and then-faculty member at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS), founded the helpline to provide 24-hour assistance to street children in need. More than a support center or talk-line, Childline would intervene directly on behalf of children and connect them to state resources otherwise difficult for them to access.

The model was simple: any call placed to 1098 from a landline phone (typically from a Public Communication Office, or PCO) came embedded with a geographically specific STD code. With that code, the number could be directed automatically to the nearest call center. In cases requiring direct intervention, volunteers and team members would reach the child within 60 minutes of receiving the call. In this ‘distributed model’, offices were spaced regularly across India’s major metros.

The Dadar office, for example, covers a particularly dense wedge of the island city, ranging from Lower Parel and Cotton Green to Mankhund, Mulund and Mahim. In the smaller of the Dadar office’s two rooms – little more than a converted closet near the metal lattice of the front door – there are two landlines, a bulging binder of case files and maps of central Mumbai. It is a Friday afternoon and of the six team members on the current shift, only one – Deepak Kamble, who joined Childline as a volunteer four years back while in the 10th standard – is in the office. The other five team members on the shift, Deepak says, are in the field now, two working on intervention cases, two following up on previous cases with the local Child Welfare Committees (CWCs), and one on a routine outreach circuit. The phones are quiet.

Under the distributed model, the volume of calls terminating at the Dadar branch would have made this impossible. But huge leaps in India’s telecom industry over the last several years have necessitated equally rapid changes for Childline, particularly the shift away from the distributed model toward the Childline Contact Centre (CCC).

On a given day, the CCC, which for now covers only the northern and western regions, will field several thousand calls from locations across the northern and western regions. In the same day, the Dadar office will only rarely receive more than four. Technological changes have both streamlined Childline’s processes and effectively forced a rapid expansion into previously untouched regions. “At every stage there [has been] a difficulty,” says Shikah Grover, Head of Childline Mumbai. But every stage has also brought a new opportunity to expand Childline’s reach.

With its new systems consolidated and a continued burst of expansion ahead, Childline stands at an inflection point in its history, a watershed moment between its humble beginnings and its ambitious plans to enter every district in India within the next five years. How Childline has reached this point, and how it will proceed from here, is intimately tied to the technological growth that has shaped India over the last two decades.

The Early Years

When Billimoria and her mentor at TISS, Dr Armaity Desai, established the ground principles for Childline – the conditions under which TISS agreed to host the pilot program – they agreed that the helpline ought never to create new institutions or systems. Instead, Childline operates as a network of related organizations. Kajol Menon, Executive Director of the Childline Foundation, describes it as a “catalyzing system.”

Rather than distancing itself from government institutions that were, Menon readily admits, “dysfunctional,” Childline has worked to make those systems more effective for the vulnerable children they were designed to help. Because street children are migratory, they rarely have stable contact with the allied systems in place to support them. Childline establishes its field offices by partnering with local NGOs that have already demonstrated skill, commitment and financial viability in their communities.

Through these NGOs, Childline establishes a locally sensitive outreach and intervention team. By partnering with Childline, these organizations have a direct line to a population of children otherwise all but impossible to reach. Childline, Menon says, “this one unified, toll-free hotline – act[s] as the medium for reaching out.” With local networks in place, Childline can run awareness and sensitivity programs targeting community leaders, politicians and police to help them cope with the needs of vulnerable children. According to Denis Rodrigues, who has worked with Childline for 11 years, the last three of those in the CCC, Childline really functions as “a network of networks.”

“Ultimately, child protection is a state mandate,” Menon says. “Unless you have state mechanisms and state officers alongside you, [you’re] not going to reach very far.” Childline, however, has. Less than two decades after its founding, Childline operates in conjunction with more than 400 partner organizations in 214 cities and towns spread through 26 states and three union territories. Childline first branched out of Mumbai in 1998 with offices in Delhi, Nagpur and Hyderabad. By 2005, Childline had phones in 45 cities. By January 2011, that number had risen to 125. Today, just 18 months later, the number has nearly doubled. In the last fiscal year, Childline received upwards of 2 million calls.

Childline’s founding coincided fortuitously with the opening of India’s state-run telecom monopolies MTNL and BSNL and the PCO boom that followed. “There were street children on one hand and PCO’s on the other. Both were crowding the city,” Menon says. So long as calls terminated locally, MTNL and BSNL left 1098 unmetered.

The distributive model was established accordingly. Outreach followed suit. “We started by reaching out to children and telling them to go to the PCOs at the railway station, in the bazaar, in the market,” says Grover. “The outreach and awareness was to the PCO owner […] The outreach model was based around that.”

In 2003, the government passed the National Numbering Plan, which officially classified 1098 as a ‘category two’ number: calls remained unmetered and access restricted to local use. By then, says Nishit Kumar, Childline’s Head of Communications and Strategic Initiatives, mobile operators had established themselves firmly within the Indian market. So while the number remained free, mobile providers had no obligation to carry it.

Tech Challenge

Mobile telephony, which effectively ended easy call mapping, struck at the heart of Childline’s entire structure. “It was a very quick change,” Menon recalls. “Of course our calls were dropping. These were huge challenges and nobody really understood the technological impact that they were having on us.” State operators insisted that all calls had to terminate on state lines, as they always had, but mobile operators either had no interest in bearing the necessary interconnect costs or were unsure how to do so. Calls placed from mobile phones just did not got through.

“When we realized the connectivity was becoming an issue, teams were instructed to go out there and be in the community more often, and encourage people to use the landline numbers more,” Grover says. “Outreach increased at the ground level, but of course the calls suffered.”

As the outreach model changed, the Foundation itself began reaching out to mobile operators. “We went to the telecom conference and made a pitch to the entire telecom sector in India, saying ‘you guys are growing, why don’t connect to a child helpline?’” Kumar recalls. Immediately after, Tata and Vodafone both agreed to carry Childline. That left at least four major operators without connectivity. In order to continue offering reliable service, Childline would have to become a category one number – meaning mandatory, unrestricted connectivity.

That process alone took seven years. In the first place, a government concession of category one status was difficult to maneuver. Police lines 101 and 102, Kumar says, are still local numbers; the state government even denied a petition from the Maharashtra police to establish a single statewide number.

Then came the trouble with cost. Childline would, for the first time, be on the meter. Before, Menon says, “no one knew what the number of calls was, who was calling – it went into a huge black hole and we enjoyed the benefits.” Now, each call transferred from a mobile phone to a state-run landline incurred a small interconnect fee of Rs. 30 paise. All told, that incidental cost would add up over the course of a year to a sum well beyond the means of Childline’s modest funds, but mobile and landline operators were unwilling to bear the cost themselves. When Childline received category one status in May 2010, the organization launched a new campaign of negotiations to cover interconnect fees without losing toll-free status. By 2011, the Ministry of Woman and Child created a grant to cover the subsidized fees, money that finally became available to Childline in March, the beginning of this fiscal year. Now with Ministry support, Pereira says, Childline “basically became a project of the ministry.” With that backing, Childline has begun an aggressive outreach and growth campaigning, expanding, Menon says, by one branch office each week.

The long delays have been frustrating, but they have also given Childline the necessary time to expand its reach while testing and streamlining its most important technological innovation: the Call Center.

New Architecture

The Childline Call Center takes up just 18 seats, buried deep within the calm warren of warmly lit hallways that diffract from the bright, light-filled lobby of the Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) center in Vikhroli, an industrial suburb in northeastern Mumbai.

Despite the 3000 employees who work here each day, the center is calm, almost sedated, in the way of well-run corporate offices. Inside the tiny CCC office, Call Center Operators (CCOs) with MAs in Social Work sit around a pair of round desks, each with a headset and a computer. There is a separate seat reserved for the Quality Assurance Coordinator, Ami Upadhyay, who files comprehensive reports on each CCO based on the calls recorded and stored in the TCS system. It is a far cry from the dingy room below the Dadar flyover.

Rodrigues, who has supervised here for three years, describes the CCC as a kind of filter. “With the CCC, all the calls are coming in here. So our team there can go into the field and search for children who are in need of care,” Rodrigues says. Since the expansion and publicity push that began in early 2012, the CCC’s daily call record has more than doubled from about 4,000 calls per day to as many as 8,500, 5-7% of which require direct intervention in the field. The CCC has facilitated a boom in calls registered while also allowing greater freedom for field representatives. It has also generated a new obstacle: the removal of initial contact from within local communities.

Drawn from the communities they serve, team members at distributed field offices typically shared both a mother tongue and local geographic knowledge with their callers. Not so in the CCC. To confront this problem, TCS developed a unique infrastructure that would support outgoing and multi-party calls. Using this technology, CCOs can rope in team members from a caller’s local office when the language barrier proves insurmountable, or when geographic information is unclear. CCOs use Customer Relation Management software developed by Bangalore firm Taliska to record information and, in the case of intervention calls, pass along this information to the relevant field office within 15 minutes. Field staff – whom Rodriques describes as “the face of Childline” – carry out intervention and follow-up work on the ground, still within the original 60-minute timeframe.

“This kind of social intervention model, from the technology side […has] a lot of possible applications,” says Nitin Desai, a Senior BPO Manager with TCS who has worked with the CCC since its inception. “If you can do it in India,” he says, “you can do it anywhere.”

Few calls, though, go past the CCOs. Adults – who constitute more than 2/3 of all callers – and children will call to learn about welfare resources; some call to vent their frustrations by volleying abuse at the CCOs (using words, Rodrigues says, “you’ve never heard in your life”); others share the most mundane features of their days. Still others call and remain silent in what CCOs classify as ‘confidence-building calls’ whereby the caller confirms that Chidline is real and trustworthy. These calls can result in future interventions.

“Street children need some people with whom they can talk. It could be a child calls and says ‘I’ve seen a movie’ or ‘I had good food today,’ so they’re sharing things as simple as that, or as complicated as ‘I want to commit suicide,’” Rodrigues says. With the records created and stored by the CCOs, Childline can better follow-up on cases in progress and analyze call data to determine who is using the service and how.

Those figures are themselves striking. Despite having been built on the PCO boom, Childline fielded just 6% of its cases in 2011 via PCO. Another 26% came through other landlines. Fully 45% of all cases came from mobile calls – up 9% from 2010 – while the remaining 23% came through outreach, referral, or direct interaction with ground staff. How these numbers will change with the CCC calling surge for now remains unclear.

The surge in calls itself suggests that well-connected mobile telephony does not depress calls, but rather seems to broaden the demographic of callers into the middle class. Still, fully 41% of calls placed to 1098 in 2010-2011 originated at railway platforms, on the streets, in slums, chawls and police stations, typical call locations for marginalized children.

Rural Expansion

Expansion of the call center model is the next challenge, with plans to redirect calls in the north to a new center in Delhi, and to create for the first time centers to cover the east and south out of Kolkata and Chennai, respectively. In the meantime, Foundation staffers spend roughly half of each year on the road vetting organizations for new branches, or conducting seminars and workshops for existing ones. Dilkesh Wakeel, a Program Assistant for the Western Regional office, has personally inspected as many as 20-30 organizations in a single week for a new branch.

Largely rural, these new branches also require a different methodology. “As we are moving into more rural areas, you don’t find street children there, but definitely you find children who need care and protection,” says Pereira. “In rural areas, it is more preventative work,” he adds, aimed at changing attitudes toward common practices like child-labour and -marriage. Intervention remains an important Childline service, but in rural communities where child welfare is itself a new concept, outreach and cultural impact are the essential first steps toward catalyzing lasting change.

That change is already underway. The Juvenile Justice Act and Juvenile Justice Police Unit set up in 2000, the Ministry of Woman and Child in 2006, the passage of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme in 2009 – these new systems may be flawed, but their existence points to an encouraging trend. Having overcome the initial challenges presented by the advent of new technologies, Childline now has the opportunity to refocus its energies toward stopping abuses of children before they begin. That in itself is a sure sign of progress.

“In the last two to three years, personally I see that there is a shift [in attitude], that people are understanding [child welfare],” Menon says. Circumspect, optimistic, not at all boastful, she shrugs: “I think Childline has played some part in catalyzing that.”


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