NEW DELHI — A child disappears. Police are called. Nothing happens.
Child rights activists say the rape last week of a 5-year-old girl is just the latest case in which Indian police failed to take urgent action on a report of a missing child. Three days after the attack, the girl was found alone in a locked room in the same New Delhi building where her family lives.
More than 90,000 children go missing in India each year; more than 34,000 are never found. Some parents say they lost crucial time because police wrongly dismissed their missing children as runaways, refused to file reports or treated the cases as nuisances.
The parents of the 5-year-old said that after their daughter disappeared, they repeatedly begged police to register a complaint and begin a search, but they were rejected.
Three days later, neighbors heard the sound of a child crying from a locked room in the tenement. They broke down the door and rushed the brutalized girl to the police station. The parents said the police response was to offer the couple $37 to keep quiet about what had happened.
"They just wanted us to go away. They didn't want to register a case even after they saw how badly our daughter was injured," said the girl's father, who cannot be identified because Indian law requires a rape victim's identity be kept secret.
Delhi's Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar admitted Monday that local police had erred in handling the case.
"There have been shortfalls, so the station house officer and his deputy have been suspended," Kumar told reporters.
Other poor parents of missing children say they also have found police reluctant to help them.
In 2010, police took 15 days to register a missing-persons case for 14-year-old Pankaj Singh. His mother is still waiting for him to come home.
"Every day my husband and my father would go wait at the police station, but they would shoo them away," Pravesh Kumari Singh said as she sat on her son's bed, surrounded by his pictures and books.
One morning in March 2010, she fed her son a breakfast of fried pancakes and spicy potatoes, then left for a community health training program.
"He told me he would have a bath and settle down to study for his exams," said Singh, clutching the boy's photograph to her heart.
When she returned, he was gone. "The neighbors said some boys had called him out. We searched everywhere, went to the police, but they refused to believe that something had happened to our son."
The police insisted he had run off with friends and would return, she said.
"They said we must have scolded him or beaten him, which is why he had run away from home," she said.
Formal police complaints were registered in only one-sixth of missing child cases in 2011, said Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer with Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or the Save the Childhood Movement. He said police resist registering cases because they want to keep crime figures low, and that parents are often too poor to bribe them to reconsider.
Ribhu said the first few hours after a child goes missing are the most crucial. "The police can cordon off nearby areas, issue alerts at railway and bus stations, and step up vigilance to catch the kidnappers," he said.
Activists say delays let traffickers move children to neighboring states, where the police don't have jurisdiction. There is no national database of missing children that state police can reference.
Police have insisted that most of missing children are runways fleeing grinding poverty.
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