When Champakalata Dasi (Vasanthie Pillai) was encouraged to apply for the position of Executive Director of the ISKCON Central Office of Child Protection (CPO), she knew she was at a crossroads in her life. It was time to make a decision.
For at the very same time, she had been offered a highly lucrative job opportunity in a major law firm. If she took it, she would head up her own department, have a PA and six conveyancing secretaries at her disposal, and command a large salary.
“I felt like Krishna was testing me,” she says. “I had to choose.”
Former CPO director Tamohara Dasa, who needed to pass the baton due to more demanding GBC responsibilities, felt that Champakalata was just right for ISKCON’s Child Protection Office. He’d noted her devotional career, wherein she had served as Head of Legal Affairs and Communications Director for her home temple of ISKCON Durban, South Africa. Her twenty years of communications and public relations experience would be particularly helpful to the CPO, as would her legal and teaching background.
What’s more, she had been especially active with child protection in South Africa, as head of the Durban Child Protection Team. It was the expeditious yet conscientious manner in which she had dealt with a local child protection matter in December 2008, that had moved Tamohara to put her at the top of his list of replacements.
Champakalata thought about her fourteen years as a criminal defense lawyer. She would certainly bring unique qualifications and experience to the CPO. After receiving her law degree in 1992, she had been a practicing attorney in criminal law, real estate law, and labor law. She was a Presiding Officer for the Department of Labor of South Africa and helped arbitrate labor disputes and compensation claims. She had a post-graduate degree in Education and was a certified teacher.
“The way to perfect my qualifications, I decided, would be to use them in Srila Prabhupada’s service,” Champakalata says. “I began to realize that this had been Krishna’s plan all along—to groom me with legal and educational qualifications, give me court litigation experience, start me off as a lawyer, and progress me on to becoming a lecturer and then a presiding officer in hearings.... So that I could now use all of that experience in serving His children.”
So she filed an application for the position—a rigorous and thorough process despite her obvious qualification. After answering a questionnaire, participating in a Skype interview with Tamohara, and subjecting herself to a background screening, Champakalata’s appointment as the CPO’s new Executive Director was endorsed by various senior devotees and finally the relevant GBC executive.
During a visit to the ISKCON community in Alachua, Florida this November, she received a complete orientation and training course on the duties of the office from Tamohara Dasa, former Executive Director, and Mahavishnupriya Dasi, current Assistant Director.
Stepping into her new role, Champakalata is overwhelmed with emotion. “It is a great responsibility,” she says. “Because I am following in the footsteps of such a competent and devoted person as Tamohara Prabhu. And because child protection is a critical service, and I know that I am going to be placed in situations where I will have to make difficult decisions. But it has come at the right time—at this stage of my life, I feel that I must take on more responsibility for Srila Prabhupada and dedicate my life in serving his mission.”
As moved as she is by her new service, Champakalata is a practical person, and is immediately defining what her focus will be while in office. “For years, the CPO has been immersed in adjudicating past and current cases of child abuse,” she says. “While this is vital work that must continue, many of us feel that the real answer to child abuse must be preventative. This means that we must thoroughly educate devotees in all aspects of child protection. In this way, we will learn how to prevent abuse from occurring, recognize and understand abuse if it occurs, know how to report and deal swiftly with abuse cases, and know how to help and support victims of abuse.”
The CPO’s training efforts will be to: 1) Train assessors who deeply understand child abuse and know the procedures and policies to fairly hear abuse cases, 2) Train Child Protection Teams to be the victim’s first port of call at every temple, school, and community, 3) Present basic child protection information at the community level—for managers, teachers, parents, and all devotees, and 4) Educate our children about child abuse, so that they may help protect themselves from abuse, and know what to do if it occurs.
Champakalata will also reassess ISKCON’s previous progress in the area of child protection. For instance in 1991, the GBC passed a resolution that requires every temple and school to have a local Child Protection Team (CPT)—a group of dedicated devotees from the community who serve as the “first line of defense” in the effort for child protection. These devotees learn the basics about child abuse, know where and how to report cases of abuse, know how to help victims and families, and work closely with the Central Office of Child Protection.
“It is commendable that almost 100% of the temples in North America have CPTs,” Champakalata says. “And extensive training has taken place in India and many countries in Europe. But none has taken place in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Poland and in the former Soviet Union countries, although we have large devotee communities there. We would like to see Child Protection Teams established at every one of the 400+ temples throughout the world.”
Acting on this goal, Champakalata and CPO Assistant Director Mahavishnupriya Dasi will immediately begin corresponding with every temple around the world to determine which ones do not have CPTs, and to help those who don’t to establish them.
Champakalata knows that there is still some hurt and distrust amongst ISKCON members regarding child abuse atrocities of the past. And she feels sad that these issues were not initially dealt with appropriately. But she is also keen to point out that the mindset of the ISKCON organization has changed.
“It must be acknowledged that ISKCON did not defend the Turley case,” she says, speaking about the June 2000 multi-million dollar lawsuit filed against ISKCON by alumni of its early schools, who suffered severe abuse. “It accepted liability and the matter was settled without longdrawn litigation in which the victims would have to relive the abuse.”
Even the fact that ISKCON has a Central Child Protection Office with policies and procedures, she says, shows that it is expressing zero tolerance against child abusers. “And in training and establishing CPTs in every one of its centers, ISKCON is being proactive and sending a clear signal out to children that its CPO is here to protect them, and to prevent abuse from occuring. The CPO wants to gain the faith and trust of children and act as a deterrent to potential abusers.”
Champakalata has her own nine-year-old daughter with her husband Shakshi Gopal Dasa, a disciple of Bhakti Caru Swami. Speaking as a parent to other parents in ISKCON, she says, “We owe a great duty to not only our children but to every child in the world to ensure that they are raised in a loving and caring environment; that they are not exploited emotionally, physically, sexually, verbally or in any way possible. We bring them into this world so we must take full responsibility for them. Parents should be role models for their children and create happy homes where children will lovingly take to Krishna consciousness and perfect their lives. If we do that, then we have executed our responsibility in delivering our children from the cycle of birth and death.”
Ultimately, Champakalata feels that her most important qualification for her new service is that she cares about ISKCON’s children and wants to be proactive in preventing abuse. “I am committed to empowering children and women to reject any form of abuse; to know that their calls will be heeded,” she says.
The Child Protection Office is completely dependent upon donations in order to function. Please contact Champakalata to donate and to support the CPO and its efforts.
[ child-protection ]