A northern Indian state is conducting audits of all children's shelters after 23 girls and boys were rescued in a raid on one home where police said they were being sold for sex.
Acting on a tip from a 13-year-old who escaped a shelter in the city of Deoria, in Uttar Pradesh state, police said they conducted a raid on Sunday night, rescuing 20 girls and three boys.
"The child who tipped us off told us that girls were sent in cars in the night, and they would come back crying in the morning," said Dayaram Singh Gaur, a police officer in Deoria who is investigating the case.
Officials throughout the state have been ordered to check conditions at all shelters in their districts, Uttar Pradesh Women and Child Welfare Minister Ritu Bahugna Joshi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"This is a shocker. In 2018, when we are talking of women's empowerment, this is an unfortunate situation," she said.
The raid came just weeks after police rescued 29 girls from a shelter in neighbouring Bihar state, and arrested 10 people who are under investigation for crimes including rape.
India's national minister for women and children, Maneka Gandhi, was quoted in The Indian Express newspaper on Wednesday saying she had ordered all childcare institutions across the country to be audited within 60 days.
Gandhi's office declined to comment.
The government's National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights estimates that there are about 7,300 care homes in India, which are home to some 230,000 children.
About 1,300 of these shelters are unregistered, it says, which means they operate illegally with little or no oversight.
The shelter in Deoria was operating without a permit for more than a year, police said.
Abuse is rampant in such facilities, according to Asha Bajpai, a law professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, who researched shelters in the western state of Maharashtra.
"The story is the same at most shelters," said Bajpai. "Children were exploited at the shelters I visited."
Gaur, the police officer in Deoria, said two people who ran the shelter there have been arrested and investigators are pursuing suspects who may have paid to take the girls from the home and sexually abused them.
"We are now trying to identify the cars and the men, based on the description the girls have given," he said.
India introduced the death penalty this year for those raping girls under 12 and increased the prison term for the rape of older girls and women, following nationwide disgust over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl.