Ritika Upadhyay (name changed) in Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur district made a distress call to Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA)’s helpline. Her neighbour Guddu Srivastav (name changed) — the sole breadwinner for his family of five — had succumbed to COVID, she said.
The BBA team, through the NGO network in the district, provided Guddu’s wife and three children with immediate assistance of dry ration, facilitated COVID tests for the children (they fortunately tested negative), and wrote to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) to produce the children before it so that they could be linked to government schemes.
What Ritika did is the legal way to assist children in distress. Unfortunately, there is little awareness on the due process.
The Ministry of Women & Child Development said last month that in the 55 days from April 1 to May 25 this year alone, 577 children had been orphaned due to COVID.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) recently informed the Supreme Court that from April 1, 2020 to June 5, 2021, as per data submitted by different states, as many as 30,071 children had either been orphaned (3,621), or lost a parent (26,176), or abandoned (274), primarily due to the pandemic.
Anurag Kundu, Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), Government of Delhi, said parental loss has both financial and psychological implications for children. “When a child loses parent (s) they lose their sense of comfort, they suffer from anxiety, mood swings, and loss of appetite. Children belonging to the middle- and lower-income classes are financially the worst affected as access to ration gets compromised and, in the long run, income drops and children are either forced to drop out of school or go to poorer education schools,” said Kundu.
It is, therefore, imperative that effective ways are deployed to support children who have lost one or both parents, or are otherwise in distress.
Adoption needs to be legal
Though adoption is often romanticised, there is a stringent legal process to it.
Swagata Raha, Head of Restorative Practices, Enfold Proactive Health Trust, offered clarity on who is legally defined as an ‘orphan’. “Section 2 (42), Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, lays down that an orphan is a child who is without biological parents or a legal guardian or has a legal guardian but who is not able to or willing to take care of the child,” she said.
Social media channels, particularly WhatsApp groups, have been flooded with ‘information’ on orphaned kids with pleas for adoption, but none of it is legal. Direct adoption and making appeals for the same are punishable offences.
Union Minister for Women & Child Development, Smriti Irani, in a Twitter thread, shared information on the legal way to support children who have lost their parents. “If you come to know of any child who has lost both parents to COVID and has no one to take care of her/him, inform Police or Child Welfare Committee of your district or contact Childline 1098. It is your legal responsibility,” she tweeted.
The Supreme Court also recently directed states and Union Territories to take stringent action against individuals and NGOs who invite people to illegally adopt children orphaned by the pandemic.
Anubha Bhonsle, independent journalist and founder of Newsworthy, who has curated a comprehensive guide of resource lists for children impacted by COVID, said: “One cannot just go and adopt a child, as social media messages with the even the best of intention suggest. Adoption is a legal process under CARA, the Central Adoption Resource Authority.
“And a child who may have lost parents is not necessarily ‘up for adoption’. Widespread awareness about what people should do, including calling the national Childline number 1098, if they see a child in distress, is vital.”
Extended family and community care
Sonal Kapoor, founder-Director of New Delhi-based Protsahan India Foundation, at an online session organised by Dream A Dream on responding to children in distress due to the pandemic, observed that institutionalised care should be the last resort.
“Every orphan child doesn’t have to end up in a childcare home/institute. A simple family with limited resources or extended family is preferable,” she said.
Raha of Enfold Proactive Health Trust added that the law recognises that family and community responsibility has its place and therefore there are only certain situations in which children should be brought into the legal adoption system.
“This includes children being exploited in violation of labour laws, children in exploitative situations, children who are being or have been trafficked, children facing violence without any support and children who are at the risk of being married off,” she explained.
While extended families are the preferred option for orphaned children, the concern is whether they can afford to ensure childcare, from medical costs to education. Recognising this, Protsahan is working on the ground to support such families with dry ration with high protein content, need-based scholarships, especially for children who have lost their parents to COVID, linking children to government schemes in collaboration with child protection officers and partnerships, creative storytelling sessions, and other initiatives.
Governments at the central and state levels have announced various schemes to support children who have lost their parents to the pandemic. The Central government has announced that for children who have lost either or both parents to COVID, the surviving parent, legal guardian or adoptive parents will receive financial assistance under the PM-CARES for Children scheme.
However, documentation can act as a roadblock to accessing such schemes. Kundu of DCPCR said: “Government schemes are designed in a way to prevent their misuse. But in the attempt to ensure non-misuse, such as insisting on documentation, they become difficult to access. The process should be simpler and more liberal.”
Other vulnerabilities need attention
Even as there is social media frenzy over adoption, the ground reality is far more complex. There are other vulnerabilities to consider. Kapoor of Protsahan said: “From the cases we have seen, 5-8 per cent have experienced parental loss while the rest 95-92 per cent are other severe cases of child labour, sexual abuse, and incest.”
“In the last three months…we have seen cases of child labour, using children (both boys and girls) for ‘transactional’ sex in exchange for food/ration, children being pushed into child labour to supplement family income (there is no saying if they can get back to school even if the pandemic situation eases), and several cases of incest,” she added.
Children in distress should be viewed in a range of settings, said Raha. “There are children stuck in childcare institutions with no rehabilitation whatsoever and there are instances of children being hurriedly released from institutions back to situations of vulnerability. There are children with disabilities who need access to medical treatment, which is being inhibited due to COVID. There are children in refugee camps and children losing family members,” she observed.
Among non-parental-loss issues are children not being able to play, those facing disruption in routine immunisation, and those suffering learning loss due to school closure, said Kundu.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Bhooshan Shukla said children should be allowed to play while ensuring they are masked up and supervised by an adult. There needn’t be scare mongering, he added.
“We should be cautiously optimistic. Housing societies need to get out of their panic mode and allow children to play and interact with their friends for some time. Some children are outgoing and need socialisation, some children are okay staying at home, while some others are somewhere in between these two — they like to stay home and socialise,” he observed.
As for the difficult task of breaking the news of the loss of a parent to a child, Shukla says it must be done. “Adults often think that a child will go into pieces if informed about a loss, but children are not so fragile. They often suspect something is wrong and being in that state of limbo is painful. Also, the family will be able to mourn along with the child instead of hemming in their grief,” he said.
Shukla added that a child who has lost his or her mother should be handed over to a mother figure — for example, a grandmother.
Joint, systematic effort is the need
The rehabilitation of children in distress needs long-term intervention from the government, NGOs, and civil society. As Kapoor observed: “We’re looking at a generation of children battling extreme distress and facing severe trauma who will grow up to be broken adults. Not every child has the privilege of a safe home, loving parents and digital connectivity.
“Every day, the stories from the ground are becoming more heart-breaking even for civil society at large that has always worked in these spaces. Children sometimes tend to experience excessive guilt about a loved one’s death. Or, a child may even believe that their behaviour somehow caused something bad to happen.
“Grief counselling can help a child develop healthier core beliefs and a sense of self-worth. We also need to understand that needs-based interventions won’t just cut it. Rights-based thinking and policy needs to be key on issues like safe and legal adoption procedures, tackling vaccination hesitancy in remote pockets and addressing issues of vulnerable children. These issues are not unrelated but larger pieces of the huge system crumbling in a domino effect. This is a child protection emergency.”