On June 7, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) presented the Supreme Court with a series of grim numbers. Between April 1, 2020 and June 5, 2021, 30,071 children in India were registered as being in distress due to the pandemic, of whom 3,621 had lost both parents, 26,176 had lost one parent, and 274 had been abandoned. Based on information uploaded by States and Union Territories to the NCPCR’s Bal Swaraj portal, these figures gave an official tally to the reports that have poured in of late, of children left with no one to care for them as the second wave of the pandemic decimated entire families.
Meanwhile, illegal messages about orphaned children have been doing the rounds on social media, with numbers to contact in case people want to “adopt” them.
Last year, during the lockdown, children’s helpline Childline (1098), reported 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in just 11 days, along with hundreds more calls about health, child labour, and missing and homeless children. Some States have seen a spike in the number of child marriages prevented over the past year. News stories have reported about children, sometimes infants, left alone in homes with no food, or found lying next to the bodies of their parents, and young people in distress and suicidal after losing their parents to COVID-19.
What is needed now, says Bharti Ali, co-founder, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, a Delhi-based NGO, is a nationwide database of all children orphaned or in need of protection, and an assessment of their needs. “The database needs to take into account the fact that many parents may have died at home too, not just in hospitals. Hundreds of children could be at risk of child labour, child marriage, or other forms of abuse and exploitation if left with no caregivers,” she says.
Ali argues for a systematic kinship/ foster care system with government sponsorship to be put in place urgently for children orphaned by the pandemic. Adoption should, ideally, be the last option, she says. “The first option should always be to place the child with extended family or community, kinship care, with safeguards. Children who are already traumatised by the loss of parents need to be in a familiar environment, with people they know. And even if there is no extended family, we have often seen — after natural disasters like the tusnami and cyclones for instance — that members of the local community may be willing to care for the child.” When after inquiries it is established that there is no one to care for a child, the child is declared legally free for adoption. Adoption is regulated by the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA).
As the pandemic rages, CARA could help by finding foster families for children who are otherwise eligible for adoption, says Ali. “Adoption is about permanency, and this cannot be rushed into, both for the parents’ and the child’s sakes. But children who have no one will need immediate care. Why shouldn’t they be fostered, until an adoption goes through,” she asks.
In a public notice issued mid-May, the Ministry of Women and Child Development detailed the legal procedure for children who have lost their parents to COVID-19. The concerned Child Welfare Committee is to ascertain the immediate need of the child and either restore the child to caregivers or place her/ him in institutional or non-institutional care, on a case-to-case basis. It also said efforts would be made to sustain the children in their family and community environment as far as possible, while ensuring their safety.
Over the past week, the Supreme Court gave a number of orders with regard to safeguarding children, action against those attempting illegal adoption and financial assistance for children.
On May 29, the Centre announced a special ‘PM Cares for Children’ scheme for COVID-19 orphans, with a corpus of ₹10 lakh for each child when he or she reaches 18. The government will also assist such children with school education, and PM CARES will pay the premium for a ₹5 lakh health insurance cover under Ayushman Bharat until they turn 18. However, details of this scheme are still not in the public domain, and the Centre on June 7 asked the Supreme Court for more time to work out the “modalities”. Several States, too, have announced financial schemes for orphaned children, as well as education policies.
Ali welcomes these steps, but says the government must ensure that the budgets for orphaned children are adequate and the families who take them in get the support they need. Generally, she says, budgets for institutional care are larger than for non-institutional care, and this needs to change. “Non-institutional care, in a family setting, is far better for children. If a child’s expenses are taken care of by the government in the form of monthly payments, far more families familiar with the children can take them in,” she says.
However, some issues remain that need to be addressed on a priority basis. “Who will be the custodian of the children’s property until they attain majority,” asks Ali. Also, most children don’t have bank accounts, Aadhaar cards, or other documents, and there needs to be a mechanism in place to ensure that children get the financial and other aid they are entitled to, with government departments working together for this, she says.
Safeguarding the systems that monitor children in any form of care — institutional and non-institutional — is another vital requirement. Currently, there are child welfare committees at the district level, and child protection committees at the district, block and village level , but while some of these are effective and involved, others are not. “Unfortunately,” says Ali, “there are no budgets at the village level. Where they do exist, they have been formed with outside support. This needs to change urgently. Committees need support and resources to monitor children in care.”
Finally, psycho-social counselling is an important aid for children who have lost one or both parents. The NCPCR has launched a tele-counselling service on a toll-free helpline, 1800-121-2830. Far more awareness is needed about all schemes meant for children, says Ali. “There should be advertisements in print and on television, and all schools must be told to inform children about the helplines.”
With families often scattered in different cities and States, and restrictions on travel in many parts of the country still in place, it is vital that government child protection services step in immediately to safeguard vulnerable children.
“Child protection should not be charity,” says Ali. “It is every child’s right to be protected.”