Amid tragic consequences of severe second wave of COVID-19 in India which claims nearly 4,000 lives per day, young children who have lost one or both parents to illness in recent weeks face an uncertain future. The problem is widespread enough that there is now a term to refer to it: “COVID orphans”.
Although there are no clear numbers yet, such cases, according to children’s rights experts, keep increasing by the dozen every day: a two-year-old and two-month-old brother or sister who lost both parents and was abandoned as an extended family. hesitated to welcome them for fear of being infected. A 13-year-old girl whose parents are critically ill in the intensive care unit was sent to a childcare facility because no one in her community could care for her. Two siblings who were home alone, trying to organize the cremation of their parents.
With requests for help growing across the country, states have started assigning agents to identify orphaned children during the pandemic and offer them immediate support while making long-term arrangements for their rehabilitation. Child advocates are also sounding the alarm bells about the potential for child trafficking as many children are left alone and vulnerable.
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Over the past week, Sonal Kapoor, the founder and founding director of the Protsahan India Foundation, a non-profit child protection organization, barely hung up. “We are overwhelmed by the number of distress calls we have received. The gravity and sorrow of what we are seeing has gone beyond what we have ever experienced. Other nonprofit and child protection groups have contacted us to work with children affected by COVID, ”she said, adding that her organization was trying to hire eight more full-time counselors. to meet support needs.
“We are struggling for funds and need more businesses and institutions to support children during the crisis,” Ms. Kapoor said.
Divya Vaishnava, co-founder of children’s rights organization Bud Foundation, said the second wave was doubly difficult for children as the recent high number of COVID deaths makes people more reluctant to welcome orphaned children into their families.
Amidst the chaos of an overwhelmed health care system and hundreds of thousands of devastated families, another worrying child care issue is emerging.
In recent weeks, child welfare services have started to notice an alarming trend on social media: hundreds of posts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are illegally offering children for adoption. While some of these messages were calls to help children who had recently lost their parents to COVID-19, most appeared to be illegal adoptions and child trafficking rackets purporting to help orphaned children.
Ms Vaishnava said she had lost count of the number of people she had to alert to remind them not to share details of abandoned children online. In India, adoption must be done through the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA). Children in distress should be connected to the central child helpline, local child protection committees or the nearest police station.
Priyank Kanoongo, president of the National Commission for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (CNPCR), expressed concern that some are trying to spread panic on social media to take advantage of the situation and push for illegal adoption and child trafficking. He said the CNPCR was working with the police to crack down on such cases.
“So far we do not have definitive data on the number of orphaned children, but we have recommended that officers follow legal procedures and bring the children to the child protection committee made up of workers. social workers who will decide whether the child can be resettled with a family member or should be offered for adoption, ”he said in an interview.
“Children are not commodities. They have rights – including property rights – so we can’t just take them away from their families. We offer psychosocial support over the phone. “
Moved by the growing COVID-19 orphan crisis, more people are considering adoption, experts say, but child rights lawyer Anant Kumar Asthana is concerned that many do not understand fully the legal process that underlies it.
“We don’t need to go looking for families to adopt them – there are more than enough in the queue registered with CARA,” he explained. “But no child should be pushed into a rushed adoption at this time, which could lead to more disruption. It is important to note that behind the charity of “adoption” often there is organized crime and a number of violations. “
Indeed, alongside a wave of parental loss, the floodgates for more violations have opened. Ms Kapoor, who works in deeply poor areas of Delhi’s 50 slums, began to see an upsurge in child abuse from mid-March.
“We have encountered cases of mothers lost to COVID and of the father pushing the child into trafficking. Incest cases have increased – fathers raping their daughters, brothers abusing their sisters. The severity of cases has increased to a point that is heartbreaking even for teams that have faced child rights violations over the past decade, ”she said.
The coronavirus pandemic is no longer just a health crisis, said Kumar Shailabh, co-director of the Haq Center for Child Rights. “The lack of protection for children is also an emergency. The biggest problem is that there is no centralized data to understand the needs of children during this crisis. We are trying to push for a response mechanism since the third wave is expected to affect children more severely, ”he said.
Children who are most affected by the pandemic need long-term, sustainable care, including psychosocial, medical and nutritional support, noted Ms. Vaishnava of the Bud Foundation.
Moved by the scale of the crisis, Mumbai-based equal rights activist Harish Iyer recently launched a petition to extend adoption eligibility to all single, resident and LGBTQ people, who garnered considerable support. “As a queer man, my chances of adoption are rare,” he said. “I have found that many homosexuals or singles want to give homes to children who lost their parents during this time. Why not open it to us when there are so many children languishing in children’s homes? “
Advocates for children stress that the issue is complex. Usually, in the majority of cases where children are orphans, an immediate family member will take them in, which is “a simpler and more sustainable model of kinship care,” Ms. Kapoor said. But now, as incomes decline due to lost jobs, many cannot afford to add another member to their homes.
“As we try to counsel children who have either lost their parents or are struggling while their parents are in intensive care, many are unable to cry – because it is so sudden and shocking. They couldn’t process it. They did not see their parents’ bodies or witness the cremation, so there is no fence. Many are told that their parents will return. There is a tremendous amount of denial. Children have to be told the truth, ”she added.
“Counseling or Knee-Jerk programs won’t help because for kids it has to be a long-term process and people have to invest in it. Otherwise, we are watching an entire generation of broken adults that these children will grow up to be. ”
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