OPINION: COVID-19 Impact On Rehabilitation of Children without Parental Care in India

Amnesty International India
25 June 2020 8:34 pm

In India, the unprecedented health crisis brought on by COVID-19 pandemic has shaped into a human rights crisis, with a deep and lasting impact on children and child rights.

Multiple news reports have already exposed serious child rights violations during the pandemic with a spike in child sexual abuse and experts cautioning towards increase in other exploitative practices such as trafficking, forced labor, child marriage etc. as a result of the social-economic impact of COVID-19.

In such severe circumstances, the push for assessing and developing community and family-based options for rehabilitating vulnerable children has taken a back seat while Child Care Institutions (CCIs) such as children’s homes have gained emphasis. CCIs house children that fall out of the safety net of their own biological families and enter the ‘alternative care’ system of protection.

The last few months have thrown many unknown challenges towards the children living and staff working in the CCIs. This ushered in the need for a newer set of rules and compliance mechanisms.  Amidst the lockdown, these rules were presented either in the form of advisories from the central and state governments or guidelines from the Supreme Court of India or often as differing instructions from other child protection functionaries. All of them spelled out the significant need for following the compliances across CCIs for greater attention to care and protection of ‘children without parental care’. The CCI management has tried their best to cope with these instructions with their limited resources.

How CCIs Adapted to a ‘New Normal’ Amidst the Pandemic

Organizations quickly took cue with timely responses and the development of online training programmes for in-house residential workers on safety measures and protocols for children and staff residing in CCIs. They also complied with the latest information and guidelines to deliver a fully coordinated approach to protecting children and youth during the lockdown, whilst none of the senior staff was available on the ground.  Organizations showed agility to the changing times and started stocking up adequate essentials such as groceries, medicines, and sanitization, and hygiene-related materials.

The COVID-19 crisis stressed upon the need for timely coordination and immediate decision making to adapt to the ‘new normal’, of prohibiting entry of day staff in CCIs to ensure safety. The ban on entry of outsiders (staff and visitors) actually brought forth additional burden on the few residential staff who had to perform additional roles as makeshift social workers, counsellors, tutors, and even online surveillance experts, while also doing household chores of keeping the children well-fed, well-humored and homes well-sanitized.

The other functionaries, working from home, have been able to quickly pivot and repurpose their functions. Many, like professional case managers, counsellors, and tutors working in CCIs who have been locked out, as they are not residential workers, have adopted online tools to connect with children and the in-house staff. They have also extended support to keep children and residential staff engaged and diverted with exercises, games, learning, music and dance, paint, etc.

While this does work most of the time, being confined in small spaces at homes, asked to don masks and maintain physical distancing creates low levels of physical, mental and emotional well-being, and increased stress on children as well as the residential staff. This stress and anxiety may exacerbate health issues in the children, leading to an increase in self-harm and other mental health issues – even attempt to suicide.

Need for Mental Health Counselling

Sometimes situational anxiety does get the better of locked-up children and staff, and may result in violence, bullying, and even abuse. But overall, as compared to the situation in normal families, where such incidents have risen multi-fold, as is evident from the data coming from helplines, CCIs have been able to work with the professional staff remotely.

The role of mental health carers and counseling becomes paramount to mitigate this increased risk, including that of child sexual abuse. Monitoring on a day to day basis for assessing the overall condition of each child under care and protection to mitigate the risk of abuse cannot be underestimated.  Counselling sessions do happen, but to reach those already traumatized and under psychological supervision may not work as they may be reluctant in talking about any issues. This is the limitation to remote counseling, even though efforts are being made in CCIs, as well as at many tele-counselling hubs set up to offer psycho-social support online. Counselors undertaking online sessions during these times has resulted in mitigating cases of stress and helped to maintain the much needed calm and mostly stress-free environment in the CCIs. In view of this, mindful attention must be given to children with special needs.

The Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) and District Child Protection Units (DCPUs) also picked up online monitoring systems and are continuing their supervision remotely across the country. The Management Committee meetings, Children’s Committees, bringing children before the CWC has somewhat continued but is being remotely managed on video calls.

The Digital Divide in Education

Technology has become a necessity with online learning classes for children in CCIs too, even though many CCIs have struggled with lack of adequate devices and internet connectivity.  The flip side has been that many children in CCIs, even those under EWS (Economically Weaker Section) quota, going to private schools have been marginalized more than ever due to the inadequate access to technology at the CCI.

The rest going to public schools are also bearing the brunt. Besides computers, laptops, and tablets, it is the unavailability of enough mobile phones that is depriving children of learning. No more than 5-10% of children can be grouped on WhatsApp with their public school teachers. With excessive usage of online systems, used by innocuous children at the CCIs, without adequate supervision and untrained staff, the lurking danger of online abuse is also raising its head and needs to be dealt with.

Physical Distancing and Restoration of Children

Another challenge is to develop a quarantine area when space itself is a constraint. It is also not easy to supervise a child in quarantine and to maintain physical distancing with limited staff. Adding to that, lack of alternative care options in the country has increased demand for new admission in the already overcrowded CCIs.

With most of the staff unavailable, procedural work to admit a new child or for a child ordered to be restored is also hampered.

One of the chief worries has been the efforts in several states to restore children back to their families, without required home study investigations or follow up measures. The lack of family strengthening measures in cases of restoration clearly has meant an added resource crunch on the already burdened family, grappling with unemployment, health issues and lack of financial support systems, increasing the vulnerability of the child and jeopardizing the restoration mechanism. Strong efforts to be vigilant and monitor children entering into, living in, or going out of the residential care, is urgently needed.

Another major plight in these trying times is that of Care Leavers, the youth who leave CCIs, on attaining adulthood. Many of them, new in basic jobs, are being laid off, resulting in loss of livelihood, homelessness and starvation, with no support or sustenance.

CCIs, with hardly any systems in place to support their care leavers, are also leaving them unattended. It is absolutely critical that these wards of the state should not be forgotten; the State and NGOs must look after them; and tend to their needs, including emotional succor.

Acknowledging Child Protection Workers & Organisations

COVID-19 is not going to leave without resulting in a huge constraint on the financial resources of any organization, dependent on or independent of government funding, as more and more donors are diverting their funds to direct relief work or to government aid. With life on a spin, those service providers who are managing care and protection of children without parental care from private sources of funding will need to break out of the mold and create innovative strategies to be able to support children at a time when they have become more vulnerable to alienation, deprivation, abuse and infection.

Our own unsung Corona Warriors – the child protection functionaries have been equally responsive and stood up to the expectations of the children, management, and governments. The quick public messaging by Childline India, saying, ‘we are not locked down’ was one such initiative that brought early signals of hope for children in the country.

Our child protection workforce, just emerging from the communal riots in Delhi, with the added burden of COVID 19, geared up to full steam and is facing health risks and economic crisis and yet continue to serve children.

Children At An Increased Risk Post Pandemic

With rising poverty and shrinking resources, it is worrisome and beyond estimation that how many more children will be left uncared for and trafficked into flesh trade or child labor, how many more will be abandoned to state care, and in India with limited availability of non-institutional care models, again the push will be on institutional care. News coming on children being sent back to families from CCIs, to reduce the numbers to ensure physical distancing, is another concern.

Increased poverty and loss of livelihoods will mean reduced capacities of families to care for their children. Steps to prevent separation of children from their families and support families and communities to keep their children safe need to be taken with monitoring mechanisms and social service support systems in place.

Any unplanned effort to reduce the burden on institutions in the post-COVID era could lead to a rush to send the children back, even to dysfunctional families; which will not be in the best interest of children and will take a toll on the already half-baked system. Such first aid responses that do not go deep to identify and work on the root causes of separation of children from families will only mean opening up ‘revolving doors.’

Unwelcomed by their resource-starved families, the children may soon find their way back into the state juvenile system. Such trauma and re-trauma that children will have to go through, will permanently impact their life long outcomes as adults. Family strengthening, community resources, family-based care and effective gatekeeping are concepts we need to understand in their nuanced and practical ramifications before we undertake closure of institutions, or send children back to families. While this applies at all times, it becomes more imperative at times of crisis.

Even as we all continue to start living with the immediate and long term impact of this crisis, collective action on the part of civil society and serious political will and commitment will be the non-negotiables going forward.  The governments, at both, the centre and the state levels, must continue to closely engage with civil society and practitioners to know ground realities and come up with new policies and priorities to help children and youth deal with the new emerging reality. This calls for everyone’s earnest action. More thought out government benefit schemes coupled with community-led efforts that prevent separation of children from their own families will remain the key indicator for child protection in India.

 

This guest blog is written by Dr. Kiran Modi, Founder Managing Trustee, and Leena Prasad, Assistant Director, Advocacy, Udayan Care