What Calls For Adopting 'Covid Orphans' Are Missing

Support to caregivers from extended family should be preferred for children whose parents have passed away due to Covid-19, not adoption by strangers or institutionalised care, say state and NGO child welfare workers

COVID orphans

Jaipur: Sohini, 12, and Mohan, 7, lost their father to Covid-19 during India's first wave in 2020. In the second wave in 2021, they lost their mother, also to Covid-19, Sonal Kapoor, founder of Protsahan India Foundation, a Delhi-based non governmental organisation (NGO) working to eradicate child abuse, told IndiaSpend. Sohini and Mohan have grandparents, but they are not well off. Their grandmother, who is in her late fifties, has taken two more jobs as a domestic helper to be able to take care of the children.

Indian social media has been rife with adoption requests as people amplify pleas on behalf of children who, like Sohini and Mohan, have lost both parents to Covid-19. Such pleas, which often come with a phone number to call for adopting the child, are, however, illegal. In India, if there is no family to take care of an orphaned child or a child has been abandoned, the government steps in. Only abandoned children, who cannot be cared for by extended family, can be adopted by strangers. Long-term stay in shelter homes are the last resort.

Estimates of the number of children orphaned by Covid-19 vary widely in numerous media articles, some of which have suggested a "tide" and a "surge in abandoned minors". The Ministry of Women and Child Development said on May 25 that 577 children were orphaned across India between April and May 25, 2021. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) told the Supreme Court on May 30 that at least 1,742 children have lost both parents between March 2020 and May 29, 2021, per provisional data. This is likely an underestimate because states are still collecting and uploading data, the NCPCR said.

Of the 9,346 children who were abandoned or lost one or both parents between April 2020 and May 29, 2021, only 364 (3.9%) were in a shelter homes, orphanages or under the care of "special adoption agencies", while the rest (96.1%) were in the care of a guardian, family member of surviving parent, per NCPCR data. Further, only 140 (1.4%) were classified as "abandoned". There has not been a substantial increase in the number of children requiring care and support due to both parents passing away from the pandemic, our conversations with staff of state-run adoption centres and non governmental organisations working on child welfare revealed.

In this first part of a two-part series, we put children orphaned by Covid-19 in the context of India's adoption system and explain why the best care for these children often comes from extended family.

Through these conversations, we found that forced child labour, early marriage, child abuse within the home and loss of education during the pandemic were more widespread. We will examine these issues in more detail in the second part of this series.

'Illegal' calls, misplaced sympathy

Law strictly mandates how orphaned or abandoned children are cared for, adopted or placed in institutional care such as shelter homes in India. This is partly to ensure that children are being adopted by prospective parents who really want them, and not performing an act of charity, NGO staff working on child welfare in several states told us. It is also to protect them from the threat of traffickers, who target vulnerable children for the sex trade and forced labour. Social media pleas for children to be adopted are thus illegal. Those with good intentions amplifying such posts or forwarding messages for adoption of children may in fact be doing them a disservice, Kapoor cautioned.

Taking note of such social media posts, the central Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) on May 19 advised the public not to "encourage" such messages. If anyone knew of any child who lost both parents to Covid-19 and had no other caregiver, they should contact the central government's Childline helpline 1098, the WCD said. The NCPCR, on May 22, also exhorted social media users not to share photographs and contact details of children in distress, but to protect the child's identity and contact Childline.

The term 'Covid orphans', increasingly being used in the media, is a reminder of other diseases that led to children losing their parents in large numbers, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the HIV-AIDS crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kinship care was the first solution in those outbreaks, ahead of adoption by strangers or bringing up orphaned children in shelter homes, according to the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef).

Most parents would want kinship care, i.e. for family who are already known to the child to take care of them in the case of any eventuality, said Kapoor. If Sohini and Mohan had been taken away from their grandparents and placed in a state-run shelter home, it would in fact end up hurting them more, explained Kapoor. "Even with little money, the grandmother was giving Sohini and Mohan sugar-laced roti and constant care. Will the children get such love in a far away shelter home?" said Kapoor. What is important, she said, is to support the grandparents to take care of the children.

Kinship care is also the first solution pursued by India's Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA). Childline places abandoned or orphaned children (including because of Covid-19) without any caregivers in shelter homes under the care of district-level Child Welfare Committees (CWC) while a search for relatives is launched.

"Effort will be made to sustain the children in their family and community environment as far as possible," the WCD ministry said in its guidelines on caring for Covid-19 orphans. If no caregivers are found, children in institutional care are put up for adoption through prescribed procedures. Children who don't get adopted remain in institutionalised care.

Most children who lost parents to Covid-19 in kinship care, say child welfare workers

During the ongoing pandemic, 7,464 children lost one parent and 1,742 lost both parents to Covid-19 and 140 children were abandoned between April 2020 and May 29, 2021, the NCPCR told the Supreme Court in an affidavit on May 31. The Supreme Court had on May 28 ordered all states to upload data on children who have been orphaned post March 2020 'whether it be due to the pandemic or otherwise'. The numbers submitted to the SC were provisional, said the NCPCR, as states were still uploading this information on the NCPCR's Bal Swaraj portal. The SC order had come in response to an application seeking directions from the apex court for the care and wellbeing of such children.

The number of children who need support or adoption has not substantially increased because of Covid-19 as most must be receiving kinship care, staff at state-run adoption agencies and shelter homes also told us. These children and the families that take them in are supported with dry rations and access to government services in anganwadis, schools and health services, they said. In end-May, the Centre and several state governments announced a range of such support and relief measures for children who lost their parents to Covid-19, ranging from free education to stipends for caregivers.

In another case in Delhi, after the mother of three children passed away from Covid-19, the father abandoned his children and ran away. The father's and mother's sisters together take care of the children. "It's not parents' love but it's still better than a shelter home," Kapoor explained.

Sujata Mohanty, programme officer of the Odisha State Adoption Resource Agency, has not seen any significant increase in children needing support or adoption because of Covid-19. In Odisha, the Childline helpline number is put up in hospitals and made known to community self-help groups who can reach out if there is a child in need because of the death of their parents from Covid-19, Mohanty told IndiaSpend. Most children who have to come to shelter homes in the state are those who are abandoned by their families or those rescued by Childline or local child protection officers from situations of abuse within families, she explained.

It is likely that most children who lost both parents to Covid-19 are cared for by extended family, added Ujjwal Kumar, the in-charge of a government-approved adoption centre in Patna. "If the parents are dead, the maternal or paternal grandparents will take the child in. If they are not there, then the mausi (mother's sister), the chacha (father's brother), there is mostly some family to take care of them," he told IndiaSpend.

If we are taking care of, say, a one-month-old abandoned child, we are not likely to know if the child was abandoned because its parents passed away from Covid-19 unless someone tells us, added Anupama Kumari, in-charge of an government-approved adoption centre in Muzaffarpur. The centre has not seen any cases where children lost both their parents because of Covid-19.

Of the over 650 cases in which Protsahan is trying to help children in distress, around six (less than 1%) corresponding to a total of 10 children, are of those who have lost both parents to the pandemic, Kapoor said.

Shelter homes should be children's last resort

Various studies over the years have shown that children in institutional care are likely to have slower cognitive development, physical growth and attachment, compared to children who are in family-based care. Children in family-based care also face fewer emotional problems than a child who has been brought up in a shelter home or institution, research shows and nonprofit staff confirm.

The trauma a child goes through at the loss of a parent is indescribable, said Kapoor. Adoption into another family provides better care to the child than staying on in an institution, NGO staff told us.

Further, the widespread abuse of children placed in shelter homes is India's worst-kept secret, we had reported in September 2018. There have been reports of abuse from shelter homes in Muzaffarpur in Bihar [separate from the adoption centre mentioned in this article] and Deoria in Uttar Pradesh.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, adoption centres are understaffed, people managing government-approved adoption centres in Bihar told IndiaSpend. "We cannot have staff that visit from outside the adoption centre so we make do with the five in-house staff, including ayahs, to take care of young children, and an auxiliary nurse midwife," said Kumar in Patna. There is a social worker who comes from outside but she does only office work and does not interact with the children. In non-pandemic times, there are 10 staff to take care of 10 children, he said. "We usually have 11 staff members but currently we are making do with six, because of COVID-19," said Kumari from Muzaffarpur. When these six go home, the other five will stay at the centre to take care of the children, she said.

How the adoption process works

CARA regulates all in-country and inter-country adoptions according to provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, the WCD ministry reiterated in its May 19 advisory. Only prospective parents registered in CARA's Children Adoption Resources Information and Guidance System (CARINGS) portal can adopt children. CARA matches the parents' criteria for adoption with the children who are eligible for adoption and also registered on CARINGS.

Each state has its own State Adoption Resource Agency (SARA), under which are the District Level Child Protection Units (DCPU). Most districts have one adoption centre under the DCPU for children aged up to six. Bigger districts have more than one adoption centre and each centre has around 10 children, explained Kumar from Patna. Then there are boys' and girls' homes for children between the ages of seven and 18 years, he added.

When an abandoned child is found, a team from Childline or the DPCU rescues the child who is then placed under the care of the district CWC. The CWC, also known as Bal Kalyan Samiti, decides which home or adoption centre the child will first be placed in. It then checks whether the child has been reported missing and can be reunited with family. Within a week to 10 days, the shelter home with the DCPU and CWC publishes a notice in newspapers with a description of the missing/abandoned child and asks the family to contact the shelter home with proof that the child is related to them. "In one case, more than one guardian claimed the child was theirs, so we conducted a DNA test to confirm the veracity of their claim," Kumar said.

If no one approaches the shelter home for two months in case of a child under two years, the child is considered 'legally free' to be adopted. The waiting period is four months for a child above the age of two years, the regulation says. When the prospective parents agree to the match, they reach out to the shelter home, sometimes to see the child on a video call before they confirm the adoption, according to Kumar.

Because of Covid-19, the adoption process is slower than before, Kumar explained. "First we complete the process online and then based on the Covid-19 protocol, we first ask the parents to submit a travel history, get tested for the disease before they travel to the shelter home and then again when they reach the city. They are also quarantined for 15 days in the city and only then can they come to the shelter home and meet the child," Kumar told IndiaSpend.

Between April 2020 and February 2021, 2,160 children were adopted, compared to 3,337 from April 2019 to March 2021, WCD data show.

There is also a bias in adoptions towards younger children, Kapoor said. Few adoptive couples are willing to adopt older children, which means that these children are left behind more often in shelter homes. Over 80% of the children adopted in 2020-21 (82.9%) and in 2019-20 (80%) were between the ages of 0 and two years, per the WCD.

Of 9,860 cases of in-country adoption in the three years to 2018-19, there were 174 cases (1.8%) of disruption (end of an adoption placement that has not yet been finalised) and five of dissolution (end of an adoption after finalisation), the WCD informed Parliament in February 2020. Disruption/ dissolution was mainly observed in cases of placement of older children, primarily due to adjustment issues, said the ministry, adding that counselling of parents adopting older children was being emphasised.

"Technically an adoption agency is only the caretaker of a child, we have no role to play in the actual adoption or in deciding which child goes to whom, we are only mandated to take care of a child's health and needs," said Kumar. "Many people come to us and offer us money to take a child. We tell them this happens only in films that you go to a shelter home, like a child and take them home."

Relief efforts for children orphaned because of Covid-19

An orphaned child living with extended family (first relatives of parents, such as grandparents and siblings of parents), or with an adoptive family or at a shelter home receives Rs 2,000 every month for their care through a sponsorship programme under the central government's Integrated Child Protection Scheme. Lest the stipend become an incentive for caregivers, there are regular follow-ups by the CWC or government authorities to ensure that the child is being taken care of well by first relatives or adoptive families, says Archana Sahay, director of Aarambh, an NGO in Bhopal that also represents Childline in the city. If not, the child can be taken away and placed in government care. "If the Child is restored to any kind of kinship care, CWC will continue to check the well-being of the child on [a] regular basis," per the WCD's May 21 guidelines on care for children orphaned by Covid-19.

On May 29, the Prime Minister announced further relief measures for children orphaned by Covid-19, including enrolment in the nearest central government-run Kendriya Vidyalaya or private school, health insurance, a monthly stipend from age 18 for five years, help with securing an educational loan for higher studies and Rs 10 lakh on turning 23 years old. The costs of the scheme would be supported by the PM-CARES fund. In addition to central government assistance, several state governments have reportedly announced financial assistance and educational assistance for children who have lost parents to Covid-19.

Aarambh gathered the details of five children in the communities where they work who had lost both their parents or the only surviving parent to Covid-19. They tried to help them enrol in a government programme announced for these children, through which their caregivers would receive Rs 5,000 a month until the children are 18 years old, free rations, and school and college education. Four children qualified, Sahay said. They also identified nine other cases in which the child had lost one parent to Covid-19.

One of the problems with accessing these benefits is an understanding of and access to computers. Many children whose parents have died are with their grandparents who find it hard to complete an online process, Sahay explained.

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