COVID Orphans and the Lack of Foster Care System in India – A New Challenge

Amid the raging second wave of Covid-19 in the city, many children who have lost their parents or whose single parent is in hospital have become the pandemic’s silent victims.

A 14-year-old boy was left alone at home for hours with the bodies of his parents as they succumbed to Covid-19 this month in north Delhi before he could gather himself and rush to a relative’s house to inform them about the deaths. “He could barely talk…he was silent for a minute… He kept calling his parents,” said a member of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for such children.

The boy’s mother, who was in her late 30s first developed Covid-19 symptoms, before he and his 41-year-old father contracted the disease. A doctor prescribed some drugs and the family managed to get an oxygen cylinder, but the couple succumbed to the disease at home. Like the boy’s parents, a significant proportion of people, who have died as the second Covid-19 wave has overwhelmed India’s health system, are in their 30s and 40s. In many cases, children of people in this age group have lost both parents.

Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) chairperson Anurag Kundu said they have received many SOSs about children left alone as their parents were hospitalized or have lost whole of their immediate families. “At times, there is no one to even offer them food,” said Kundu. A DCPCR volunteer, who did not wish to be named, said the NGO put them into touch with the family taking care of the 14-year-old boy. “We helped them connect with various child welfare committees to find this boy a better home. The family was very cooperative and had even taken him twice to a child psychologist for counselling. A woman in that family has been taking care of all his nutrition and medicines since he is still Covid-19 positive.”

The family has refused any institutional support and initially set up a fundraiser to pay for the debt the boy’s parents incurred for their medical expenses. “Over Rs. 2 lakhs was raised in a day and all the debts of his parents were cleared…” the volunteer said. He added some of the boy’s close relatives live abroad. “…they [the family he is living with] have even started the legal proceedings to adopt him.”

Kundu said in many other cases, one parent of children is hospitalised while the other has passed away. He added in most cases, relatives have come forward and taken care of such children. Kundu said at least in two cases, children were left to fend for themselves. “We have shifted them to a shelter home in Delhi until we find some accepting family to take care of them and contribute to making their life better.”

Kundu said people are always willing to accept such children. “Even our preference for a child is a domestic setup rather than any institutional care but there is a legal process for adoption.” He added they need to undertake thorough background checks of families, who come forward to adopt such children.

Sonal Kapoor Singh, the founder of an NGO working for children at risk or having experienced traumatic events, said the last few months have been disastrous. “We have been working to help children in 40 slums for 10 years to help them recuperate from various traumas. The last few months have been very disturbing. Excluding children, who have lost both parents to Covid, there are cases where the condition of children is worse than those orphaned by the pandemic.”

Singh said they have received complaints about children being deserted by their fathers after their mothers died of Covid-19. “In many cases, young girls have been forced to do hard labour for lesser wages as both their parents have died of Covid-19.” Singh added there are also cases of girls in these slums, who were sexually assaulted by their fathers rendered jobless by Covid-19, as they are home throughout the day while mothers are out busy working.

Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a child rights organisation run by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, said they have received over 200 SOS calls from across India in just two days about children losing the whole of their immediate families. “There are calls from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi and many other states where there is no one to take the care of these children. For now, we are trying to send teams with food…” said Paroma Bhattacharya, a representative of the organisation. “In many cases, we are helping the government in shifting these children to shelter homes for now.”

Joshita Nag, a social worker from Kolkata, said she has come across many WhatsApp forwards requesting people to take custody of children whose parents have died. “It is not just illegal but horrible for the existence of these children.” She added it could lead to trafficking in the name of help. “Some people are doing a greater damage,” Nag said. She appealed to people to immediately contact child rights protection panels in such cases.

An 18-year-old, who identified himself with his second name Upadhyay, said they face a double whammy after losing their father for the want of medical care outside a Delhi hospital. “My mother got better with that injection [remdesivir]. Father died as he developed pneumonia.” He said his father was a businessman. “We had a small manufacturing plant… after taking a loan. Soon after the first wave of Covid-19 began, our business failed. Even our labourers left, and we could not pay the loan instalments to the bank. The bank officials since then have been harassing us and now after my father has passed away, I do not know what is going to happen. They apparently might take away our house. It is distressing, the virus first snatched our father and now might even make us homeless.”

In a tweet, Union women and child development minister Smriti Irani on Saturday said the government has been reaching out to the states and sought the protection of the children who lost parents to Covid-19. She added the ministry appealed to states to enable Child Welfare Committees to actively monitor the well-being of these children.

When we reached out to the officials of the ministry for fresh comments over the issue but there was no response despite repeated calls.

The Digpu News Bottomline

The second wave of COVID has devasted India in more ways than one. While the deadly mutations of the virus combine with the incompetence of the government, we have seen the daily death toll in the country near the 4000 mark, with experts predicting it to get worse. In the middle of all this, these children have been the silent sufferers of the pandemic. With India’s non-existent non-institutional care system and a below par institutional care system, life does not look good for them ahead too.

The social media, that has been doing some great work to provide relief in these horrid times, is also full of posts appealing for adoption of these bereaved children. While the authors of these post may come with noble intentions, but these are the times when human trafficking agencies spread their tentacles. These children need to be tracked and their adoption needs to be taken care of in a proper way by the state, leaving minimal chances for trafficking. If not, the country might face a child trafficking crisis in the middle of a pandemic.

In most of the cases, relatives have come forward to take care of these kids but with the impending economical doom facing the country, how long will these people be able to keep up? On top of this, the government has created yet another strange conundrum. NGOs that have been making a life difference in the lives of these children have been facing heat from the state machinery and their funding has been stopped with the state not having a plan of its own. What happens next is more of a rhetorical question than one with an answer.

Health and cremation are not the only emergencies facing the country, COVID orphans need immediate attention. But with the track record of the state so far, chances look very bleak for these little ones.

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