COVID has orphaned hundreds of children: How states are seeking to secure future of these kids

As the second wave of COVID-19 seems to be dissipating after wreaking havoc across India, thousands of children have lost one or both parents in its wake. The prospect of a surge of abandoned minors worries many. According to the government data between 1 April and 25 May, as many as 577 children were orphaned in the wake of coronavirus.

Such children "are not only living an emotional tragedy, but they are also at high risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation", said UNICEF India's chief Yasmin Haque.

Heart-wrenching stories in the media and desperate calls for help on social channels reveal a devastating truth of our times. Social media appeals are being made for breast milk and food for infants who have lost their mothers.

However, the magnitude of the problem doesn't end with the surge in minors left without caregivers and resources. Some coronavirus orphans are also being put up for illegal adoption on social media. While such appeals could be well-intentioned, several social activists and Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani warn that these could be extremely irresponsible and illegal ways to deal with this delicate problem.

Under Indian law, an orphaned child must be seen by a government official and is put in an institution if there are no relatives to look after them.

"Our authorities are overburdened, people are hassled. It's extremely easy in these circumstances to misassign a child to some trafficking racket or an adoption racket," said Akancha Srivastava, a cybersecurity expert who has launched a coronavirus helpline for children. Srivastava said her helpline received at least 300 calls and messages in a day to rescue such child.

Irani also warned that unofficial approaches to adopting Covid-19 orphans are a "trap" and "illegal".

AFP received one message on WhatsApp offering a two-year-old girl and a two-month-old boy for adoption. "Brahmin children," the message said, suggesting the children were upper-caste Hindus. The contact number has since been switched off and has been investigated by authorities.

Another report in The Diplomat narrated the story of a Shanta Devi from an unspecified north Indian village, who received a call asking for alms to care for children during COVID. When Devi tried reaching out to the number after sending a generous donation, she found that she had been blocked by the caller.

Apart from this, many children are also left in financial distress, with their primary caregivers gone too soon, without having the chance to secure the child's future. This is especially true of poor families or children of single mothers, who have succumbed to COVID.

Children whose parents have died or are sick have been reduced to selling vegetables on the streets, according to the Protsahan India Foundation, a child rights NGO.

To combat this humanitarian crisis, several state governments have stepped up to ensure that some help is given to these children.

Kerala

The Kerala government on Thursday announced a special package for children orphaned by COVID-19 in the state.  Under the package, initially, an amount of Rs 3 lakhs will be given to the children as a lump sum.

In addition, an amount of Rs 2,000 per month will also be given till they reach the age of 18. "The government has also decided to bear the cost of their education up to the degree level," Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said.

Karnataka

The Karnataka government has responded to the urgent need to rehabilitate children orphaned by COVID-19 by setting up separate quarantine facilities as well as hostels for those up to 18 years of age.

Woman and Child Welfare Minister Shashikala Jolle said that the government has set up a helpline ‘1098’ and a senior IAS officer Mohan Raj has been appointed as nodal officer to ensure that such children are taken care of. The department has also come up with special scheme for the treatment of COVID infected children.

The nodal officer has also been directed to make immediate and long-term arrangements to ensure care to such children.

Andhra Pradesh

The Andhra Pradesh government has set up child care institutions and residential schools in all of its 32 districts to look after children orphaned or separated from their parents due to the virus, The Indian Express reported. These institutions will provide nutritious food, shelter, and education to these children for as long as necessary. For assistance pertaining to these centres, two helpline numbers – 181 and 1098 — have been set up.

For the long-term care, based on the preference of the child, they will be handed over either to the kinship care of a suitable guardian, or they will be moved to the legal adoption pool.

Apart from this, the state government has also announced an assistance of Rs 10 lakh in the form of a fixed deposit for orphaned children, who belonged to families who lived below poverty line. The guardians of these minors will be allowed to utilise the monthly interest of Rs 5,000 for their day to day care. The FD will reach maturity when the child turns 25.

Maharashtra 

Maharashtra, which reported that as many as 2,290 children have lost one or both of their parents due to the pandemic, has set up a 10-member task force in
each of the 36 districts in the state to identify the children, who were orphaned due to the pandemic.

The task force will also oversee the arrangements of their shelter and supervise their adoption to ensure that there is no trafficking and exploitation. The government has also set up a helpline number to seek information about such children after getting inputs that anti-social elements were encouraging illegal adoption of such
children for human trafficking.

Uttar Pradesh

The Government of Uttar Pradesh has announced that it will take responsibility for those children who lost both their parents during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.

According to reports in regional media, the state government has set up a task force in each district to identify such children and to bring them into the legal adoption pool. Meawhile, for their temporary care, the State Child Protection Society, under Section 6 of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, has been tasked to form shelters for the rehabilitation of such children and to coordinate with various agencies for their long-term care.

Uttarakhand

The Uttarakhand government has launched the 'Mukhyamantri Vatsalya Yojana, which will be implemented on 30 May, the day the NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes seven years in office.

As per the scheme, children who have lost their parents will be given a monthly allowance of Rs 3,000 up to the age of 21. The state government will also take care of their education and reserve five percent of government jobs for them under the scheme.

Madhya Pradesh

Madhya Pradesh was among the first few states to have come up with a dedicated package to assist children who lost their parents due to the pandemic. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had announced that students who have lost their parents would be provided with free education till graduation level, along with a monthly stipend of Rs 5000.

Chattisgarh

The Chattisgarh government has decided to bear the cost of school education of children who have lost their parents to coronavirus and the state will also offer them a monthly scholarship.

These students, irrespective of whether studying in government or private school, will get a scholarship of Rs 500 (for students of Class 1-8) and Rs 1,000 for the those studying in Class 9-12

Delhi

The Delhi government has promised free education to children who have lost their parents due to COVID-19 and a monthly financial assistance to households that have lost an earning member.

The social welfare department of the Delhi government has also written to district offices, institutions and child care facilities to identify and rehabilitate such children on an urgent basis.

As per the directions, children, who have lost their parents to COVID, will need to be produced before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) within 24 hours. Digital appearance and interaction may be used in exceptional cases if physical interaction is not possible due to COVID restrictions.

The government officials said the panel would determine the need of the child and pass appropriate orders; allow caregivers to take care of the child or place her or him in institutional or non-institutional care, according to a report in The New Indian Express

Odisha

The Odisha government has issued dedicated helpline 1098, OSCPSR helpline 1800-345-4494 and State Covid helpline 104 for immediate tracking of children in vulnerable situations. Temporary homes have been created in all 30 districts to keep the distressed children whose families were affected by COVID. The state has also promised to bear the cost of education and provide a monthly pension to these children.

It is illegal to give or adopt children in India without the due involvement of government authorities. If you come to know of any child who has lost both parents to COVID, inform the local police or Child Welfare Committee of your district or contact child helpline at 1098. 


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