Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani took to Twitter to flag adoption requests as illegal and urged people to prevent trafficking in the garb of adoption and report all such cases to 1098 or police or a Child Welfare Committee.
In Odisha’s Ganjam district, a 45-day-old girl was found next to her mother’s body, when neighbours broke open the door of their house in Golapalli village. Suspecting it to be a case of death due to COVID-19, the local police sent the corpse for post-mortem and contacted the centre in-charge for Childline 1098, the national helpline for children, to arrange help for the toddler.
In Delhi, a mother left two daughters, a 15-year-old and a seven-year-old, with her neighbours before getting admitted in a hospital and losing her battle against the pandemic.
In Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad, COVID-19 dealt a cruel blow and claimed the lives of four members of a family over 12 days, leaving behind two daughters aged six and 10.
“I will not send the girls to any institution, I will raise them,” said Anil Kumar (name changed), their paternal uncle. “It is what their father wished. Just two days before his death, he kept asking us to look after them if something happened to him. Earlier, too, on several occasions he had raised this issue,” Mr. Kumar adds.
The second wave of COVID-19 has left many children extremely vulnerable, particularly those who have been orphaned. Childline 1098 has recorded 51 calls between May 1 to May 12 for children whose both parents succumbed to COVID-19 , but the actual number is likely to be much higher as there are several other helplines and many cases go unreported.
Earlier this month, alarm bells started ringing among child rights activist after messages on social media and WhatsApp groups began circulating containing adoption appeals for children who had recently been orphaned due to the COVID-19. Within days, Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani took to Twitter to flag such adoption requests as illegal and urged people to prevent trafficking in the garb of adoption and report all such cases to 1098 or police or a Child Welfare Committee (CWC). On May 6, the Ministry asked Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to add a column in hospital admission forms asking patients to specify in whose custody their children can be left in case of any eventuality.
Only a district CWC can decide the future of children found orphaned in such circumstances.
Take the example of the toddler found in Odisha. No one has yet come forward to claim the little girl, though efforts were made to contact the estranged husband of the deceased and the child’s maternal and paternal grandparents, according to Sai Prasad Samal, Childline centre in-charge in Ganjam. As a result, the district CWC referred the child to a special adoption agency for interim care. The District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) will now undertake a social investigation, which will include efforts to find members from the extended family who can be given the custody of the child. Failing which, the child may be declared orphaned, surrendered or abandoned before she is declared legally free for adoption.
In the case of the two Delhi sisters, though the neighbours are keen on keeping the girls with them, they will have to be produced before a CWC. The CWC will first make efforts to find members of the birth family and then make an assessment.
Experts warn that adoption for such children is neither the first nor the best option, and recommend kinship care as a more suitable alternative.
“We have learnt from disasters like tsunami of 2004, cyclones in Odisha, and Latur and Kutch earthquakes that if children have faced one crisis such as a loss of family member or separation from their parents due to death and desertion, then the emotional trauma for such children is very high. Over the years we have learnt that the best way to respond to such a crisis is to retain the child within the birth family so that the child doesn’t face double trauma. In the case of COVID-19 orphans, they may have grandparents or uncle and aunts who are willing to take care of them. The intervention required in such situations is assistance and support for the prevention of family separation,” says Nilima Mehta, child rights and adoption expert.
Bharti Ali, co-founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, agrees. “This is the time to focus on kinship care. The Ministry of Women and Child Development and all concerned State departments should immediately roll out a kinship care programme and make it part of foster care provisions under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015.” She says that additional measures should be taken such as assigning District Child Protection Units the task of surveillance as well as follow up of children directly affected due to loss of one or both parents, or those whose parents are in hospital with nobody to look after them.
Activists say that State governments must make kinship care part of the child protection system such as Maharashtra’s Bal Sangopan Yojana, where the State grants educational support of ₹ 1,000 per month to families to look after orphaned children.
Where relatives are interested to help as in the case of the Uttar Pradesh family, they can follow the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, or Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, to adopt or seek legal custody under the Guardianship and Wards Act, 1890.
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