The second surge of the Coronavirus pandemic in India had turned Twitter into a large phone directory for hospital beds, oxygen, and pleas for help. Some of those pleas were for children, left orphaned.
In the middle of the chaos of scrabbling for healthcare, a tweet read, "Kid alone at home. Father passed away, mother now serious at hospital. Neighbors not willing to attend." Stories of orphaned, abandoned kids emerged on social media interrupting the distress calls from hospitals for emergency oxygen supplies as India recorded a new high with 20 million Covid-19 cases. For more than 10 successive days, India reported 300,000 Covid-19 cases.
Is The Pandemic Leaving Children Orphaned?
On 30 May, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) told the Supreme Court that over 1700 children have been orphaned while more than 7,400 children lost one of their parents.
In Hyderabad, a child lost her grandparents and within a few hours, her mother due to Covid-19. Despite searches and calls to relatives, no one wanted to take the child home. They feared that she may be infected too. Last week, a 20-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy were reportedly planning to end their lives after their parents died of Covid-19, the Delhi police told a newspaper. The siblings were rescued and connected with their relatives following a counseling session. A three-day-old baby girl and a six-month-old baby in Delhi also lost their parents to the virus.
Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder of Prajwala, a non-governmental organisation that rescues and rehabilitates sex-trafficked victims has been connecting these children to the authorities. "Children are most vulnerable, there is an urgent need for state facilities for children to expand and improve," she said. Sunita pointed out that it's not just orphaned children who are in need. "If both parents are in the hospital, where will the child go?" She said there are cases where no relative is willing to even touch the child and therefore, she said, "the need of the hour is a quarantine facility that can be accessed by all children".
In a Delhi slum, two children-- one in 4th grade and the other in 7th-- are neglected at home. Since the mother died of Coronavirus, their father went into shock. "He is not ready to give up his kids for adoption, but he is neither feeding them," said Sonal Kapoor Singh of Protsahan, an NGO in Delhi, that has been sending food to these children.
Who Can Adopt Them?
A corporate professional who had tweeted asking for help for a child in his neighbourhood said that the WhatsApp groups he is part of are filled with messages about orphaned children. On social media platforms, many such messages floated--seeking help to adopt children whose parents are getting infected. These messages often included a phone number that one can call on to 'adopt the child'.
"It's illegal," said Sowmyaa, an adoptive parent. If someone wants to adopt a child the only way to do that is through Central Adoption Resource Authority under the Ministry of Women & Child Development (CARA) by following a due process.
On Monday, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) chairperson Anurag Kundu wrote to Delhi Police Commissioner S N Shrivastava to intervene in such social media posts to protect vulnerable children from child trafficking.
I have written to @DelhiPolice Commissioner requesting their intervention in how children are being offered for adoption (&adopted) based on social media in complete violation of the laws. Have also requested if Delhi Police also to help raise awareness about the legal provisions pic.twitter.com/epIFESsVof— Anurag Kundu (@AnuragKunduAK) May 3, 2021
"The DCPCR has come across many instances on social media (Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp) where the people who have information about the orphan children are encouraging people to adopt these children. In some cases, they post updates that the child or children have been adopted. I am sure that some of these are out of innocence and ignorance of the law governing adoption. However, they may also be cases of trafficking and sale-purchase of children," he wrote, requesting the Delhi police to be vigilant.
Last week, Smriti Irani said that the government has reached out to states and has appealed to them to enable Child Welfare Committees to actively monitor the well-being of children who have lost their parents due to Covid-19.
Five days ago, the DCPCR launched a helpline number to address the needs of those children who have been left orphaned during the Covid-19 pandemic. The helpline number 9311551393 will respond to calls for children who are facing any form of distress.
The DCPCR chairperson told BOOM that till Monday morning the helpline had received 102 SOS calls. The SOS calls, he explained, are for a child whose parent (either one or both) have passed away, abandoned, are in need of medical care, facing violence or in cases of pregnancy care. The helpline is operational 24X7 manned by five. "We will ramp it up if there's a need," he said.
Explaining why the adoption requests on social media are 'dangerous', Kundu said that when a child is orphaned, abandoned, surrendered or the parents are unable to support him/her, the child is produced -- by anyone -- before the concerned Child Welfare Committee (CWC). The committee then sends the child to a children's home, fit facility or Special Adoption Agency (if the child is below six years) after a check of the background of the child. Once it's established that the parents are either unwilling to support, or simply unable to, or the child has turned orphaned and nobody is coming forward, the committee declares the child legally free for adoption, following the procedure laid down in Juvenile Justice Act 2015 and Model Rule, 2016, as well as adoption regulations.
The child is only registered on the Central Adoption Resource Authority after a long, rigorous process. "No child can be adopted without following this process," he said. "The dangers of trafficking are very high when a child is taken away by anyone without informing the authorities," he added.
Also read: Why Is There An Oxygen Crisis In India?
India's Adoption Crisis
Sowmyaa, an adoptive parent who is working with other adoptive parents to streamline the system, said that there are thousands of parents waiting to adopt a child but the system has told them there are no children up for adoption. For each of them, a doubly more number of children are abandoned and yet not a part of the adoption system.
"Adoption has always been a tedious process in India and in the last few years, the wait time for adoption has gone up further," she said. Most parents have to wait for at least two years because there aren't enough children in the registered agencies who are up for adoption. "When a child is abandoned and is in need of protection the agencies have to find out, but because the process is a long one that involves going through a child welfare committee in each district it becomes difficult for a child to become available for adoption," she explained.
The dangers of trying to help a child whose parents have died by posting their details are many. "You are thinking you are doing a good thing, you are looking for eligible parents. But what you don't understand is that there's a legal process involved for a reason. Tomorrow if a relative turns up they have the full right to take away the child. And the kind of damage that will do to the child is humongous," Sowmyaa explained. She said that while CARA is a 'low responding system' it is the only process through which one can adopt.
"If you want to help, call the child helpline," Sowmyaa said. "It's best to place these children with agencies who are capable of handling children who are dealing with difficult situations," she added.
Neha Goel, one of the key members of a child welfare organisation called WAIC (Where are India's children) said children continue to be abandoned in India and no reliable mechanism exists for accounting them. "Only about 1.5% out of the estimated 30 million abandoned children even make it to child care institutions," she said. Goel, the organisation's founding team member Smriti Gupta along with a few experts are trying to find ways to ensure abandoned and orphaned children are accounted for.
Sonal Kapoor Singh from Protsahan said that it's not easy to get these children into the adoption system. Even in cases of violence including sexual abuse, she said that the mother doesn't want to report because the father or the brother (the perpetrators) are the bread earners and in a chance of the organisation filing a case, the mother will force the child to change her testimony. And that would mean, the child stays with the family despite facing abuse, violence, or being deprived of their rights.
The UNICEF report in 2016 pegged abandoned and orphaned children at about 30 million in India. The number of children in shelters pre-Covid was about 4,00,000 and at any point in time, there are about 2000 children in the legal adoption pool. Many shelters claim that they mostly house children who have parents or relatives. But not all children have parents or relatives, and many children have unfit parents or relatives who will never raise them. Another study by CSA showed that 22% of children in shelters need to be evaluated for adoption eligibility.
What Can You Do?
Parents of adopted children, child welfare services, officials, and NGOs have been warning people from posting phone numbers and details of children who have lost their families. Sonal Kapoor Singh has been getting tagged on Twitter constantly on messages for orphaned children in the pandemic.
"We get about 25-30 messages on Instagram every day," said the CEO of Protsahan. The NGO has been working for over a decade to empower girl children from difficult backgrounds of poverty, violence and abuse to access quality education, healthcare and gender justice. Sonal said that in such cases one has to either call the Child Helpline at 1098 which is a service of Ministry of Women and Child Development or the individual district child protection officer in the region.
#COVID19India #CovidIndia #Children in need of care and protection. Please call 9311551393 (@DCPCR helpline) to report the issue for immediate action. Shelter homes can also specifically reach out to @NGOProtsahan for grief & trauma counseling for their frontline workers & kids. pic.twitter.com/Dk1OmkI7jU— Protsahan India Foundation (@NGOProtsahan) April 28, 2021
Describing the pandemic's impact on children, Sonal said that a study where they interviewed 400 marginalised adolescent girls during Covid-19 revealed that 19% of children said that they or their elder sibling was now involved in "mazdoor (labour)" to supplement the family income for survival, 17% children reported knowing of a child being married in neighborhood or in the family and 13% adolescent girls who were interviewed cited incidents of sexual abuse inside their home.
Sonal has been finding ingenious ways to check on a young girl living in a West-Delhi slum, with her family. The young girl's father had been sexually abusing her for a while after he lost his job and started staying at home. After many rounds of counseling sessions with the family, the mother found a job and the father stopped for a while but continued to harass his daughter intermittently. "She now shrieks when the father touches her inappropriately to wake her mother up," Sonal narrated. Neither of them wanted to give up on the child. Last week, the girl's mother got infected by the virus and has been bedridden since then.
"Even their distant relative is not on Twitter. Where will she ask for help? She doesn't even want to go to a shelter. We are constantly checking on her, we drop by at her house with the excuse of food and medicine," she said.
A relative of a 14-year-old told the NGO that they are planning to get her married off because her mother died of Coronavirus last month. The survey found that almost every household in the west Delhi slums has someone suffering from cold, cough, or fever. Many of them shared rented rooms with at least five to seven people and had no space for isolating the patients or social distancing.
Sonal said that if we are to make a list of children who are grieving or facing violations the numbers will be in millions. "Data collection is the government's job. We are only looking at redressal," she said, talking about Protsahan that has been arranging for food for abandoned children and providing essentials to families.
Talking about the viral 'adoption messages', Sonal said, "Good intentions are not good strategies. These are knee-jerk reactions but no one is to be blamed. The system has failed and the civil society cannot do what the governments do."
Sonal's NGO is based in Delhi but over the last few days, they have been getting cases from everywhere including Bengal, Karnataka, and Odisha. "Some of the children are not orphans, but their parents are sick and unable to provide for them. How is it better? There is no way to adopt all of them, the system doesn't allow you to."
Akancha Srivastava, a cyber safety expert has launched a WhatsApp helpline number where one can send details of a child who has orphaned due to Covid-19. She listed out the requirements that one needs to send: Name, age, gender, location and if there are details of any relatives or family members of the child. "We have doubled the number of staff working on these helplines," Srivastava said.
Thank you for tremendous response India 🙏❤️— Akancha Srivastava (@AkanchaS) May 4, 2021
-Share exact info as requested for quick action
- 1000s of triggers, be slightly patient
- We are WHATSAPP ONLY
- We aren't channel for adoption process 🙏
-Don't block line with unrelated, silly msgs 🙏#AAHChildRescue 🇮🇳 https://t.co/J2vfv5XLHT
"This is an opportunity to improve the protection services," Sunitha Krishnan said. She believes that an urgent quarantine facility for these children, promotion of the child helpline number, awareness and campaigns around it are important.
If the Child Helpline number is busy, one can call on the NCPCR helpline number at 18001212830. There's also a District Child Protection Unit in every district of states in the country-- each of them has different numbers. These numbers can be found here. The DCPCU is responsible for identifying orphaned, abandoned children in the district. If this also doesn't work, one can also call the numbers listed on SARA- State Adoption Resource Authority, who will then reach out to DCPCU and the Child Welfare Committee.
After trying to stop people from posting phone numbers seeking adoption for a child, Sowmyaa and some other adoptive parents collectively put together a document listing the numbers that one can call to help a child legally.
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