Authors: Kiran Modi, Gurneet Kalra, Leena Prasad
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused crises around the world and as we move on to another year into the pandemic, it has now become crucial that we start to assess the risks and vulnerabilities of the most marginalized population, i.e., the children living in alternative care.. With the contemporary socio-economic complexities rising in developing countries like India, due to lock downs and other extreme measures, children residing in alternative care setting are facing additional multifaceted challenges as they continue to solely depend on the support, they receive from the system. With packed and sparse spaces, limited resources and other challenges, Child Care Institutions (CCIs) are facing major setbacks as maintaining proper measures are proving to be challenging. This paper aims to assess the impact and associated potential risk factors of children living in alternative care with a particular focus on the Indian scenario. By taking into account the past, present, and future potential challenges, this paper postulates the way forward during such times of uncertainty and emergency. Alongside the workable solutions facilitating well-being and state of the children, the paper additionally highlights the significant contributions that were put forth by Udayan Care, a child and youth practising NGO in India, as an immediate response to the crises. With the establishment of the foundational grounds for the children living in alternative care as well as for the children aging out of the system, there can be a collective approach to advance the betterment of the future generations to come. Collaborative efforts to alleviate the push towards institutionalisation remains crucial, as during and post-pandemic the number of children in CCIs is likely to increase. At the same time, it is important to keep the doors of CCIs open to vulnerable children during such crises and ensure quality care as well. Further developing an implementation roadmap would aid in the current and potential crises control alternatives across the states in India.
Key Words- COVID 19, India, Children, Alternative Care, Udayan Care
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its worldwide menace, it has impacted not only health and socio-economic conditions but has also profoundly crumpled the overall well-being across populations and primarily children (Witt A et al., 2020). The present situation pushed the already vulnerable children into newly emerging socio-economic complexities and extreme marginalization. Starvation and economic dispossession further rendered families incompetent of caring and protecting their children from exploitation and pushed them into child labour, sexual activities, begging, etc., further worsening their health, while also increasing child mortality, and impacting mental health (Sani G et al., 2020). Overall, it has led to an unprecedented child rights crisis with long-term concerns thereby further widening the equity divide (Modi et al., 2020). The sense of wellbeing has been embattled causing major issues including fear, anxiety, ostracization, alienation, uncertainty and instability surrounding the pandemic. It has further impacted the socio-economic conditions leading to marginalization, large-scale migration, hunger, and deprivation, loss of livelihoods, increased domestic violence, incidents of child marriage, trafficking, etc. (UNICEF,2020). Various international agencies, UN bodies and two intergovernmental regional bodies – The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – urged national governments to strengthen regional child rights efforts by including the perspectives of children during the COVID-19 crisis (Joining Forces, 2020).
The Context of Children in Alternative Care in India
In India, as in many other countries, often numerous circumstances such as abuse, disasters, parental death, poverty, and internal conflicts lead to children being separated from their birth/biological families. In such cases, these children without parental care become the responsibility of the state as they grow up in alternative care settings. The key instruments governing child and youth care in India are the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015, its Model Rules 2016, and the Revised Integrated Child Protection Scheme (CPS; Ministry of Women and Child Development India, 2014), which together provide an overarching legal framework for child and youth care support in alternative care settings. The effective implementation of the existing policies and law continues to be a great challenge as investments in child protection often remains low (Mahara, 2021).
By the year 2018, India was home to 23.6 million orphaned and abandoned children (MOSPI, 2018). The MWCD mapping report, 2018, has recorded over 0.37 million children living in about 9500 Child Care Institutions (CCIs) in India, out of which over 8744 homes are run and managed by NGOs (MWCD, 2018). In the Indian scenario, in the absence of robust community-based or other family-based care models (like foster care, kinship care, low adoption rates, and other supportive schemes), institutional care in the form of CCIs remain the most preferred option for care and protection of children without parental care provided by the State (Modi et al., 2016; SAIEVAC, 2011). These children are orphaned, abandoned, lost, unaccompanied, or trafficked, and share common scars of poverty, social apathy, abuse, neglect, poor health, malnourishment, emotional trauma, and lack of education (Roche, 2020).
Situation of Children in Alternative Care in India in Pandemic Times
Alternative care setting in India saw a swarm of risks taken, including economic fallouts, changes to the on-ground child protection mechanisms, limited resources, and caregiver burnout largely being attributed to the pandemic. During the initial COVID wave in India, the nationwide lockdown in March 2020, led to immobilization of staff in CCIs, with just the residential staff on duty, with severe limitations to seek any external help, which thereby impacted the overall well-being of children and caregivers. Most CCIs in India are over-crowded, where maintaining social distancing is rather difficult. There is an issue of developing a sick room into a quarantine area, when space itself is a constraint, with the new social distancing norms. The hygiene standards are often below expected, and infrastructural factors reduce opportunities to wash hands adequately and frequently where access to water and hand sanitizers is an additional concern. Often, children living in CCIs have existing health issues, underlined by lack of availability of quality health care services.
Not just physical health, this crisis has impacted the mental wellbeing of children. Due to their early adverse experiences and trauma experiences, in any case, most of the children in CCIs needed a lot of structured psycho-social counselling, which was not adequately available even in normal situations, and during a pandemic, when professional staff physically not available, there has been increased stress due to being confined in small spaces at home, asked to wear masks, and maintaining social distancing within the homes leading to low levels of physical, mental, emotional well-being. The pandemic further exacerbated other mental health concerns in the children, leading to anxiety with no clarity on how long the situation will last, other concerns like insomnia, low confidence, an increase in self-harm, attempted suicide, etc. Distant counselling sessions were organized, but the children who are already traumatized and under psychological supervision have become reticent with sharing the feelings online due to lack of privacy and confidence. Children lost connection with self, due to reduced access to peer networks, & outside world, with uncertainties and anxieties all around and being ‘bound 24/7’ to their homes. The stressors like boredom, inability to meet peers and teachers, lack of privacy, many times worries about their own families’ back home, and peer abuse, has seen to be leaving enduring effects on children and adolescents and hamper their social relationships.
This crisis was further exacerbated by the breakdown of social networks due to educational institutions being closed as they feel more marginalized and deprived of learning than ever, due to the inadequate access to technology, smartphones to access to online education. The learning gap between children from high and low socio-economic backgrounds, cities and rural areas, has widened due to the focus on digital education. There has been a digital divide, expanding the gaps in the education system, a majority of children living in residential care facilities have no access to updated technology, internet and electronic gadgets including phone and computers (Fore, 2020). The biggest missing link in the education system is that the teachers are not trained to develop their understanding and sensitivity to child protection issues, and there is a lack of wider understanding of childhood trauma, what constitutes their wellbeing and a clear policy to provide guidance about safeguarding children at large, in particular children coming from institutions. School teachers, if trained are in a position to observe children closely and notice the presence of neglect and other child rights violations, at different levels, such as, they may observe child being in distress, withdrawn, isolated or having certain bruises, scars etc. But these observations often go un-noticed if teachers are not properly sensitized or made aware of several indicators of neglect (Modi et al., 2020).
The pandemic further caused negligence of the children with special needs due to the shortage of staff and inaccessibility to specialized support. Often children with special needs require tailored interventions in order to facilitate their wellbeing which got interrupted due to the lockdown. During the pandemic the systematic barriers and pitfalls additionally had a huge impact on the social protection system for the children with special needs. Planning of disability-inclusive response strategies remains a challenge as there is so community engagement, due to lockdowns and scare of infection.
The arrival of a new child into the CCI or restoration of a child residing in the CCI amidst the lockdown, with limited staff available in CCIs, while following the health advisories and catering to the psychosocial needs of the child and following the procedural guidelines, is a struggle for all the parties involved. Temporary restoration of children to their parents and extended families without adequate social investigation and a follow-up plan is not in the best interest of the already vulnerable children. This led to increase in cases of child labor, child marriage, abuse, violence and neglect, and discontinued education (Chawla & Singh, 2021) and led to the revolving door syndrome, where children often ran away from their homes post restorations and landed up getting into the juvenile system back again.
The Second Wave
Before India could absorb all the extremities of COVID 19’s 1st wave, it was overtaken by a more virulent second COVID wave, which has unleashed unprecedented devastation across the country. Nation’s health infrastructure crumbled under the pressure of this sudden tsunami of COVID numbers. The situation is indeed alarming compared to 2020 as this wave has caused more destruction. From hospital beds to supply of oxygen and key medicines, these months have been unfortunate and horrendous for the people of India. This wave of the pandemic has caused the surge in cases, with more of the children being symptomatically affected, who have been relatively spared during the first wave. While vaccination may guarantee some a level of assurance and protection, gravest risks would be for the ones who would be children being unvaccinated. Even though there is availability of vaccines for those above 18 years of age, getting their hands on the vaccine is still a struggle. Even right now, during the surge in cases, many believe that kids can very much act as super spreaders of the infection, and may even pass on the infection onto adults (Times of India, 2021). According to UNICEF, “with half the children under five in India being malnourished, the present COVID-19 crisis could further impact child nutrition and service delivery” across India (IANS, 2021). Along with the increase in COVID-19 cases, the impact on children being affected by the disease has also increased along with impacting other public health and social measures on children. Child marriages, domestic violence and domestic abuse have been evidently on a rise with the overall looming crisis being loss of livelihoods and employment, leading lack of income, etc. (Deepika, 2021; IANS, 2021). Death of one or more parents also led to many children becoming orphans during the second wave and incidents of illegal adoptions also came to light, with the civil society sector and government agencies taking quick notice to spread awareness to prevent this from increasing.
COVID Impact on Functionaries of CCIs
The overwhelming burden on functionaries of CCIs during the pandemic, increased multifold, as the residential staff had to take over the entire burden of not only looking after daily chores, but facing added, enormous workload, to which they were not exposed or trained earlier, along with assuring children’s well-being and safeguarding them. The lack of resources, the sole responsibility of development and safeguarding of children, the risk of being exposed to the virus, the stress about ensuring every child receiving adequate care, inability to take leave to meet their own families, due to constraints of not enough in-house staff, even managing online resources to keep children’s education continuing, without being equipped for it, has taken a toll on the mental health of the caregivers, who resided with children, locked up in the homes, as the entry of outsiders were not permitted leading to their burnout.
Dealing with human resources has been challenging, child protection staff required structured training to deal with the pandemic. The pandemic awareness programs in CCIs were not tailored to the needs & concerns of children (age-appropriate, disability-friendly). A rise in incidents of neglect, “harsh disciplining”, and maltreatment were reported during the pandemic (Kumar et al., 2020). The functionaries took some time to understand the complexity of issues related to COVID-19 with regard to its prevention, response, testing, and in-house treatment and further getting trained on cyber safety. Remotely ensuring effective management of CCIs, including boosting the morale of staff, was a task. Quick changes to the on-ground child protection mechanisms were not easy to embrace with complex protocols to be followed for admission, visits, discharge, without adequate staff and they had to quickly embrace technology and remote working. Multiple coordination with a wide range of authorities (nodal department, health, police, CWC/JJB/children’s court, etc.) was required. It was a challenge to care for children in specific situations of vulnerability including addiction to substances, pregnancy, mental health problems including suicidal thoughts, and self-harm (Kumar et al., 2020).
COVID Impact on Care Leavers in India
Most young persons’ leaving CCIs, on turning 18, is not generally a well prepared and followed up protocol but this transition became even more difficult and worrisome during the pandemic. During the lockdown, most got stuck in their CCIs, and their rehabilitation plans even if made, could not be implemented. Most of them experienced increased risks of isolation, trauma, stress, discontinuation or stopping of education and learning opportunities, limited livelihoods and career chances, loss of employment, for those who could find a job with difficulty, reduced income, housing challenges, food insecurity, etc. Even though sporadic State government and NGO support was provided for dry ration, etc., lack of identity documents prevented them from accessing these benefits. Many of them have suffered financial losses, having lost jobs, thus been thrown out of their rented accommodation and their day-to-day basic needs were not fulfilled. Most of them had been living all by themselves which often led to isolation from their peers, and lack of device and internet connectivity restricted their possibility to stay connected remotely, exacerbating their anxiety and stress levels. It was seen that Care Leaver’s concerns did not find priority in most government circulars at large.
The Perilous Road Ahead for Child Care Institutions
Already struggling CCIs have a terrifying path ahead as they are already facing a huge financial crunch and further financial deficits will hamper the whole system. The economic slowdown means drying up of funds and reduced donor commitments, due to collapsing businesses, and diversion of CSR funds to health issues. In India, Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), is a centrally sponsored scheme, which provides financial support for implementation of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000; increased access to a wider range and better quality of protection services, in partnership with the State Governments/UT Administrations. It is reported that only about 40% CCIs receive Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) funding, while others depend heavily on private donors (Dey, S. 2020). With donors funds most of the privately run CCIs are finding even survival a difficulty. This pandemic is actually resulting in reduced access to basic rights of children comprising of education, healthcare, and nutrition. With the ongoing situation, there are growing mental health concerns with limited accessibility to counselling services. Care Staff attrition is giving rise to difficulties in maintaining standards of care and expectation of more children coming under institutional care.
Responding to Crisis
There have been several initiatives to address the needs and rights of children without parental care. One study highlighting the key findings around carers which in other words “informal caregivers” stated that 39% of Indian millennials took on a caregiving role for the first time during the pandemic, who provided regular and ongoing unpaid care and support for children and other citizens with a long-term illness, physical disability, or cognitive/mental condition as carers. The support was provided in terms of emotional needs, technological challenges and financial troubles (Hariharan, S., 2021). There had been directions of the Supreme Court of India In re Contagion of COVID 19 virus in children protection homes, followed with several other circulars and orders along with various State governments issued advisories to CCIs from time to time. CARA issued certain advisories on procedures for adoption and foster care to be followed for safeguarding children during the pandemic. NCPCR, The National Child Rights Body, issued a circular for the restoration of children back to their families: around 1.46 lakh children were sent back to their homes. Approximately 4.5 lakh children and their caregivers were reached across seventeen states and provided with psychosocial support from UNICEF. Over seven lakh migrant workers and their families got support in accessing government benefits. Crisis offers an important opportunity to reimagine and transform the essential work of caring for children. ‘Manodarpan’ is an initiative of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to mobilize Psychosocial Support to help children and adolescents country-wide in a comprehensive and multimodal manner. NIMHANS, India started with certain provisions to provide psychosocial support to children and the care staff to deal with the current crisis. It developed certain manuals like, “Psychosocial Care for Frontline health care workers” – to empower them to deal with their stresses with simple self-care and stress management; “Psychosocial First AID (PFA) manual for Children affected by COVID 19”- which covers a wide range of interventions and services that helps an children to come out of the traumatic experiences that are secondary to the pandemic, provision for Tele psychotherapy, along with psychosocial support and mental health services helpline (NIMHANS, 2021). The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) launched a helpline number to address the needs of those children who have been left orphaned during the COVID 19 pandemic. The National Commission for Child Rights (NCPCR) in collaboration with the state governments also took initiatives to help in identification of abandoned, orphaned, or lost children, found living or begging on the streets to help them by placing them in Childcare Institutions (Mazumdar, 2020).
The Unique Model of Child and Youth Care at Udayan Care
Udayan Care, a non-profit NGO in India, has the vision of “regenerating the rhythm of life of the disadvantaged” since 27 years. Contrasting to other large residential care institutions, as prevalent in India, Udayan Care has developed small group homes called Udayan Ghars (hereinafter referred to as ‘homes’) based on a unique L.I.F.E. model (Living in Family Environment) which delivers care and protection to a maximum of 12 children per home as a unit, and in some larger spaces, 2 units of children are accommodated. Children are positioned in these gendered separated homes through orders from the statutory body, Child Welfare Committee (CWC), based under the Juvenile Justice Law. At present there are 17 homes across four states of India. Each home has a carer team including a group of 2-5 long-term volunteers called Mentor Parents, at least 2-3 full-time residential caregivers, a social worker, a part time mental health professional team, comprising of a child and adolescent Psychiatrist, psychologist and counsellor, and a shared zonal coordinator, as well as managerial, supervisory staff at the Head Office. All homes are situated in middle class communities, drawing the support and strength of local communities, leading to positive peer impact, where full-time managers work centrally with the aim to provide financial, psychological, education and legal support and training to children (Modi. K. & Hai. K., 2018). Udayan Care also carries out an Aftercare programme which bridges the gap for young adults of the ages 18 to 21 that are just leaving their Udayan Ghars, by providing continued rehabilitative services combined with community, group or scattered housing along with empowering these youth to complete their education, become job ready and well prepared for independent living.
Udayan Care’s Response to the Crisis
In House Response and Support
Our children and youth have kept us going till now and we have kept our family united and stronger in this crisis. During the first wave in 2020, an immediate response was taken up with developing and implementing Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in both Hindi and English to manage and respond to the COVID-19 crisis in CCIs and caregivers were trained on its components. These included the illustrative application of fundamental principles while responding to COVID-19, checklist for persons-in-charge of CCIs for planning for emergency situations, preventive and responsive measures for CCIs under the JJ Act, 2015, protocols to be followed for entry of staff, service providers, and visitors, precautions when receiving supplies, conducting online activities and sessions with children/staff of childcare institutions. These were culled from major orders, guidelines, advisories and directions issued by various bodies, easy to understand and guide care providers at CCIs. Udayan Care also organized emergency protocols and trainings across our 17 homes and Aftercare facilities. Children have been regularly monitored and given workshops on how to maintain hygiene and safety protocols.
Taking into consideration the sudden crisis with the 2nd wave and so many children and staff being grappled from the infection, new protocols were developed and circulated. Focus on positive wellbeing, guidance on necessary safety measures, sanitization protocols, ways for care and protection of COVID affected staff and children, home isolation plans were developed, with very strict daily protocols. Children and care staff in each home are taught about the importance of having a daily routine, maintaining good health, engaging in several exercises, and regular steaming. Thermometers, Oximeters, masks, specific footwear, sanitizers, gloves, even PPE kits and other protective equipment were provided to each homes, in addition in the second wave as more children and staff are getting infected. Recently, our donors made available even oxygen concentrators for children and staff in need of emergency. Setting up of a separate WhatsApp group for further monitoring is done where any of the care staff reports any emergency or requirement at home. COVID refresher sessions for children, care staff and coordinators on regular intervals also helps them keep updated. Regular testing is being organised, while registration for vaccination process is being taken up.
Bridging the Digital Divide for our children at Udayan Ghars- As per the need of the hour, updated and adequate arrangements of devices and internet access were made certain to ensure continued learning. Adequate arrangements were made to ensure that there is no compromise with children’s learning, including school curriculum or getting them connected to online classes and there is a regular tech upgradation. A daily schedule was designed for children which involved studies, music, dance, painting, games, and other recreational activities, above all exercises and yoga along with regular online counselling, motivation, and training for children and care staff. Care staff walked the extra mile ensuring the essentials are adequately stocked, also keeping children occupied, well-humored, and entertained. Children adapted to the crisis and were at their best creative-self and had come out with several activities in the context of the coronavirus they even wrote corona stories, corona poems, took part in corona quizzes, and even engaged in corona theatre. Even when the pandemic situation remained static with prolonged closure of schools, the second wave of COVID-19 meant the children continued their online learnings with additional assistance from self-learning platforms.
Augmenting Mental Health for all children and caregivers across Udayan Ghars – We at Udayan Care, aim for all-round development and growth of our children at Udayan Ghar. Emo-Aid (emotional- aid) sessions were organized across our 17 homes for securing and lifting the mental health of children, carers, and staff. It’s a self-care online programme to develop practical skills and tools for enhancing and capacity building in emotional health. During the lockdown, curfew passes were arranged to manage emergencies across seventeen children homes and two Aftercare homes, and we remained connected closely but remotely. All mentors, social workers, and counsellors were in constant touch with children, giving them ideas, hearing them patiently, allaying any anxieties and misconceptions that they may pick up from the flurry of information.
The second wave has generated widespread anxiety, fear, stress, helplessness and trauma in many children and staff. Being uncertain and anxious may lead to unhealthy growth and overall emotional well-being. Looking at the ongoing situation and the impact it has created, this year our mental health teams have created a COVID Anxiety Fear Management Program which aims at managing COVID specific negative emotions and thoughts as well as increase the experience of positive emotions. This program is conducted with the children and residential staff of Udayan Ghars with an aim to help them in trauma symptom reduction, prevention of deterioration of symptoms, aiding them in coping with the emotional distress and developing resilience, providing them the ability to focus on normal everyday activities while ensuring and developing emotional health and wellbeing. The children also meanwhile exhibited great resilience and support network by helping each other in the activities that required additional assistance. Monthly in person visit, started by the child psychiatrist to help these children address their anxieties, which again had to be converted into online meetings, with the second wave causing a lot of anxieties all around. The thematic ART based workshops are designed in a manner to deal mental health issues through ART. Group counselling sessions for children with low risk of mental health issues, and individual sessions for moderate and high risk children are aiding in addressing mental health issues.
Securing the Continuum of learning for Women and youth in Udayan Care’s other programmes
A flagship programme, named Udayan Shalini Programme has been running at Udayan Care for accelerating women’s empowerment for almost two decades. It is a unique academic excellence and personality development programme for deserving and talented girls from weaker socio-economic background. With the COVID 19 entering its first phase, most of their families lost their daily wages, leading to unemployment and hunger. A complete end to end grocery and cash transfers were organised by Udayan Care for more than 5000 girls in this programme, and for youth in it’s another programme on digital learning. During the 1st phase of crisis only, it became imperative that additional support in terms of gadgets and internet connectivity were needed for these beneficiaries to enable them for continued learning and staying connected along with supporting them and their families with online counselling. All this process has again been intensified in the second wave, with which India is currently afflicted with.
Responding to the Needs of Care Leavers
Aftercare Outreach Program- Apart from the already ongoing programmes, new projects were taken up to support Care Leavers towards survival, and independent living during the crisis. Based on Udayan Care’s 2019 “Beyond 18” Care Leavers’ research study findings and recommendations, an Aftercare Outreach Programme (AOP) in Delhi and Vadodara, Gujarat was initiated in 2020, right in the midst of COVID 19’s ist phase. Through this programme, Care Leavers (coming out of other CCIs who were not receiving support from their previous organisations) were provided monetary and mentoring support, based on the eight domains of interrelated, support services, as in the thematic framework, “Sphere of Aftercare’ which was developed as an outcome of the study. The education and life skills support programme aimed to be a replicable model on Aftercare by establishing evidence of its positive impact in their lives. 54 Care Leavers in the 2 cities were supported towards their independent living through mentoring, guidance, and close support in education and vocational trainings. It provided transition and rehabilitation support to Care Leavers through skills- training and development, workshops and mentoring, education/ vocational training- information, access, financial support, experience – internships, apprenticeships, placements, and collectivization – Care Leavers Association and Network (CLAN). Currently, additional surveys are also ongoing on to assess and aid the contemporary needs in order to help the care leaver navigate the way in the COVID era and beyond.
Responding to Needs of Transnational Care Leavers- With the purpose of responding to the needs of transnational Care Leavers, Udayan Care, along with its partner organisations, collected over 100 young people with care experience from 25 countries to come together to develop their Declaration of Demands, in the form of gaps and recommendations. The Declaration has become a global advocacy tool, was translated into various languages, and used by Care Leavers networks to raise their demands in their countries. To take this further, the 1st International Care Leavers Convention was organised virtually, again in partnership with other organisations and led by Global Care Leavers in November 2020. Lastly, as part of extending the support and advocacy for Care Leavers, a resource website www.careleaverscommunity.org has been launched to further aid in the Aftercare community outreach and strengthening the network. The website acts as a safe platform that the Global Care Leavers Networks by engaging with Care Leavers across the globe through its “Community” page as well as Blog sections. The momentum is aimed to be sustained as a snowball effect through monthly “Care Leavers Café” Sessions being organized by the core group of Care Leavers. Following this, Care Leavers Convention Event Report, a Brief for Practitioners, and a Brief for Policy Makers.
National Alliance in India for COVID-19 Response on Aftercare (NAICRA), a platform of Aftercare service providers in India, with Udayan Care as a key member, was launched in June 2020, which currently has over twenty organizations from different parts of India as members. To mitigate the vulnerabilities of Care Leavers, this was an attempt to bring together Aftercare service providers to combat the challenges faced and aggravated during the crisis by CLs through strategic interventions and policy advocacy to sustain the momentum already created to advocate for a robust Aftercare programme in India. So far two well-attended webinars had been organised under the aegis of the Alliance to understand good practices on Aftercare in the states.
The Way Forward: Care must overcome the COVID Crisis
There is a dire need to assess the contemporary and long-term impact of the pandemic, with workable solutions to mitigate t resulting into the biggest child rights crisis. With the new and evolving mutant variants in India, it is vital that the gap in healthcare is amended effective immediately. Health protocols must be mandated until the virus has curbed around the world. Vaccination drives for the caregivers must also be prioritized at the moment as the COVID-19 cases continue to surge. At a time when surviving the wave itself, is the key to move forward, it becomes important that the children as well as the caregivers are provided with adequate information, tools and training to cope during such times of uncertainty.
Collective action is required where governments and civil society organizations must come together to supplement their efforts and work on mitigation of risks. We will take a long time to heal the ruptures and breakdowns, but together we must rebuild the social and economic frameworks keeping children and youth at the centre. Donors and the private sector must continue to invest in child protection issues as equal partners. Governments, at both, the centre and the state levels, must encourage and support data, research, and documentation to have evidence to influence strategy and programming. We all need to work to mitigate the push towards institutionalisation, as during and post-pandemic the population of CCIs is likely to increase as more families are becoming vulnerable and are unable to support their children, unless state sponsored. Studies have stated an already astounding increase in number of child abuse, child marriages, teenage pregnancies, child trafficking, giving a greater push to institutionalization. In the second wave, more young children have lost their parents and some have been left totally alone as their entire immediate family has succumbed to the virus. While there are reports of young girls being sexually exploited within their family during the pandemic, there are cases of children being forced to work for very low wages. Child marriages, child labour and trafficking have been on a rise (Sofi, 2021). At this stage, it is crucial to proactively connect all children to the available supports they are entitled to, like social security, child survivor benefits, etc. There is also a need to identify and provide counselling and related resources to all children who lose a parent as they go through a severe mental trauma. There needs a constant check on all the adoption pleas being flooded these days as it can lead these children to the hands of the human traffickers.
Caseworkers should conduct inquiries to check up on Care Leavers who live alone; prioritize Care Leavers who have not been able to secure accommodation, provide them with emergency support; enable access to psychosocial and mental health support services; regular contact with carers through phone or other; “buddy systems” to help each other out. Self-story” and “Story of Care Leavers” could potentially aid in ‘healing’ as well as ‘Care Leaver’s integration’ into the outside world. All Practitioners must partner with these Care Leavers to ensure holistic preparation process towards independent life in significant and justifiable ways. Young people must be part of all the policies related to them which should be co-designed with Care Leavers at the centre. All practices on Care Leaving must adopt a participatory model, focused on the 8 domains of interventions, being housing, education, employment, life skills, financial and legal literacy, physical and mental health care and social relationships.
Families may be at greater risk of separation as a result of the pandemic, and may need more financial and material support to remain intact (Goldman, 2020). We need to be aware of risks to family stability during this crisis, including no school or childcare, and very little access to needed services and resources. It is crucial to allow families the opportunity and authority to problem-solve in the face of adversity is one way governments can support innovative solutions. It is also important to develop a plan for education for children in areas where traditional school is not possible due to social distancing measures and unavailability of electronic gadgets and internet facilities. Families should be identified for additional support by any of the available stakeholders at the primary sign of crisis. Members of these network can then be mobilized and collaborated to assist these families in sourcing the help they need from the appropriate agencies. Schools, community members and other social networks can become centres for disseminating information and resources. NGOs can assist in providing assessment, monitoring, and connection to community services. There is a dire need to advocate for clear and child-friendly intake and discharge procedures to promote family unity and reduce the risk of separation. In such a situation, the authorities could support the transition to family-based and community-based programmes and services for children in an organized and planned manner, including those children, who find themselves homeless or orphaned after this pandemic.
Kinship families should be strengthened to take care of children, who need, out-of-home care support. Kinship & foster families should be given additional material support (financial, health, educational); identifying and securing sources of additional support for children with special needs. New modalities need to be developed to monitor to reintegrate children. Working with relevant authorities to establish a registration system to prevent long-term separation and to facilitate reunification is required. Facilitation of safe and regular communication between children and parents/caregivers who are temporarily separated can be further encouraged. There is a need to develop an inter-agency plan, in collaboration with relevant authorities, to strengthen the care of vulnerable children. Collaboration is required to ensure child-friendly health facilities or access to health care, including direction for health staff on communicating in a child-friendly manner and ensure special measures to support children’s psychosocial well-being. Identification of alternative mental health and psychosocial support along with educational activities is required for children putting up in care homes. Ensuring the provision of child- friendly, safe, and hygienic promotion activities, including the development of infographics and posters targeting children and caregivers is required. There needs to be efforts in terms of reducing the vulnerability of children by engaging them proactively and including the perspectives of children. NGOs and other serviced-based organizations have a vital role to play in supporting vulnerable children and families in situations of distress (Schwartz & Yen, 2017). The government and NGOs can work with community members to develop child-friendly messages on COVID-19. Disability inclusive and accessible messages on self-care, mental health, psychosocial support, positive discipline, children’s behaviours, home activities need to be broadcasted. Cash transfers and linkages with existing government schemes should be detailed and made available to strengthen these families, so that children don’t get separated. Targeted support to interim care centres and caregivers should be provided, including child-headed households and foster families, to support children emotionally and engage in appropriate self-care. Provision of training and support to caseworkers and existing child helplines on COVID-19, including basic facts and myths, impact on child protection concerns, and support services is needed. It is the need of the hour to establish safe, child-friendly complaints and feedback mechanisms in care homes frameworks keeping children at our centre.
Communities are the mechanism that can care for children and families long-term (West et al., 2020). As NGOs are limited in what services they can provide, strengthening community resources and networks to enhance response to the pandemic and associated restrictions encourages a framework that can safeguard children and support families now and in the future. Collective action on the part of the civil society and political will and commitment will be non-negotiable going forward. In order to deal with the impact of a pandemic, it is important to work with individual countries’ local health officials, school districts, child care accreditation bodies, child care licensing boards/bodies, health consultants, and other community partners to determine the most appropriate plan and actions to prevent and protect the children and other stakeholders in the alternative care space from the aftermath of COVID. Sometimes situational anxiety does get the better of locked-up children and staff and may result in violence, bullying, and even abuse. The role of mental health carers and counselling becomes paramount to mitigate this increased risk, including that of child sexual abuse and care-givers burnout. Monitoring on a day-to-day basis for assessing the overall condition of each child under care and protection is necessary to mitigate the risk of abuse.
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