EMERGING ISSUES OF CHILD PROTECTION AND CARE IN THE PANDEMIC
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
By- Satyajeet Mazumdar, Head of Advocacy at Catalysts for Social Action*
As the number of COVID-19 cases in India crosses 2.3 million, the socio-economic effects of the pandemic are becoming all the more evident across the nation. It is being widely speculated that the number of people impacted by the economic crisis will be many times more than those whom the virus will infect. This will directly affect the lives of millions of children. The Annual Report 2015-16 of the Ministry of Women and Child Development (hereinafter referred to as the “MWCD”) report stated that 170 million children in India are growing up in difficult circumstances. The COVID crisis may add several million more children to this number.
Childline India Foundation, which runs 24x7 emergency helpline for the protection of children and undertakes interventions to rescue children from situations of risk, reported having received over 1.5 million calls for help between 20th March and 30th June 2020. While 2/3rds of these calls were COVID related inquiries and calls seeking support for essential commodities, 18% or almost 2.7 lakh calls were categorized as ‘child protection concerns’. The majority among these were cases of child marriage (35%), physical abuse (21.5%), child labour (9.9%), emotional abuse (9.8%) and sexual abuse (9%). The remaining cases are those of beggary, trafficking, other forms of abuse, corporal punishment, and cyber-crimes. Staggering as these numbers are, they are only the cases that have been reported. The actual numbers may be far higher.
IMPACT ON CHILDREN IN INSTITUTIONAL CARE
Chapter VI of India’s Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”) provides the procedure to be followed with respect to ‘children in need of care and protection’, or CNCP. These children could be those who are homeless, rescued from child labour, victims of abuse, children whose parents are unfit or incapable of taking care of them, whose parents have surrendered them, or rescued from child marriage. Such children may be placed in a Child Care Institution if the same is determined to be in the best interest of the child by the district Child Welfare Committee (CWC). The CCI is expected to provide care and protection to the children until they can be suitably rehabilitated or restored with their families . There are approximately 9500 CCI in India with around 3.7 lakh residing in them as per a 2018 report of the MWCD. Being in an institution within the purview of authorities, these children can be said to be in a relatively safer situation than many of the other vulnerable children in the country. Yet most of them grow up in an environment that is far from what it ideally should be.
The lockdown has brought up unique challenges for CCIs. As per the 2018 MWCD report, only about 40% CCIs receive funding from the Government. Other CCIs have to raise funds on their own and depend mostly on local individual donors. Since people from outside have been prohibited from entering the CCI during the lockdown to keep children safe, many CCIs are finding it difficult to meet their expenses. In a survey conducted by Catalysts for Social Action with 78 of its partner CCIs in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Goa, it was found that 72% CCIs said that their existing funds will last less than 6 months. Even though 82% of CCIs had been approached by Government authorities post lockdown to check their preparation, only 46% received support in cash or kind. This was mostly towards essential commodities, masks, and sanitizers. 50% CCIs said they had been operating with fewer staff members since they had asked those living outside CCI premises to stop coming during the lockdown.
NEED FOR A MULTIDIMENSIONAL AND COORDINATED APPROACH
As with most other legislations in India, implementation of the JJ Act has been a challenge. The sheer scale of the problem along with the varied methods and efforts required to address the same means that it is not possible for a single authority/organization to find a solution. What is needed is a coordinated effort from all stakeholders including individuals in the community, especially in the present times. Efforts need to be made towards:
Identifying and supporting vulnerable children- Efforts need to be stepped up to identify vulnerable children/families in the community. Children found to be at risk need to be rescued. Families identified as vulnerable need to be supported and monitored over a period of time to ensure the safety of children in the family. The task of identifying vulnerable children can be carried out by frontline workers, such as Anganwadi and Asha workers. Community monitoring mechanisms can be set up at the village level by the Gram Panchayat in which active members of the community can monitor all children in the village. Location-wise data of children identified as vulnerable needs to be collected and made available to all stakeholders, including NGOs to enable them to design their interventions accordingly.
Supporting Child Care Institutions- CCIs firstly need to be respected for the essential need in the system that they fulfill even in the most difficult circumstances. Necessary resources and handholding need to be provided so that they can provide family-like care to children. Funding under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) needs to be regular and disbursements need to be predictable. The budget allocated towards support needs to be sufficient so as to enable the CCI to provide standards of care and protection as envisaged in the JJ Act.
Ensuring children in CCIs are safe and being well taken care of- Digital infrastructure in CCIs to enables children to attend online classes and to enable NGOs and authorities to conduct online counseling sessions and facilitating interaction with people outside virtually. Authorities like the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) and CWC need to be in regular touch with children in CCIs to ensure their safety and well-being. A system of social audits can be set up through which the community around the CCI comprising of organizations and individuals can periodically come and speak to the children, identify issues and ensure the overall well-being of the children. Every CCI needs to have a child protection policy that every child and staff member should be aware of. Children’s committee needs to be formed and functional.
Ensuring deinstitutionalized children are safe with their family- Procedure mandated by the JJ Act and JJ Rules for the restoration of institutionalized children needs to be followed by authorities to ensure deinstitutionalization is in the best interest of the child. Systems for monitoring the child within the family and providing support to the family, if needed, must be set up before the restoration of the child. Given that the pandemic has caused widespread economic distress to poor families, authorities need to reach out to families of children who have been deinstitutionalized in the last 1-2 years to check on their well-being and provide support as required.
GIVING PRIORITY TO BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILD
The unprecedented crisis brought about by COVID-19 is threatening to roll back all gains achieved in the field of child welfare in the last two decades. While efforts to ensure each and every child is safe and cared for in the family need to be stepped up urgently, given the huge number of children in vulnerable situations in India, a considerable number of them, especially those who are victims of abuse, violence, child marriage, and child labour, would need to be placed in CCIs for their safety and welfare. This, together with the fact that children being successfully placed in family-based care at present are minuscule, and systemic nationwide family strengthening programs do not exist, the role of CCIs in child protection, in all likelihood, would only expand as a result of the pandemic. Hence the need to strengthen capabilities of CCIs cannot be ignored and instead, mechanisms need to be created to incentivize CCIs so as to encourage them to improve their standards of care for children until they are suitably rehabilitated.
 As on 12th August 2020
 Section 53 of the Act.
(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Child Rights Centre.)
*Catalysts for Social Action (CSA) is a non-governmental organization working towards ensuring better care and protection for children under institutional care.