Vulnerable Children of Maharashtra: A Report on the Status of Children Orphaned by COVID-19

In our report we have used the term orphan in order to maintain its legal definition under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children Act), 2015.

INTRODUCTION

From our experiences in the field, we understand there is a stigma attached to the word orphan. In our report we have used the term orphan in order to maintain its legal definition under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children Act), 2015.

Out of the nearly 10,386 children orphaned in India, 718 children in Maharashtra, comprising 13.6% of the total pool of children, were orphaned after their guardians died during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

At present, India has more than 1.5 lakh children that have either been orphaned (due to COVID-19 or non-COVID-19 reasons), have lost a single parent, or have been abandoned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Maharashtra has the second highest number among states in India with approximately 20,429 such children.

                                                        Proportion of children vulnerable during the pandemic in Maharashtra

                                          Proportion of children orphaned by COVID-19 in Maharashtra 

Given the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hardships faced by children, among the most vulnerable groups. Vidhi’s state office in  Maharashtra decided to study governance response to such children.

Researchers conducted a survey of authorities under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children Act), 2015 (“JJ Act”) to analyse the on-ground implementation of support measures offered to orphans during the pandemic with a special focus on schemes announced during the pandemic only for orphans who lost both parents or their surviving guardians to COVID-19 (and not due to socioeconomic circumstances caused by COVID-19), we analysed the implementation of these specific support measures:

1. Schemes that existed before COVID-19:

● A centrally sponsored scheme, the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (“ICPS”) that provides INR 2160 monthly per child to Child Care Institutions for care of each child. 

● A scheme by the Maharashtra government, the Bal Sangopan scheme created in 2005 that now provides INR 1100 to all families or extended families requiring sponsorship to take care of all children in need of care and protection, including orphans.

2. Schemes created during COVID-19

● The COVID-19 ex-gratia compensation of INR 50,000 provided by the Maharashtra State Disaster Relief Fund (“SDRF”).

● The PM CARES for Children Scheme (“PM CARES Fund”) of INR 10,00,000 provided by the central government to all children who lost both or their surviving guardians to COVID-19.

● Additional grants of INR 5,00,000 provided by the state government. 

● An additional grant of INR 10,000 for orphans provided by the Maharashtra government as ordered by the Supreme Court in October 2021.

To understand the on-ground implementation of the legislation, policies and schemes in Maharashtra we interviewed:

Authorities and InstitutionsPercentage/Number Interviewed
Child Welfare Committees (“CWCs”) 62% (24 out of 39)
District Child Protection Units (“DCPUs”) 61% (22 out of 36)
Child care institutions (“CCIs”)20 out of approximately 450

FINDINGS

  1. Sufficient government intervention hindered by COVID-19 death certificate requirement

Considerable attempts have been made by the government for collecting data of orphans by creating Task Forces in each district to rehabilitate children. There were some discrepancies in providing schemes for children orphaned by COVID-19 as COVID-19 death certificates or proof of COVID-19 mortality was required by hospitals. Nearly half the DCPUs, as well as news reports mentioned facing difficulties in procuring certificates and documents for orphans. 

  1. Emphasis on children orphaned by COVID-19 disregards the needs of other vulnerable children
  1. In a 2018 survey of CCIs it was noted that abandoned children and children of single parents, and not orphans, formed the highest demographic of children in need of care and protection. Even during the pandemic, this demographic has remained the same. 
  2. While it is difficult to compare categories of vulnerable children to decide what financial assistance should be allocated to them, the provisions available to children who lost their primary caregiver during the pandemic appeared meagre in comparison to the financial assistance provided to children orphaned by COVID-19. The difference contradicts with the spirit of the JJ Act, which does not differentiate between different children in need of care and protection. 
  1. Problems pertaining to the functioning of authorities existed before the pandemic
  1. Neither the CWCs nor the DCPUs mentioned issues regarding funding or staffing that specifically arose during the pandemic.
  2. There were difficulties in coordination and on ground implementation of the JJ Act caused due to problems of staffing, funding and training (even before the pandemic). All DCPUs and CWCs mentioned this.  
  3. A few CCIs interviewed have never received any grant money under the ICPS. This is because there is no requirement for the state to fund recognised CCIs and a survey conducted by the WCD in 2018 had noted that only around 40% of the CCIs receive funding from the government. 
  1. There was a reduction in donations during the pandemic
  1. CCIs also saw a decrease in donations during the pandemic. News reports as well as almost all CCIs interviewed stated their donations had reduced during the first wave of the pandemic. Only two CCIs mentioned an improvement in donations during the second wave. 
  2. Most CCIs also noted an increase in expenditure as they saw an increase in hospital bills and purchase of online teaching and learning material for children. This caused an additional strain on their resources. 
  1. Family based care is better than institutional care

Out of the 788 children orphaned by COVID-19 in Maharashtra, 33 children, that is only 4%, were placed in CCIs. 

                                                  Portion of children orphaned by COVID-19 placed in Maharashtra’s CCI

  1. While the JJ Act prioritises family-based care, the decisions are to be made on a case-to-case basis. The significantly high number of children sent to kinship care may also signify an unnatural push to place children with their relatives while it may not be in the best interest of the child. This is especially concerning in districts where Home Study Reports (“HSR”) could not be conducted. 
  2. CWC and DCPU representatives whom we spoke to also mentioned that in their opinion family care is better than CCIs as positive attention and attachments need to be formed which can happen only through individual care. 
  3. However, both institutional and home-based care are required because India still has problems where parents who are unable to feed and educate their children, or are in conflict with the law, place their children temporarily in CCIs for lack of other alternatives. Keeping these specific socio-economic conditions in mind, both provisions need to be bolstered.  
  1. Government schemes are important 
  1. DCPUs stated that for children whose documents had been verified, all schemes had been processed or provided. The earliest scheme to reach the children was the Bal Sangopan scheme. As for the COVID-19 schemes, with the required documentation, none of the DCPUs mentioned any trouble with schemes. 
  2. A CWC member mentioned that the provisions of the PM CARES Fund assisted children in continuing their private schooling and in their placement at Kendra Vidyalayas. However, the CWC member did mention that without assistance from the DCPU and the CWC schools were not willing to allow the child to continue their education. Therefore, the provisions of the schemes are important.
  3. A few CCIs provided counselling through the hospital and got external help but most provided mental health counselling through their staff itself. While specific schemes in collaboration with NIMHANS and Samvad had been created for children orphaned during the pandemic, the CCIs interviewed did not make reference to this. 
  1. No orphan was placed in foster care

Group foster care facilities – where NGOs offer community foster care for children – have been functioning from before, the foster care programme has only been in place since the past two years. Till date about 40 children across the state have been identified to be fostered and some of the children are yet to be placed with their foster parents. Therefore, the foster care program is at its nascent stages and its working till date has had no intersection with children orphaned by COVID-19.

CONCLUSION

To ensure the safety of children in need of care and protection during high-risk periods such as that posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to implement prevention and mitigation programmes. For preventive measures, the existing systems must be strengthened with proper training and funding aside and outside of a pandemic-like situation. After assessing the functioning of the authorities we noted that a lack of funding, coordination and staffing was not caused by the pandemic and was inherent in the system. 

For mitigation processes and schemes, there was a consensus between authorities interviewed as well as people working in social organisations for child welfare that benefits offered to children orphaned by COVID-19 should be provided to all orphans from 2020 and additional financial benefits should also be provided to children of single parents as well. A categorisation discriminating between different orphans as well as other vulnerable children goes against the purpose of the JJ Act which extends the same provisions to all children in need of care and protection. While it is important to provide the orphans with as much assistance as possible, the occurrence of a pandemic or a natural disaster cannot override the importance of providing all children with relevant and equal care and protection. 

It is commendable that the government tracked and offered financial assistance to orphans with immediacy even during the pandemic, however, the schemes could have attempted to remedy a more systemic set of problems that were affecting child welfare rather than a blanket set of schemes that were offered to children orphaned during the pandemic. Further areas of research, such as those identifying bottlenecks in the system, especially in processes for locating orphaned children, and designating children as legally free for adoption could be important to addressing these systemic challenges.