#1 Operational Challenges due to COVID-19

Kashina Kareem
Assistant Director, Prerana

Azra Qaisar
Communications and Documentation Manager

Previously, in our series on education, we discussed the impact of the lockdown on children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. There are many children who were at a disadvantaged position or in need of care earlier, who might need more assistance during and after the current COVID-19 health crisis. Children in need of care and protection under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, who stay in child care institutions are one of these vulnerable groups. In this two-part series, we will be discussing the impact of the lockdown on children and staff at the child care institutions, especially Children’s Homes (recognized under Juvenile Justice [Care and Protection of Children] Act 2015 – (JJ Act)). 

What are Child Care Institutions (CCI)?

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (JJA) is a legislation relating to children who are alleged or found to have committed an offence, and have not completed eighteen years of age on the date of commission of such offence, and children in need of care and protection as defined under the Act. The JJA caters to their basic needs through proper care, protection, development, treatment and social reintegration by adopting a child-friendly approach in the best interest of children. For fulfilling these objectives, the Act and its Model and State Rules have enlisted certain critical procedures to be followed by the institutions established and/or registered  under the Act. 

Section 2(21) of JJA defines a child care institution as “Children Home, open shelter, observation home, special home, place of safety, Specialised Adoption Agency and a fit facility recognised under this Act for providing care and protection to children, who are in need of such services”. A child may be placed in a child care institution (CCI) by the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) for their care and protection, or by a Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) if they are in conflict with the law and in need of reformative services. The duration of the stay at the CCI may vary based on the need and best interest of the child. A child may be placed in a CCI due to multiple reasons including placement during the period of inquiry once the child is presented before the CWC, the CWC declaring the parents as unfit to take care of the child, the parents or family of the child not being traceable, child’s unwillingness to go back to the family. During the child’s stay at a CCI, the process of rehabilitation begins with the help of social casework tools like the Individual Care Plan (under JJA) that assists in addressing and monitoring the child’s needs over the period of their stay at the CCI. An individual can stay in a child care institution only till they turn 18 as after they turn 18, they cease to be a child under the ambit of JJA. Such individuals exiting the CCI at 18 years can be provided necessary assistance, hand-holding, and continuum of care in the form of aftercare services.

The challenges that are discussed in this two-part series are specific to institutions – Children’s Homes, where children in need of care and protection (under JJA) reside. Prerana currently works with children who are in need of care and protection under the aforementioned law. These include minor victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, children born in the red-light areas that require care and protection under JJA, victims of child sexual abuse, and children rescued from begging who are placed in child care institutions for their care and subsequent rehabilitation. Apart from these projects, Prerana also runs a Children’s Home for girls in need of care and protection under the JJA.

The purpose of Children’s Homes

The purpose of placing a child in a Children’s Home (CH) is to facilitate their rehabilitation and ensure care and protection. In the current crisis, the rehabilitation processes of the children in Children’s Homes has been severely affected to the extent where rehabilitative efforts may not be a priority at all. The purpose of institutionalizing children in need of care and protection is thus getting lost in this situation because rehabilitative processes as envisaged in the JJA are no longer a priority, and rehabilitative systems have been suspended.

Children in CH are losing out on opportunities of education and schooling, vocational training, and psycho-social support. With regard to education, there is a digital divide, which is also percolating into child care institutions. The residents that used to go to school are now dependent on the internet, and related infrastructural requirements for continuing their education. Most CH are not equipped with enough computer systems or laptops and the internet to ensure that access. Lack of resources affects the child’s Right to Education and puts them at a disadvantage over those who have access to online education. In CH that has the infrastructure to facilitate e-learning, they may not have enough laptops or computers for all children. It is important to note that there are children across various grades, who stay in a CH. Their timings for availing e-learning sessions might not align with each other, making it challenging to ensure that each child gets to access their classes, despite the availability of hardware.

As schools have begun to gradually move towards reopening in Maharashtra, whether or not the children in CH will be able to attend the schools remains to be seen. Given their limited resources, CH may not be willing to risk a child leaving the facility and make themselves and others vulnerable. All these factors are crucial for children living in CH who may be enrolled in such facilities due to the lack of access to these opportunities otherwise. 

Suspension of processes due to the lockdown

The suspension of processes has manifested in various forms at Children’s Homes, and has added to the stress of the children. In many Homes, the children used to meet their family members once or twice a month. However, due to the lockdown, those meetings have not been possible. Though some CHs are making all the efforts to ensure that children interact with their families on a day to day basis, some of them have been reluctant to facilitate the telephonic interactions. Unfortunately, those run with minimal resources or in districts that are far from the city, do not even have the infrastructure of mobile phones/smartphones to facilitate the regular interaction between parents/guardians and the children. 

In the current situation, entry and exit into Children’s Homes have been highly restricted to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the case of children in need of care and protection, there is a suspension of processes including restoration of children to their families, provision of psycho-social support, or exit of children after completing 18 years of age. The process of transfer of these children to their respective districts has also been affected due to the restriction on physical movement. In the initial phases of the lockdown, the restrictions stemmed from the state-imposed rules but as the movement has been eased, it remains a challenge for CHs as they require police escorts to accompany the children for the transfers and sometimes for restoration as well. Given how the priority of all administrative and state bodies is going to be solely the prevention of COVID-19, children are bound to not make it to the list of those that require the assistance of police personnel. 

Since March, many of the children who were supposed to be reunited with their families or leave child care institutions as they had turned 18, have continued to stay in the CHs. Some of the child care institutions have been directed by the respective authorities to continue the stay of the children in the child care institutions till the lockdown is lifted and the situation gets better. To facilitate due processes, the social workers at some CHs have made fresh attempts since May 2020, at reassessing the child’s family situation amidst the current crisis which includes tracking whether their residences fall under the containment zone, checking if any of the family members tested for COVID, checking if there are any infected persons close to where the child’s family resides, checking if the earning members in the family have lost their job, checking on their current financial situation, etc. However, despite these efforts being made on a case to case basis, the decision of restoring the children has been kept on hold within certain districts. This has resulted in feelings of anxiety, stress, anger, and a sense of uncertainty among the children and young adults who were due to exit from CHs. The indefinite extension of the lockdown and the restriction on physical movement has added to their distress.

During the lockdown, the transfer of such children who belong to other states/ districts has been temporarily put on hold unless the parents themselves have approached the CWCs to take custody of their children. The transfer of such children to their respective states/ districts would involve police escorts as well as communication with the respective CWCs of that district ideally in consultation with the District Child Protection Unit (DCPUs) for the districts.  

Caregivers working at CHs as frontline workers

A key stakeholder in any CH, apart from the children is the staff running the facility. Within the child care institutions, due to restrictions in allowing people from the outside, the residential staff is undertaking multiple roles, right from program management to implementation, along with crisis management. They are taking up roles of being educators, supervisors, as well as caregivers. This has added to the workload of the residential staff members and added to their stress levels as well. Most facilities are understaffed as staff members are unable to reach the institutions. The increase in monitoring and daily reporting tasks during the current crisis is also taking up a significant part of their schedule. In facilities, where there are a large number of children with inadequate staff, maintaining daily status reports of the health status of the residents, is a major challenge. 

There is no recognition of the work of child care institutions as front-runners in the fight against COVID-19, despite them working continuously to ensure the safety of the children in their care. There seems to be little accountability of the state towards the workers in child care institutions, which also affects their morale. The instructions and advisories that they receive are non-participatory and do not seek their inputs or take into account daily operational challenges. In such a situation, managing a child care institution and ensuring the safety of children as well as the staff, is increasingly becoming challenging. This is also significantly impacting their mental health and could lead to them burning out. Being overworked, along with lack of recognition and resources, also affects their capacity to effectively perform as caregivers to the children in the Children’s Homes.

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While we acknowledge that the current crisis will alter the functioning of CHs, the impact it might have on the rehabilitation, and the best interest of the children must be seriously looked into. The lockdown has also affected the socialization needs of the children living in CHs. Their interaction with the outside world through education, vocational training, parents’ visits, field trips, and so on, has stopped, and this could affect their rehabilitation and subsequent social reintegration.

Running a child care institution is a major responsibility, and this responsibility has increased significantly in the current crisis. It is essential that the state takes the requirements and challenges of child care institutions into consideration to help them mitigate the crisis. A consultative contingency plan, providing linkages to doctors and hospitals, financial aid, counselling services, health insurance for the staff and children, rotational shifts for the staff members are some of the needed implementations. In addition to these, testing of the children and staff in CH for COVID-19 in high-risk areas, should be a priority and mandated. The fight against COVID-19 must be inclusive from all spheres, including those who in this case work behind closed doors as front-runners.

This blog is part one of our series on the impact of the pandemic on Children’s Homes. 

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