New Delhi: “Wish to adopt a girl? Please contact xxxxxxxxxx. Three-year-old and six-year-old, lost their parents to Covid-19”.
This is one example of the many messages currently doing the rounds of social media, supposedly seeking support for ‘Covid orphans’ – children who have lost both parents to the dreaded disease.
Another similar message reads, “Two-year-old baby girl and two-month-old baby boy, whose parents have passed away from Covid, need a home. If anyone you know is looking to adopt, please contact xxxxxxxxxx”
The messages may seem to be brimming with goodwill, but experts warn that the demand for ‘adoption’ may open up a market for human trafficking, with ‘Covid orphans’ being the easy, as well as latest, victims of this crime.
Child rights experts have voiced concern against such social media messages, and claimed that they could be tricks by trafficking gangs to expand their pool of clients and targets, and subject unsuspecting children to violence and abuse, thus encroaching upon their basic rights.
The security of Covid orphans has become of vital importance in the past one month, with the casualty count piling during the second Covid surge in the country. The total death toll has crossed 2.5 lakhs.
Last week, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development (WCD) told the health ministry that at the time of hospital admission, parents infected with Covid-19, should declare in a form who their children should be handed over to, if they both succumb to the disease.
WCD minister, Smriti Irani, too warned in a tweet that “If you come to know of any child who has lost both parents to Covid and has no one to take care of her/him, inform the Police or Child Welfare Committee of your district or contact Childline 1098. It is your legal responsibility”.
Any legal adoption of such a child has to take place through Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) under the Juvenile Justice Act. There are CWCs in 600 districts across the country, with ground crews stationed.
“Not all children who lose parents to Covid-19 are automatically orphans. Many of such children have relatives and extended families who will come forward to take care of such children. Such relatives and the general public however need to be made aware of law and legal processes which they need to follow,” said Anant Kumar Asthana, Child Rights Lawyer.
To ensure that legal procedures for adoption and claiming guardianship are followed is the first responsibility of the state, in such cases, he said.
“State governments must ensure that awareness campaigns are held on laws and legal processes on how these children can be helped. NGOs working in the field of child rights, special juvenile police units and CWCs are more accessible than before and there is sufficient human and infrastructural resources available in the child protection system at the district level,” added Asthana.
To publicise the children’s details on social media is not only an infringement of their right to privacy, and attract the wrong kind of attention, but the very premise of putting up a child for adoption in this manner is illegal, said experts.
“Putting up social media posts for adopting children is nothing but putting the child into the web of trafficking,” Delhi Commissioner of Police SN Srivastava told ThePrint. “It is a criminal offence to take custody of an orphaned child like this and the said person can be charged under IPC 363 (punishment for kidnapping).”
With a growing number of children orphaned in the pandemic, governments and law enforcement agencies are also mounting vigilance to put a curb on trafficking.
Falling victim to traffickers
Data released by Childline India Foundation last year, showed a sharp rise in child trafficking cases during the lockdown. The rights organisation, received 27 lakh distress calls between March and August, and made 1.92 lakh interventions on ground.
Childline officials say the number has seen another 15 per cent surge between April and May this year.
“We have seen a surge of 15 per cent in distress calls this year. All these relate to Covid [crisis situations], which is alarming in itself,” said a senior official at Childline, on condition of anonymity. “But this year, things have turned for the worst. as details such as the children’s contact numbers and age are out on social media. The privacy of an orphaned child is extremely important. Without that the possibilities of trafficking open up, it’s like the former feeds into the latter,” he explained.
The distress calls received by the organisation include calls on trafficking, abuse (sexual, mental and physical), child marriage and child labour, among others. Twenty-seven per cent of all distress calls received last year were made for protection – from trafficking, child labour, child marriage – 40 per cent of these were Covid related.
The need of the hour is to be empathetic to the orphans and ensure that the children do not end up in the custody of the wrong people, agreed commissioner Srivastava.
“Notorious individuals running [trafficking] rackets might end up taking [illegal custody] of the children, because of the social media advertisements,” he iterated. “These are unprecedented times, many children have lost their parents, we need to function as responsible citizens, imagine the trauma of such a child ending up with traffickers or with someone who isn’t mentally or physically fit to give them a proper upbringing”.
The CP has ordered the top brass of Delhi Police to keep strict vigilance against distress calls by children and attend to them immediately.
In one such incident in May, a woman head constable took temporary custody of a child whose parents had tested Covid positive, while the six-moth-old baby was Covid negative and had been separated from her parents. The baby was eventually handed her over to grandparents in Uttar Pradesh.
The concern over the probability of traffickers misusing information of children available on social media is shared by everyone working in the field of children’s welfare.
Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, DCPCR chairperson Anurag Kundu had earlier sent a letter to the Delhi CP, requesting intervention on the social media posts for adoption, raising alarm that they “may also be cases of trafficking and sale-purchase of the children”.
Speaking to ThePrint, Kundu explained that these traffickers target vulnerable families and by not following adoption guidelines, one is making the “ground fertile for these rackets to breed”.
“The imminent danger here is of trafficking,” said Kundu. “How does one guarantee that the person who has taken the child, isn’t a trafficker or someone who won’t abuse the child? Secondly, by following the legal process, we ensure that the adopted child has the same rights as that of a biological child. Thirdly, [the adoption] guidelines ensure the suitability of a person to adopt a child. Only by conducting background checks, can we ensure that that person is mentally, physically and financially fit to take proper care of a child and provide a positive upbringing,” he explained.
But while the possibility of trafficking is the biggest concern with such social media advertisements, it is not the only problem with these messages.
“Child not a commodity”
“By putting up a child for adoption on social media, we are commodifying them. This should be condemned and not at all encouraged,” said former IPS officer Deepak Mishra.
“What if someone takes a child through these posts and then plans to get rid of the child? [abandon the child] A child isn’t a product that is to be bought and then used and disposed of,” he said.
National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) chairperson Priyank Kanugo emphasised on the need for the producing all Covid orphans in front of the Child Welfare Committee in order to ensure that the rights of these children are ensured.
“These children cannot be put up on social media for adoption, by doing so, one is encroaching on their rights. Even with relatives, and siblings, the CWC takes a decision,” said Kanungo, adding, “this is a pandemic, unlike the effects of a tsunami or an earthquake where everything is lost. Children have the right to inherit property from the parents. Moreover, if legal process isn’t followed, who knows, this might lead to [what] forms of abuse of the child.”
The loss of parents is a trauma which the child needs to come to terms with. In such a situation the mental well being of the child is as important, as his or her physical well being, said experts. All adoption procedures need to keep this in mind and ensure that the future guardian is able to provide the children necessary emotional support.
“These children [Covid orphans] are more vulnerable, as they couldn’t be with or see their parents one last time [owing to pandemic protocol that necessitate isolation of patients], said Dhananjay Tingal, executive director, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), an organisation founded by Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi.
“In most cases, due to Covid-19, no one wants to help them [because of stigma and fear of infection]. The trauma in these cases is extremely high and so it is imperative that at least neighbours or people who have come to know about them, inform the local authorities, including NGOs so that the child is taken care of and safety is assured,” he added.
Kundu, however, felt that relying only on helplines [of NGOs and police emergency numbers] for these Covid orphans is not enough and governments must be more active in keeping track of children who lost their parents.
“Helplines are dependent on two things — people actually calling the number and the said helpline being actually functional. It is not possible for everyone to remember a contact number at the time of crisis. It is impossible, and we can’t solely rely on that. This is passive governance,” Kundu said.
‘Need for active governance’
The DCPCR chairperson said that the organisation was already in the process of playing an active role in ensuring proper care of these children.
“This crisis needs active governance,” he said. “Instead of waiting for calls, we must go through the deaths database and call up families asking about children left behind after they have lost parents. In Delhi, we are obtaining this database and checking up on families where people below the age of 45 have died. Presently we have reached over 900 such families and offered assistance to over 400 such children, who have either lost both parents or one parent, or has been left behind owing to the entire family quarantining.”
State governments in many parts of the country have also stepped up to care for these children.
The Kejriwal-led Delhi government has announced that it will bear the expenses of children orphaned by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh has promised them compensation of Rs 5,000 per month, free education and ration. Meanwhile the Maharashtra government is set to form a task force in every district of the state to ensure care for these children.
The WCD, as well as Childline officials, said that declarations of future guardianship for orphaned children from parents would ease the process of ensuring the children’s wellbeing, at least to an extent.
“We are working together with the police in each district, and NGOs to keep track and provide for the safety for these children,” said a CWC official in Delhi.
To identify those who need help is half the battle won, according to many experts.
Agreed Asthana. “First and foremost, the government must ensure that all such children are identified as soon as possible and then to ensure that such children do not fall into the hands of traffickers and abusers and that they have their immediate needs attended to.”
The decision on adoption and providing guardianship come next. “Then, on a case-to-case basis, such children can be placed into suitable arrangements like short term or long term stay in child care institutions, foster care, group foster care, adoption,” the lawyer added.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)