Orphaned- The forgotten cost of COVID 19
Fatema Kinkhabwala and Saumya Kaushik

What a year it has been. The pandemic led to so many children not having a roof over their head, or a mother to sing them to bed, or a father to struggle for the remote with. Every night, every call, made it a little tougher for me to sleep at night. My work with CARA (Central Adoption Resource Authority) recently met with some fruition with my promotion but it all felt so bittersweet.

 

I woke up in the morning to the piercing sound of ambulances passing my home. It was day 401 of the pandemic but everyday was a blur of calls, coffee and the banter of my co-workers. 

 

CARA was located in West Block 8, RK Puram in New Delhi which was a 10 minute walk from my home. After getting a cup of Rama’s hot coffee, I got to the receiving end of the phone that had never stopped ringing since the pandemic had started. 

 

I picked up the phone. Heaving and sobbing sounds from the other end of the line alerted me about the sense of emergency that the lady extended. ‘Namaste Ma’am, Central Adoption Resource Authority, how may I help?’. ‘Sir.. Sir, I’m Deva, my didi’s son Akarsh, he’s alone sir, please help me’, responded the lady. ‘ Ms. Deva please could you provide me with certain details such as the age, parental status of the boy, and the city and state you are calling from’, I replied with a heave. Calls from relatives of orphaned children had become regular after we had started to run our rural awareness campaign.

 

After noting down Akarsh’s details, I asked the lady to stay composed and assured her that according to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015 and Adoption Regulation, 2017 as a relative of the child, she could put up Akarsh for adoption. I went on to explain that the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) will have to declare Akarsh legally free i.e declare him to be either an orphan, abandoned or surrendered (OAS) child so that he can officially start his procedure for adoption. After an exchange of commiserations, I let Deva know that my colleague would be in touch with her and put down the phone with a heaving sigh. Deva and Akarsh were located in Bihar, so I called Brijesh, one of the Point of Contacts at the State Adoption Resource Agency (SARA) Bihar which was the nodal authority for the promotion, facilitation, monitoring and regulation of the adoption programme in the State.

 

After transferring the details for Akarsh, I put the phone down. I caught my breath, the swell of a heavy day cut the crisp air. I took a sip of my  warm coffee, its bitter taste felt as an appropriate match for the present circumstances. Before I could let my heart clench at this thought the shrill sound of the phone broke my reverie.

“Namaste Sir” came a distressed voice from the other side; I am calling from the Delhi Police Juvenile Justice Unit. I wanted to ask about the child that we had rescued last week.”

‘Deepak’, I thought to myself. He had been rescued from a child trafficking racket by the Delhi Police. Instances of child trafficking have skyrocketed during the pandemic and children who have been orphaned are particularly vulnerable to these rackets, Deepak being one such victim. 

Deepak which literally means light was forced into the ugly darkness of human trafficking; I laughed bitterly thinking about this irony.

“Yes Sir, as per Section 28 of the Juvenile Justice Act, Deepak was first produced before the Child Welfare Committee and after conducting inquiry on all issues relating to and affecting the safety and well-being of the child as per Section 30, he was brought to us.” I informed the police officer.

“Thank you Sir, I wanted to call and check in because the issue of child trafficking has been growing like an unsuspected tumor in the time of this pandemic. Especially during the second wave, numerous messages of adoption appeals for children who have been orphaned due to covid-19 have been circulating on social media like Twitter and Whatsapp. These unwarranted activities are leading to child trafficking in the garb of adoption as the appropriate procedure is not being followed.”

 

“That is right Sir” I replied, “the correct procedure is that first such an orphaned child must be reported on the National Childline-1098. After that the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) will undertake a social investigation to find the family members of such a child who can be given the custody. Failing which, the child may be declared as legally free for adoption. If this is not followed then it can expose these kids to trafficking as social media provides a channel to by-pass the law and ‘adopt’ them.”

“Moreover, restoration and rehabilitation of children like Deepak, who are in immediate need of care and protection is specifically undertaken by the Specialised Adoption Agency and only those people and institutions who are deemed as ‘fit person’ or ‘fit facility’ after due verification of their credentials as stated in the Juvenile Justice Act are allowed to adopt or take care of the child.”

“I agree Sir, seeing this mayhem unfold I just wanted to ask about Deepak. However, I will now let you attend to the soaring number of calls that I am sure you must be receiving during the 2nd wave.” With that the line got disconnected.

The police officer was right – Call number 216, I thought to myself as I unconsciously kept a tally of the ever increasing calls.

My glasses were fogging up and as much as I wanted to convince myself that this is purely because face-mask and glasses are not an ideal match, I could not ignore the wetness near my eyes. Will these children ever experience a normal childhood? Will they ever get a closure? In a country where mental health is still a taboo will anyone recognize their agony or will they be pushed into the dark void of trafficking?

“TRRRR” suddenly the sharp, piercing sound of the phone didn’t feel unwelcomed as it drowned the harrowing voices in my head.

“Namaste Sir, Rakesh reporting.”

“Namaste Rakesh,” I said, returning the greeting. “Tell me what made you call me today?”

Rakesh, was a colleague and an old friend of mine, we worked together at the State Adoption Resource Agency before I got promoted here.

“Sir, I have some good news to share.”

I sat up straight; my movement so quick that my old, rickety chair jerked forward – hearing these words was a rarity during a global pandemic.

“Our team had gone for the monthly inspection of foster families to check the well-being of the child as mentioned under Section 44 of the Juvenile Justice Act. We carried out our inspection in the prescribed manner and interacted with the family and found out that he had been enrolled in a school and was attending his online classes. During our visit we saw him struggling to understand basic mathematics and believe me when I say that I have never been happier seeing a child struggle before.” 

I could feel his smile behind the receiver of his phone. I perfectly understood what he was saying. After years of working with orphaned children, seeing them get a family to call their own filled you with an unparalleled sense of gratification. They might struggle, but this time they will have a family to prop them up after every stumble.

I felt my mask rise up a bit and its strings tighten around my ears; I realized I was smiling too.

We continued our conversation, catching up and asking each other’s well being, before I looked at the orange tinted sky and took that as a sign to end our call. I got up and stretched my rusty joints, before leaving I grabbed a stack of pamphlets with me. This was a part of our effort to spread awareness as everyone cannot access our website or call us, thus we decided to put up pamphlets so that those in need could still reach out to us. 

As I was sticking up the pamphlet near a market joint, I admired the changing hues of the settling sun. It was a bright orange at some places, a somber red in the centre and the corners were quickly turning dark signaling the incoming night. However just like the sun I would be back at my work tomorrow, ready to light those dark corners.

Pamphlet

 

PROCEDURE FOR CHILD ORPHANED BY COVID

  • If a child has become orphaned due to his parents passing away because of Covid-19, the relative, guardian etc must call the Childline services @ 1080
  • The Childline Services will help produce the child at the nearest District Welfare Committee whose job is to ascertain the immediate needs for the child’s rehabilitation. 
  • Post this, the child may be returned to their caregivers or put in the right institutional or non-institutional care

PROCEDURE FOR CHILD ADOPTION 

  • A child in India can be adopted by an Indian citizen, NRI or a foreign citizen, irrespective of their gender or marital status.
  • Prospective adoptive parents need to get registered with an authorized agency. Recognised Indian Placement Agencies (RIPA) and Special Adoption Agency (SPA) are the agencies which are allowed to make such registrations in India. 
  • A social worker for the registration agency will make a visit to the home of the prospective adoptive parent in order to do a home study. Post this the agency will intimate the interested couple/ individual when-ever there is a child ready for adoption.

For more details visit: http://cara.nic.in/ 

Orphaned- The forgotten cost of COVID 19
Fatema Kinkhabwala and Saumya Kaushik

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