A 15-year-old girl unable to ascertain how she will continue with her studies, a 17 year old worried about an unpaid debt his recently deceased parents have left behind and a 7 year old too traumatised to understand how his life has suddenly changed.
These are some of the children district officials in Maharashtra have been able to reach out to after they lost either one or both parents to Covid-19, many within a short span.
So far, officials of the state women and child development (WCD) department, along with others, have identified 1,572 children who have lost either one or both parents to Covid-19 across the state. Until now, 98 children have lost both parents.
On Tuesday, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development had said that 577 children across the country have been orphaned in the past 55 days by the second wave.
Maharashtra’s count of 98 children so far, who have lost both parents, suggests that the number may be higher.
“We have reached out to the children we have identified. They are in trauma and shock of having lost a parent or both parents. Some we spoke to asked us what happens to them next. Most are unable to adjust to the sudden changes. A few asked us about unpaid debts of their parents, some spoke about how they do not know whom to speak with about their needs,” said Ramkrishna Reddy, a district child protection officer in Thane.
In the district, 10 children – between 7 to 17 years of age – have so far been identified who have lost both their parents. They are all staying with relatives at present.
Reddy said that once lockdown-like restrictions ease and schools and colleges reopen, other challenges will come to the fore. “The initial sympathy of some relatives for the children will be replaced with the difficulty of meeting their expenses. Even if a child is made to leave his private school and go to a zilla parishad school, the discontinuity will affect the child further,” he added.
Earlier this month, the Maharashtra government had set up 10-member task forces in each of the 36 districts – headed by the collector – to identify children orphaned due to the pandemic to provide them assistance and shelter, supervise their adoption and ensure that there is no exploitation or trafficking.
The task forces have held one or two meetings and are in process of collating data on the children. From the list of persons who lost their lives to Covid-19, the district authorities are identifying those in age groups most likely to have minor children on priority. The next step is to call the families if numbers are available with hospitals, health departments or the collector office or reach out on the addresses provided.
“We are reaching out to the children to ascertain whether they need ration, financial aid and whether their custodians are in a position to take care of them. With lockdown restrictions still in place, our priority right now is the immediate safety of the children. Officials up to the taluka level are currently involved in identification and tracing of such children,” said Manisha Biraris, Assistant Commissioner (WCD).
Under the Bal Sangopan Yojana, children are also being given Rs 1,100 as monthly aid. “In many cases, children are left under the care of aged grandparents who themselves do not have any means of earning. The monthly aid will not be enough to meet expenses,” an official said.
The task force guidelines state that if the children require counselling, legal aid, financial assistance or any other help in regard to health, education and shelter, it needs to be provided.
Some states have announced financial aid up to Rs 5,000 and free education for such children. An official said that Maharashtra will consider increasing the amount once the data is collated and the need for aid is determined.
In many districts, the stigma of Covid-19 is still preventing people from coming forward. “In some cases, since the phone numbers in hospital records are those who have passed away, they are not in use. With strict lockdown prevailing, tracing incomplete addresses is posing a challenge. In a few cases, calls were received on the Childline Helpline (1098) and the state helpline, which helped us trace some children,” said Vijay Muttur, protection officer from Solapur.
Suggestions that some of the district task forces have come up include involving ASHA workers and child protection committees in villages as well as reaching out to women who have in the past come in touch with the WCD department for assistance. The police have also been tasked with ensuring prevention of illegal adoption after social media posts surfaced offering such children for adoption.