COVID Has Orphaned Thousands of Children. Here’s How You Can Help Them, Legally

Desperate WhatsApp messages have been doing the rounds, telling horror stories of children left to fend for themselves and advertising them for ‘adoption’.

As COVID-19 has ravaged our nation, it has been particularly heart-wrenching to read stories about children who have become orphans, losing both parents to the disease. It’s impossible to know exactly how many are affected. Official numbers indicate we have lost more than 2.4 lakh people to COVID, with real numbers expected to be much higher. We can safely estimate that many thousands of young children have lost one or more caregivers, and the remaining family members may not be ready or capable to take them in.

Desperate WhatsApp messages have been doing the rounds, telling horror stories of young children left to fend for themselves and advertising children for ‘adoption’. While surely those who forwarded the messages meant well, every single one of us must know that it is irresponsible and illegal to offer or receive children in this way. In fact, such orphaned children are more susceptible, now more than ever, to land in the traps of traffickers or criminals as people scramble to ‘help’ without following proper processes.

It is a common misperception that child shelters are a better option to care for an orphaned child. While it is true many child shelters do a good job of taking care of kids in need, it is also a sad fact that most of them will never assess the children under their care for adoption. Where Are India’s Children conducted a survey in 2019-2020, and found that most shelters keep the children indefinitely, surviving on donations from the public until they are old enough to fend for themselves. While this fate is better than being abandoned on the streets, the child does not receive the same care, attention and sense of belonging that parents can give, has less chances of a good education and a stable future, and can be susceptible to abuse and trafficking. The shelters are also suffering during COVID, with workers not able to attend to the children and donations on the wane.

We must help orphans who don’t have relatives able or willing to take care of them to reach a legal adoptive ‘forever family’ instead, which is much more sustainable and provides permanent rehabilitation for children.

It is critical that such children enter the legal adoption pool, not only for the child’s wellbeing but also for the legal protection of the entire family unit formed through adoption. If the process is not completed legally, the child could be separated from the adoptive parents, and the parents could even be imprisoned for child trafficking. The good news is there is a solid legal route for adoption in India. To follow the legal route to help a child get to an adoptive family, any concerned citizen can call Childline at 1098 to report a child who has been abandoned or orphaned. A concerned citizen can also take the child to the nearest Specialised Adoption Agency, which is a child shelter authorised to carry out the adoption process. One can locate the nearest adoption agency by going to this link and selecting any state. The link will take you to a page of the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), which is part of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Besides abandoned and orphaned children, even in cases where parents or guardians decide they cannot raise a child, the child can be surrendered by the family by approaching a Specialised Adoption Agency.

When one of these Specialised Adoption Agencies receive a child, the Child Welfare Committee steps in to enquire if the child has any living relatives who are willing to take care of them before declaring the child legally free for adoption. The child would then be available for adoption by one of the current 30,000 ready and waiting parents who have completed all legal checks and have been vetted as suitable parents by CARA, the police, and social workers. Among these parents, there are a wide range of families who are willing to adopt children of any age, siblings and children with special needs. It is critical that orphaned children are adopted by these approved families rather than any random unchecked person.

Despite COVID, and despite the 30,000 willing families on standby, can you try and guess how many children are available right now for legal adoption across India? Surely given the size of India, with millions of orphaned/abandoned children, and lakhs of children in child shelters, the number of children in the legal adoption pool must at least be in high thousands? But that’s not the case. The number of children in the legal adoption pool pan-India stands at a mere 2,289. Our abandoned and orphaned children just aren’t making it to the legal adoption pool.

To me, this starkly demonstrates how we are failing our country’s abandoned and orphaned children. When a legal adoption process exists, when many people want to adopt, it is unconscionable that we let abandoned and orphaned children continue to exist in shelters or in any other undesirable situations. With thousands more at risk of being orphaned by COVID, we need to take action now.

As a final point, I want to discuss relative adoption. Relative adoption is often happening under the radar, but we currently do not have a robust mechanism to track and check whether these children are safe or not. The pandemic should be used as an opportunity to put such a mechanism in place. District child protection units should conduct periodic checks on orphaned children, who are taken in by relatives by default, to ensure that the relative is capable and the environment is safe for the child. If the child is neglected or abused, the child should be pulled out of the relatives’ care immediately and the next steps, including potential adoption, should be determined.

If this pandemic teaches us one thing, let it be that we don’t want to be a country that allows vulnerable children to get institutionalised, trafficked, illegally adopted or left begging for handouts. Let’s give these children, who have already been through enough, a chance to be fiercely safeguarded and loved by a safe permanent family, through legal adoption.

What to do to help a child who is orphaned or abandoned?

* Immediately contact Childline on 1098

*Or, take the child to the nearest Specialised Adoption Agency, which can be found by selecting your state

* Do not give a child to any other shelter or person claiming they can find them an adoptive parent.

* Prospective adoptive parents can find out how to register for adoption at Central Adoption Resource Authority.

* Do not attempt to take any other route to adopt a child, it is illegal.

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