Children without or at risk of losing parental care are among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, data suggests that while children often do not show significant ailment from the virus, they are nonetheless exposed to it and are already suffering from the lockdown due to school closures, and other isolation measures. Their care situation will also be impacted if their caregivers at home or in alternative care settings fall ill or perish.
Of the 2.2 billion children worldwide, an estimated 140 million have lost one or both parents due to various reasons. According to SOS Children’s Villages approximately 10% of all children (1 in 10) worldwide are at risk of losing or have already lost the care of their family. Additionally, looking at the past Ebola epidemic: at least 16,600 children lost a parent or caregiver, while 3,600 lost both parents. The projected reach and scope of this current pandemic could dwarf these numbers, and we must ensure that child protection systems are prepared to respond to it by preventing unnecessary family separation and guaranteeing good quality alternative care when needed.
The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 will be felt hardest by the world’s most vulnerable children. The measures imposed will risk plunging them further into hardship and potentially bringing millions of children into poverty. Children without or at risk of losing parental care are particularly exposed to these mounting challenges, compounding these conditions of vulnerability to situations of fragile family environments or living in alternative care placements.
Children already in alternative care placements are having additional challenges in this context too. We know that the lockdown is already restricting or even eliminating visits from their families of origin. There are reports that these restrictions are in some cases indefinite. We have also seen a reduction of access, visits and contact with social workers and specialized experts in charge of assessing their situation during and after placement or of addressing specific and individual treatment for some children.
The temporary or permanent closures of some care facilities puts children in absolute danger, some children may be sent back from their care placement to families of origin who are not in a position to care for them and guarantee their protection, exposing them to potential neglect and abuse. Young people aging out of care and transitioning into independent living are facing extremely fragile situations. Some of them are losing their jobs and lack protections and safety nets to survive. Some are unable to connect remotely to continue their education, and may lack the resources and family support to overcome the anxiety and uncertainty that the isolation and lockdown may create.
For all these reasons, we call on governments to accelerate preparedness to support those living in the most vulnerable circumstances. Governments must mitigate the long-term adverse consequences of the pandemic on the livelihoods and wellbeing of individuals and societies as a whole.
All actions to address the pandemic should secure the full respect of children’s rights.
All children’s rights must be protected, promoted and taken into consideration in the response to the COVID19 outbreak and its aftermath. The best interests of the child must be the primary consideration when developing these measures, which should abide by the principles of non-discrimination, right to survival and development, and participation as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children and young people must be actively engaged and participate in decisions pertaining to their wellbeing and care situation.
This is the time for the global community to act to prevent short-term and long-term harm for individuals and societies as a whole. We recognise that these are extraordinary times, requiring bold action, political will, commitment and an “all hands on deck” approach.
- Effective collaboration and coordination among governments, civil society organisations, care providers, families and children themselves, are not only desirable but essential to counter projections of the increased need for care and support of children and families.
- Children without or at risk of losing parental care should be recognised and formally classified as a priority group.
- Robust and adequate gatekeeping and monitoring processes ensuring the necessity and suitability of every child’s placement and avoiding one-size-fits-all solutions when selecting alternative care placements. Assessment mechanisms should be adapted to situations of lockdown and isolation when necessary.
- Appropriately supported and resourced care settings to ensure the emotional, psychological, physical, educational wellbeing and development of all children in alternative care. This must include maintaining contact between the child and his or her family of origin. Care settings should be equipped with education and didactic tools, as well as space for recreation and exercise to ensure the physical and emotional wellbeing of children while in lockdown.
- Adequate and prompt process for the reintegration of children in their families of origin. Planned, supported, supervised and suitable reintegration of a child should continue to be made on a case-by-case basis, giving due consideration to the child’s best interests.
- Additional alternative care placements should be foreseen and planned for, as short and/or long-term loss of caregivers (who may fall sick or die due to the pandemic) may lead to additional care placement needs.
- Improve and scale up support and protection of care leavers who are faced with increased uncertainty, risks and vulnerability in the context of lockdown and isolation during the immediate response. In the long term they might be confronted with a deep recession and have far less opportunities for an independent life:
- Enhance mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) to help them cope with the lockdown and isolation.
- Provide direct social protection support (through the delivery of resources and goods; access to training, education and didactic materials; increased employability opportunities; direct cash transfers; housing allowance).
- Promote youth-led initiatives and peer-to-peer support and establishment of networks to provide guidance and outreach.
- Extensively enhance the protection of children on the move by ensuring that the most vulnerable children, including unaccompanied migrant and refugee children, benefit from adequate care services as nationals. It is also critical to reduce poverty and inequalities, and to reinforce social peace and cohesion.
- UNICEF data center: https://data.unicef.org
- State of the World’s Children Report 2015, UNICEF
- The care effect: why no child should grow up alone, 2017, SOS Children’s Villages International, https://www.soschildrensvillages.org/getmedia/cbf6820c-e8ab-4940-8e67-4618d19fe098/SOS_Childrensvillages_The-Care-effect_English.pdf
- Policy Brief. The impact of COVID-19 on Children; United Nations; April 15th 2020. https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_children
- April 2020. “UNICEF’s Agenda for Action. UNICEF calls for six actions to protect all refugee and migrant children”. https://www.unicef.org/children-uprooted/agenda-for-action
- Chan M. “Pandemic Shutdown Separates Parents From Their Children in the Foster System “; April 13th 2020. https://bettercarenetwork.org/news-updates/news/pandemic-shutdown-separates-parents-from-their-children-in-the-foster-system
- General Assembly resolution 64/142. Guidelines for the alternative care of children. https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/64/142
- General Assembly resolution 74/133. Rights of the Child. https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/74/133