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40,000 Indian children have lost parents to COVID. Will they end up in orphanages - or family care?

Forty years ago, a health crisis was hitting the world, not altogether unlike the COVID-19 pandemic of today.

Credit: Shyamalamuralinath / Shutterstock.

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Beginning in the early 1980s, the general public first became aware of the virus known as HIV/AIDS, which is widely believed to have originated in Africa and first transmitted to humans via chimpanzees, according to HIV/AIDS advocacy group AVERT.

In the early stages of this new health crisis, it was not clear how the virus passed from person to person, and there was a heightened level of panic and concern among people about catching this new virus. UNAIDS estimates that 36.3 million people have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic.

During the early stages of the AIDS crisis, workers with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), who were offering AIDS relief in Africa, noticed another problem. Children who had one or both of their parents die of AIDS were being sent en masse to orphanages, even though other options were available.

“The so-called AIDS orphans ended up in institutions, in orphanages, and CRS gradually became aware of this huge problem, and realized that these children...most of them had extended family networks, or community structures, that were willing to care for them,” Erica Dahl-Bredine, director for Global Influence, Learning, and Engagement for Changing the Way We Care with CRS, told The Pillar.

“And yet these orphanages had just proliferated because well-meaning people in the North (places like the U.S. and Europe) among others, had helped to build these orphanages,” she added. 

Changing the Way We Care

Lessons from the AIDS crisis were of the impetus behind the CRS Changing the Way We Care (CTWWC) initiative, which aims to help orphaned children stay with their own families and communities, and works to reconnect children who have already been placed in orphanages with their living families.

The initiative also offers material support to families living in poverty and provides community education on the importance of keeping children in families. 

“Now we're at a critical point with COVID where we really need to encourage the global community to handle this and respond to this differently,” Dahl-Bredine said. 

CTWWC was launched in 2018, so it was already established by the time the COVID pandemic hit. India, one of the countries where the program is present, was particularly hard-hit by the Delta variant of COVID this past spring.

Early reports estimated that some 40,000 Indian children lost one or both parents or primary caregivers to COVID, but the numbers probably do not tell the whole story, said Jomey Joseph, who is a project manager for CTWWC and heads the CRS office in India.

“The numbers which have been reported are basically families who have been tested...they have a certificate that the parents died because of COVID. In reality...there are a lot of families who are very reluctant to go for testing, and then there are many families who believe that this is not even COVID, it’s like a curse from God or something,” Joseph said.  


Through translators, CTWWC was able to connect The Pillar with families who have already participated in the home-care initiative. The names of all participants in the initiative have been changed to protect their privacy. 

‘My family is complete’

Jan, an Indian mother of three, told The Pillar that she is married to an alcoholic. Most of the money her husband makes is spent on alcohol, she said. Two of Jan’s three children are now grown, her youngest, a girl, started living in an orphanage when she was five years old.

Jan’s daughter, now 17, was sent home last year during the COVID outbreak. With the support of CTWWC, Jan has been able to support her daughter and keep her home.

“Now she does not move away from me and accompanies me wherever I go,” Jan said. “I feel my family is complete as all of us are at home.”

While her daughter was in a child care institution, Jan said she would call her and visit her regularly, but she is “very happy” that her child is now back home.

CTWWC provided Jan’s family with cash and food assistance, as well as assistance with school supplies and clothes for her daughter - things that the family would have otherwise struggled to provide, she said. 

She added that sometimes, parents who have to work all day struggle to find child care for their young children today, and the elderly of the community are often relied upon to fill in those gaps. Assistance programs should take into account all the members of the family that are required to help with the raising of children, she said.

Jan said she was grateful for the support she has received through the CTWWC program, and that she was hopeful for the future.

“After 12 years, my daughter is home. Very soon, my husband will be taken for de-addiction treatment. I hope everything goes well,” she said.

Why some families choose institutional care

Studies have shown that children in institutionalized care can be negatively impacted - mentally, physically, and emotionally. Children in orphanages are also at an increased risk of abuse and neglect. Such institutions were phased out in the U.S. decades ago for these reasons. 

But the institutions remain prevalent in many other nations, despite the fact that an estimated 80-90% of all children in institutionalized care have at least one living parent, and nearly all of such children have other living relatives that could step in as caregivers. 

According to research cited by CRS, poverty is the most common reason children are sent to orphanages. If family members think they cannot provide for a child, an institution may seem like the only option.

And poverty has been another consequence of the pandemic. In addition to the deaths caused by COVID, lockdowns and illness have led to lost jobs and wages over the past 18 months, nearly doubling the number of people living in poverty in India.  

There are government benefits available to children and families in India who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID, Joseph said, but to receive the benefits, families must have records certifying that the deceased died of COVID. Those are not easily obtained in poor and rural communities.

Joseph said that Indian families also send children to orphanages because of a widespread perception that they provide care superior to a family setting.

“I was just looking recently at one of the videos by a (local) Catholic congregation that said, ‘If you find any children who lost their parents just bring them to our Catholic child care institutions, we have many years of experience of taking care of the children, we will take care of the children.’ So, when people see that, there is a tendency for them to leave these children in those child care institutions,” Joseph said.

Joseph said CRS case studies have found that many Indians believe orphanages provide good discipline for children. Others chose institutions because they had no access to care resources for children with special needs. 

CRS is committed to the idea that families are the best environment for children to grow up in, and supports shifting of resources from institutions to families.

In partnership with other advocacy organizations and local churches, which run a majority of residential-care institutions, the CTWWC program aims to educate people on the benefits of family and community care as an alternative to orphanages. It also provides material and financial support to struggling families, including helping them access the government benefits available to COVID-impacted families and others.

Joseph and her colleagues started discussions about institutional and home-based care at the top - with key bishops and faith leaders in the states in which CTWWC is active.

“There's been very positive feelings that we have received, where every party was acknowledging the fact that yes, family strengthening is important, and children need to grow in the family,” she said.

If leaders are convinced of the superiority of family care, the focus shifts to transitioning the resources that were supporting the orphanages to instead supporting local families. 

“We realized that a lot of money is coming to these congregations to keep the children in the institutions, so they really need to work and engage with these donors to provide support in such a way that children can leave and join their family and be supported. So that shift needs to happen,” she said.

And while it may take time for some churches to transition their ways of caring for these children, Joseph said she has hope that most churches will be open to the change.

“Churches have always been very open, they have always been in the forefront in terms of (new ideas), so I think the churches will move in that direction,” she said.

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‘The very essence of familial love’

When Ben’s niece was six years old, she was abandoned by both her parents. She ended up living in childcare institutions in India for the next eight years.

In 2019, social workers with CTWWC and ARUNA, or the Association for Rural Upliftment and National Allegiance, reconnected Ben with his niece. Ben agreed to take in his niece despite his family’s tight finances.

“We thought if our niece continues in the childcare institution, she will not be in sync with the cultural norms and life skills that she will need,” Ben said.

In addition to needing to finish her formal education, he said, his niece also needed to learn how to prepare socially and emotionally to become an adult woman in India, and to learn all of the roles, responsibilities, and cultural expectations that came with it

“Her safety was also a concern for us, after hearing about the higher chances of abuse and poor life skills [in institutions],” he said.

Since bringing his niece home, Ben said he has been happy to see how well she is adjusting to their family life. She enjoys playing with Ben’s children (her cousins), and spends time with her grandparents, who live nearby.

“We feel it is very important for an extended family to be able to take care of their younger relatives  in a family environment. If the child stays in the family, he or she will grow by breathing the very essence of familial love, affection, cultural attributes and emotional strength,” he said.

The pandemic made things difficult for Ben’s family, but through the support of CTWWC and ARUNA, they have continued caring for their niece as well as their whole family.

“In our family we are five family members, and with our niece added now we are six. We have been living on daily wages. My wife and I used to go outside to earn a living on a daily basis. During last year’s lock-down, we could not get jobs regularly and faced some challenges to manage the family needs,” Ben said.

“The CTWWC team supported us by facilitating (our niece’s) admission in a nearby school. Afterwards the CTWWC/ARUNA teams have supported us with cash assistance for three months and regularly they had been contacting us through phone, and that was a great support. This year also at the peak of crisis they supported us with dry rations. Hence, their support has reduced our overwhelming challenges and we have been able to take care of her through good and difficult times,” he added.

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What donors should know 

Dahl-Bredine said that she hopes the pandemic will be an opportunity for donors to re-examine the ways they are providing support to children who have lost their parents. She avoids the word “orphan” as much as possible, she added, because the word is often stigmatizing to children.

“I think this COVID crisis, as devastating as it has been, also created an opportunity for us really to be in greater solidarity with those who've been so much more impacted than we have been in the U.S.,” she said.

Catholics have always shown great generosity towards the vulnerable, she added, and she encouraged potential donors to find ways to direct their generosity to supporting families so that they can provide for their children.

“This is a great opportunity for Americans to realize that there are different and better ways to support children, and we're more than happy to talk to people about this,” she said.

“It's a complicated issue, there are a lot of questions that come up, like: ‘Well you know the orphanage I support is different, it's really a good orphanage, unlike others.’”

Dahl-Bredine said she and many of her colleagues have spent time volunteering in orphanages, and the goal is not to shame orphanages - most of them are doing their best to help the children sent to their care.

But “that isn't the point,” Dahl-Bredine said. “The point is that families are the place where children really thrive and should be growing up.”

In March, Pope Francis launched the worldwide celebration of the Year of the Family, which also provides another opportunity for Catholics to reflect on what their donations support.

“I think this is a really important context for CTWWC,” she said. “How can we really support families in their times of crisis and give them the opportunity to be reunited with their children? Or how can we help them to avoid having to make that terrible choice of placing their child in an institution so that he or she can eat three meals a day, or go to school?” 

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