NEWS



POLICY BRIEF: COVID-19 RESPONSE TOWARDS THE ALTERNATIVE CARE OF CHILDREN IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

SOS

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the world and disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions of children, including those living in the Southeast Asia region. Despite being considered not greatly-at-risk to acquiring the virus, children and youth are still facing both old and new sets of issues and challenges that hinder their enjoyment of their rights.

The pandemic, while a health issue, has caused socio-economic crises as well. This is significantly felt by the poor, the most vulnerable, and the most at-risk populations, including children and young people living under different care settings, those who left care, and those who are providing care to them. The loss of income of care-leavers and caregivers has brought numerous challenges with it, such as, the inability to pay for rent, bills, and tuition fees, as well as to buy food and other basic needs. With some basic government services on hold due to lockdown measures, access to free health services can also be limited.

The cases of mental health issues among children are also said to be increasing. With the mobility restrictions, school closures, and forced social isolation, many of them find it difficult to cope with the anxiety brought by the pandemic. The digital divide is further highlighted in many discussions, especially that it affects how children and youth will move forward along with the changes in the mode of learning and communicating with peers.

Across the region, various responses have been taken to manage the impact of the pandemic on children and young people, including those in alternative care. Information-sharing through various communication tools has never been more strengthened and maximized. Policies on child protection and reporting mechanisms have been repeatedly shared and cascaded to the relevant stakeholders, in the hope that they will be translated and implemented effectively on the ground. Various interventions have been introduced to reach out to children-in-need, especially those with disabilities and in need of special care.

Despite the existing programmes, much remains to be done to manage the long-term impact of the pandemic. The alternative care landscape will be affected and relevant changes will have to be enacted in response to this situation.

This policy brief is not a study on the alternative care system in light of the current pandemic. It aims to provide context on what is generally happening on the ground, based on the experience and assessments made by our organization and other care providers as well, and to give policy recommendations based on the gaps identified.

“For me, the impact of COVID-19 has both negative and positive aspects to it. Because of it, we are experiencing hunger. I lost my job and it is difficult to sustain the needs of our family. But because of it too, I am closer to my family. I am more motivated to keep them safe and healthy. And we are also closer to God. Because of our family's camaraderie, and with God's grace, we are able to survive and meet our daily needs. We still ask ourselves sometimes why is this happening to us, why are we becoming poorer and poorer. But because we are under a kinship program, I get to be with my brother and he is assured that he will still be able to go to school.” - A Kinship (sibling) Guardian, Philippines


COVID-19 IMPACT ON CHILDREN WITHOUT PARENTAL CARE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

The current COVID-19 pandemic has serious implications not only on the foundations of the world’s health system but also on the core of human rights, especially that of children. It continues to disrupt and pose challenges in protecting and promoting the wellbeing of children, young people, their families, and communities, especially those in vulnerable situations and the most deprived ones.

The pandemic is changing the environment in which children live and develop. While data suggests that children, especially those without underlying health conditions, often do not suffer from the disease, they are nonetheless exposed to it and are already suffering from the lockdown due to school closures, limited operations of basic service providers, and other isolation measures. For many children, closures may imply a lack of access to important resources. Their care situation will also be impacted if their caregivers at home or in alternative care settings fall ill or perish.

The negative impact of the pandemic can affect the children’s well being in terms of their survival, development, protection and participation, making them more vulnerable and putting them at a heightened risk. Some of these most vulnerable and at-risk populations include those children who have lost or are at risk of losing parental/family care, those at risk of separation from family, those in alternative care, and those who have recently left alternative care (i.e. care leavers). In a very diverse Southeast Asia region, there has been a wide range of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic - with some better-prepared than others. The same could be said for how the impact of the pandemic on the lives of the children and youth in care, care leavers, as well as caregivers is managed in each country.

A complete picture of the extent of the impact of the pandemic on children and young people in alternative care is still missing, as some of the countries in the region, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, are still at the height of their responses to flatten the curve. There has been a challenge in getting the actual data, similar to pre-COVID times, which makes the plight of these children and youth invisible to many and leaving them further behind. However, it is expected that the number of children who will be needing alternative care will significantly increase – both during the crisis, where containment measures may lead to separation of children from families, and as a result of the long-term socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on families’ capacity to care. While some will be orphaned, others may be separated from their families due to the socio-economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. Because of this, there is a strong need to strengthen and 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 crisis has impacted us greatly. My brother lost his job and we are now depending on our other brother who is a fisherman. My education also has been affected as physical classes have been stopped. Now, they are talking about transitioning to online classes, something my family cannot afford. Because of this pandemic, my brother who lost his stable job returned to fishing. I don't know when this pandemic will end. When we lost our parents due to Typhoon Haiyan, we also lost everything. But now, my siblings and I have only each other to support one another. So I really hope things will get better soon.”   - A Child in Kinship Care, Philippines

Despite the lack of the actual numbers, stories of children and youth under different care options including kinship care, foster care and residential care, as well as of care leavers and caregivers, facing the challenges brought by the pandemic and coping with its impact continue to surface, pushing stakeholders to take more concrete actions.

Some of the most commonly identified impacts of the pandemic on children across the region, which could be both short-term and long-term, include losing or limited access to basic needs and services, changing mode of education which further aggravates the digital divide, rising cases of mental health issues, and social isolation. 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.

With the pandemic affecting the economy, leading to increasing cases of unemployment, many foster parents and kinship guardians are challenged in their capacity to provide and care for more children. The lockdown can also be restricting or even eliminating visits from families of origin, largely for an indefinite time. There has been 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 pandemic can also hinder the way alternative care programmes and interventions are delivered. Due to restrictions, some public services such as transportation had to be stopped. The limited mobility affects the timeliness and effectivity of the response to child protection issues arising within families and communities. Children in alternative care living with disabilities or with existing mental health issues are also disproportionately affected as accessing specialized care options may be difficult or unavailable during this time.

Children and families living in the streets are also made more vulnerable by the current situation. Exposed to the risk of contagion due to their inability to self-isolate and often lacking access to water and sanitation, they could easily transmit or be affected by the virus. They are also at risk to be targeted by the police officers for possible violations of quarantine protocols. 2 Child- caring agencies could not easily admit them due to restrictions aim to protect those under their care. This reflects the unpreparedness of child care and child protection mechanism for crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

For care-leavers or young people who left care and are now transitioning into independent living, the crisis is also putting them into extremely fragile situations. Some of them are losing their jobs and accommodation, and lack protection 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.

"Vietnam experiences the highest unemployment for a decade due to Covid-19. Many care leavers lost their jobs and are unable to pay their bills. Although the government has announced support packages to benefit people affected by the pandemic, some care leavers have trouble accessing it due to the large volume of paperwork needed to prove they lost their income due to the pandemic." - A Care Leaver, SOS Vietnam


CALL TO ACTION

All actions to address the pandemic should secure full respect for children’s rights. All children’s rights must be protected, promoted, and taken into consideration in the response to the COVID-19 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 about their wellbeing and care situations.

Children without or at risk of losing parental care should be recognized and formally classified as a priority group when developing short and long-term measures to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath given the increased risks and conditions of vulnerability they experience, which are projected to exacerbate due to the pandemic and its long-term impacts.

With the above context as well as identified impact of the pandemic on children and youth in alternative care options, care leavers, caregivers, and alternative care providers in Southeast Asia, the following action steps are recommended to governments as well as civil society organizations:

1. Designate as essential, and adequately resource child welfare and protection services and workers during the lockdown and isolation measures. Social workers are at the forefront to contain and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our children, families, caregivers and communities. No resources should be spared to ensure their wellbeing, health, protection, training, preparedness, and labour rights so that they can continue to deliver their services. Personal protective equipment must be made available for them.

2. Scale up social protection services that support families’ income and wellbeing. This includes, among others, implementing or augmenting cash transfer programmes, improving access to health, education, disability services and housing during and after the outbreak; and directly delivering food, hygiene items and kits, education/play materials; enhancing connectivity access for remote education to bridge the digital divide, and to provide parenting support; and expanding access to mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) to address the consequences of isolation on children and their families.

3. Strengthen inter-agency coordination among different areas of government and with non- governmental organizations delivering services to the community to address the multidimensional support that children in alternative care or fragile family environments need, and ensure effectiveness and efficiency of interventions.

4. Redouble safeguarding, prevention and support. In-person monitoring of children, families, and care settings must continue to reduce risks of abuse, violence and neglect of children during a lockdown. This can be complemented with enhanced reporting mechanisms, innovative long-distance and remote monitoring processes, direct access for children and parents to hotlines, and dissemination of age-appropriate information and resources.

5. Ensure that progress achieved in quality alternative care is not jeopardized in the roll-out of the response measures and the long-term plans, and continue aligning ongoing and new measures with the UN Guidelines for the Alternative care of Children and with the related-commitments made through the adoption of the 2019 UN Resolution on the Rights of the Child on children without parental care – including:

- 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, albeit remotely during a lockdown. 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. Regarding the readiness of the family to receive the child, the support needs of the family should be assessed and met to ensure a successful reunification. Monitoring must continue during lockdown periods, guaranteeing access to adequate support if necessary. Closures of alternative care settings must not force unplanned reintegration without these considerations.

- 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. Any expansion of the system should follow the quality standards and be aligned with the UN Guidelines.

- Sustained advocacy for inclusive child care reforms to ensure quality care for all children without or at risk of losing parental care amidst the pandemic. Though restrictive measures are in place, individualized care options must be made available to safeguard the overall wellbeing and development of children. Efforts, then, to push for the legal recognition of a range of quality alternative care options including kinship care, foster care and family- like care, in the Southeast Asia region must be intensified.

6. 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 fewer 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.

7. Ensure that additional protective measures are taken to protect children and young people with disabilities. All response plans must be inclusive and accessible to them. They should be equally prioritized when providing basic services, especially health support.

8. Offer shelter or isolation possibilities for other vulnerable groups like children and families living in the streets. Make sure that care options are available to them, and that they have access to essential services, and are equipped with information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as essential services such as health, hygiene, protection, education, and nutrition.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

1. Asia-Pacific Regional Network (2020). A survey on Perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on young children and early childhood development in the Asia- Pacific region. https://bettercarenetwork.org/sites/default/files/202  0- 07/Final_Report_on_the_ARNEC_Survey_on_the_Imp act_of_COVID_19_on_Young_Children_and_ECD_30Ju ne2020_final.pdf

2. Better Care Network, The Alliance, & UNICEF (2020). Protection of Children During the Covid-19 Pandemic Children and Alternative Care: Technical Note. https://bettercarenetwork.org/sites/default/files/202 0-04/COVID-19AlternativeCareTechnicalNote.pdf

3. Clark, J. (2020). COVID-19 and street connected children’s rights: Public spaces and orders to self- isolate. https://www.streetchildren.org/news-and- updates/covid-19-and-street-connected-childrens- rights/

4. General Assembly resolution 64/142. Guidelines for the alternative care of children. https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/64/142

5. General Assembly resolution 74/133. Rights of the Child. https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/74/133

6. SOS Children’s Villages International (2020). COVID-19 Outbreak and its Aftermath. A Call to Action: Protecting Children Without or at Risk of Losing Parental Care. https://bettercarenetwork.org/sites/default/files/202 0- 05/Covid19_Advocacy_PositionStatement_FINAL.pdf

7. UNICEF (2020). Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on children. https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brie f_on_covid_impact_on_children_16_april_2020.pdf