Supreme Court takes suo motu cognizance of COVID-19 scare in child protection, foster homes; passes slew of directions for prevention
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Supreme Court takes suo motu cognizance of COVID-19 scare in child protection, foster homes; passes slew of directions for prevention

Shruti Mahajan

The Supreme Court on Friday passed a slew of directions to the concerned authorities for prevention of the spread of the Coronavirus in child protection homes and foster homes.

The Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of the potential spread of COVID-19 in shelter homes, where children are lodged as per the Juvenile Justice Act. The Court said that it felt the need to pass certain directions for ensuring the well-being of these children.

"In these circumstances, it was felt that the interest of these children should be looked into. Interest of these children all of whom fall within the ambit of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 should be protected and to prevent the same, the following directions are issued."
Supreme Court

In the order passed by the Bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta, the Court has said that the directions passed are in line with the current available information regarding preventive measures. However, considering the dynamic nature of the situation, the Court has also asked state departments and concerned authorities to keep abreast with the latest information and advisories.

Directions for Child Welfare Committees (CWCs)

The Court has directed the CWCs to take all precautions and preventive steps while conducting their inquiries and inspections. It has also asked the Committees to consider if children need to be kept in Child Care Institutes (CCIs).

"Gatekeeping or preventive measures need to be considered and families counselled to ensure that institutionalization is the last resort. Focus should be on prevention of separation when possible."

CWCs are required to consider monitoring of cases telephonically for those children who have been sent back to their families, and an online help desk is to be set up for queries from children and staff at CCIs.

The Court also considered the possibility of the children falling prey to stress-induced violence - particularly sexual and gender-based - during the Coronavirus lockdown.

"It is important to consider that violence, including sexual and gender­based violence may be exacerbated in contexts of anxiety and stress produced by lockdown and fear of the disease, CWCs can monitor regularly through video conferencing, WhatsApp and telephonically to ensure prevention of all forms of violence."

Measures to be taken by Juvenile Justice Boards (JJBs) and Children Courts

The Court, while asking these authorities to consider taking all steps possible to prevent spread of the contagion among children residing in such homes, has also asked the courts to consider their release on bail.

"[For] Children alleged to be in conflict with law, residing in Observation Homes, JJB shall consider taking steps to release all children on bail, unless there are clear and valid reasons for the application of f the proviso to Section 12, JJ Act, 2015."

The Court added that online sessions may be held for quick and contact-free disposal of cases. It also specified the need for counselling sessions for all children lodged at these observation homes.

The Bench reiterated the possibility of violence against the children, and directed the JJBs and Children Courts to monitor the situation in observation and shelter homes.

Measures to be taken by the state governments

The state governments have been directed not only to circulate all advisories and guidelines to all the CCIs, but also to work with persons in charge at CCIs regarding rotational shifts and developing a system with trained volunteers.

State governments have also been told to ensure that all the functionaries are performing their duties diligently, and to earmark budgetary allocation to meet the expenses that arise while dealing with the pandemic.

The Court added,

"Ensure adequate availability of good quality face masks, soap, disinfectants such as bleach, or alcohol­-based disinfectants, etc.

Ensure availability of adequate food, drinking water, and other necessities such as clean clothes, menstrual hygiene products, etc."

Directions to CCIs

The Court has directed CCIs to comply with the advisories and guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Health. CCIs have also been directed to use the government helpline numbers on COVID-19 [1075 and 1800­-112­-545] to address any queries. If any of the staff or children display symptoms of the disease, they are required to call the helplines and/or a local doctor.

The Court has also asked CCIs to ensure that no person displaying symptoms is allowed to enter the institutes, and that regular hand washing and social distancing should be practiced. They are also required to ensure that proper hygiene, sanitation, disinfection, and waste management facilities are maintained.

In addition to these directions, the Court has also listed a number of preventive measures for CCIs to take for prevention of spread of the Coronavirus among officials and children.

Responsive Measures for CCIs

The Court has directed the CCI to:

- Conduct regular screening

- Follow health referral system

- Quarantine

- Plan in advance for emergency situations

The Court has also noted the effect of the Coronavirus lockdown on the mental health of children.

"It is important to acknowledge that for children, it is natural to feel stress, anxiety, grief, and worry during an ongoing pandemic like COVID­19 disease. They may express psychological distress (anxiety, sadness) by acting out in a different way­ each child behaves differently. Some may become silent while other may feel and express anger and hyperactivity."

In this light, the Court has advised that children must be reassured that they are safe, and that time is spent with them.

Owing to the gravity and severity of the novel Coronavirus, which was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March, the Supreme Court had earlier taken suo motu cognizance of other risk groups as well.

The Court had opined that prisons could become potential places for the spread of COVID-19, and had thereby directed the states to take steps to decongest the prisons.

The Apex Court had also taken suo motu cognizance of the availability and reach of mid-day meals for children in light of closure of all schools due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

[Read Order]

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