The spread of COVID-19 is an unprecedented global crisis. Families the world over are affected, including the millions of children who live not with their parents but with grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings or friends of the family. This ‘kinship care’ is widespread; in some countries, up to a third of children are raised this way. Whilst kinship care is valued by communities and children and recognised as a preferred form of care by policymakers, kinship carers receive minimal assistance, leaving the children in their care vulnerable to many threats to their health, well-being and protection.
Those developing responses to COVID-19 must prioritise support to these households. This short paper argues that a failure to do so will exacerbate the risks that girls and boys face, and lead to poorly targeted and consequently ineffective strategies to prevent and mitigate the effects of the virus. The evidence presented is derived from a literature review which included published guidance developed in response to COVID-19, and evidence on previous experiences with Ebola outbreaks and the HIV pandemic.
Why prioritise support to kinship care
- Kinship care is the most widely used support mechanism for vulnerable children globally: The vast majority of children who cannot be looked after by parents are cared for by kin. Kinship care allows for continuity and stability in children’s lives, and often has better outcomes than other forms of care, such as large-scale institutionalisation, which has repeatedly been shown to harm children’s development. Experience from the HIV pandemic suggests that it is essential to utilise the resource of kinship care to respond effectively to disease outbreaks and other crises. Indeed, at the height of the pandemic in the countries hardest hit by HIV, the support of relatives, particularly grandmothers, was crucial to children’s survival and well-being. These elderly and usually extremely poor women were largely left to care for their grandchildren alone, with little or no assistance. The lack of support had damaging consequences for their own and for child well-being. It is vital that this harmful neglect of kinship care does not happen again.
- COVID-19 will result in an increased need for kinship care: Kinship care was also a crucial protection and survival strategy for children during Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. Boys and girls were sent to live with relatives both after their parents had died, and as part of preventative strategies to remove children from highly affected regions. Many are now predicting that COVID-19 will also see a rise in the need for kinship care. However, it is currently unclear whether this demand can be met given how COVID-19 disproportionately affects the elderly, meaning that grandparents, who form the majority of kinship carers globally, may no longer be able to care for children. The inability of grandparents to care for children may lead to a change in
the nature of kinship care during the COVID-19 pandemic, with consequences for child well-being.
- COVID-19 is exacerbating the vulnerabilities of children in kinship care: Evidence from across the world shows that children in kinship care are often extremely poor, suffer from distress and mental health problems, and struggle to achieve in school. Some are vulnerable to stigma, discrimination, abuse, neglect and exploitation. COVID-19 is exacerbating many of these vulnerabilities.
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How to prioritise support to kinship care
National governments should:
- Consult children in kinship care and their caregivers to assess their needs (using innovative tools that allow for appropriate social distancing).
- Engage kinship carers in the battle to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that children in kinship care are reached by prevention campaigns.
- Ensure that national strategies are developed in the early stages of COVID-19 that plan for the care of children who
cannot be looked after by parents. Make sure that kinship care is prioritised within these strategies, and that, as the virus spreads, kinship care is always considered as an option for children who are separated from parents or other caregivers
- Encourage families to develop their own contingency plans in case caregivers fall ill or die, that make provision for children, where possible, to remain within the care of the family.
- Recognise that children in kinship care and kinship caregivers are amongst the most vulnerable during the pandemic, and develop a full package of support. Ensure that kinship households are prioritised when:
- Developing economic supports and feeding programmes in
response to COVID-19.
- Ensuring access to schooling and distance learning.
- Delivering mental health services to deal with the added stress associated with COVID-19.
- Prioritising those most in need of social services.
- Providing additional supports for those that are socially isolating.
- Involve communities in supporting children in kinship care and their caregivers. Ensure that children in kinship care can maintain contact with their peers.
- Developing economic supports and feeding programmes in
Donors, international NGOs and UN agencies should:
- Offer financial and technical support to enable national governments to appropriately support kinship care during
the pandemic and its aftermath.
- Raise awareness of the importance of kinship care in global information campaigns on children’s care during
COVID-19 and its aftermath. Continue to support the deinstitutionalisation of children, but ensure that more resources
are devoted to promoting the support of kinship care.
- Fund research and consultations on the needs of children in kinship care and their caregivers during COVID-19 and its aftermath.