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Child protection: how to keep children safe during COVID-19

It is essential we all work together to strengthen existing national child protection systems, even if they are currently weak

Christian Skoog, representative of UNICEF Mexico, tells us how it is essential we all work together to help strengthen existing national child protection systems, even if they are currently weak.

As part of a child protection and alternative care system, a country should have a framework of relevant national laws and policies. This framework provides a mandate for child protection work and should stipulate how the different organisations we work with should support children at risk. This includes, for example, children in alternative care, unaccompanied or separated children, children in detention and street-connected children.

These frameworks should also make sure the national child protection system protects and supports children who are not citizens of the country — as for example displaced children — whether they are transiting the country or have reached their country of final destination.

It is important we all work together within this national child protection system and corresponding legal framework. It is also important that during the COVID-19 pandemic, statutory guidance is issued by governments on how to respond to changing circumstances.

Child protection systems

If we work for non-governmental organisations (NGO) or United Nations (UN) agencies, we must be careful not to create parallel systems of child protection and alternative care. Rather, we should work in cooperation and coordination with government-run systems, and, if necessary, help bring national laws and practices in line with international standards.

It also means that child protection case management should ideally be undertaken by someone from the national child protection and child care system, or an agency officially nominated to act on the government’s behalf.

Sometimes governments are unable, or unwilling, to adequately resource a fully functioning child protection system. In addition, some children might be particularly excluded as, for example, unaccompanied and separated children.

Where this is the situation, this should not prevent other national and international organisations and their staff from responding to a child’s protection and alternative care needs. Indeed, government at national and local level routinely request specific NGOs, UN and other agencies to undertake this work on their behalf.

Furthermore, if a government lacks capacity to fully provide for and protect all children, it is important that NGOs and donors contribute to building the capacity of a national child protection and care system. This also means developing the capacity of different services such as health, education, law enforcement, judiciary etc, with appropriate expertise, procedures and resources.

Child protection during the COVID-19 pandemic

In the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Guidelines on Assessing and Determining the Best Interests of the Child, it is recommended that the UNHCR and its partners should seek to support, rather than replace, national child protection systems in a spirit of partnership, by “building on each actor’s comparative advantages to reinforce the beneficial impact on the protection of children”.

As a response to child protection during the COVID-19 pandemic, national and international child protection agencies and networks are joining together to call on governments to:

  • Consider child protection case management as life-saving and a vital part of the COVID-19 response.
  • Strengthen coordination between child protection staff and other service providers.
  • Support training for health, education, social service staff and other relevant service providers on COVID-19-related child-protection risks. This includes the prevention of abuse (including sexual exploitation and sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV)) and how to safely identify and report concerns.
  • Make it possible for child protection caseworkers and other service providers to remain in contact and follow up with the most vulnerable, high-risk cases on a face-to-face basis when necessary and safe to do so.
  • Sustain and support the social service workforce and all others working to protect children, whether paid or unpaid, professional or volunteer.
  • Increase social services workforce staff at hospitals and medical centres to identify and better protect children separated from primary caregivers, children that have experienced abuse or neglect, and children without appropriate care.
  • For displaced children, advocate for access to all services including social protection, regardless of their status in the country.
  • Ensure all key workers, including those working in child protection, are provided with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training on how to protect their own health.
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COVID-19: Adapting Child Protection Case Management

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