Physical distancing “not an option” at centres for children in conflict with the law

Initiating ways to protect facility-based children from Covid-19

A child
15 April 2020

Physical distancing to offset the COVID-19 virus is impossible for boys who are either awaiting trial or serving a sentence at a Child Development Centre in the Tongi area on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. While the centre is operated by the Government’s Department of Social Services, UNICEF provides support towards strengthening the case management system and ensuring minimum standards of care and protection of the children. 

The centre, formerly known as a juvenile correctional centre, is desperately overcrowded, with more than 650 boys living in quarters meant for only about 300.

Physical distancing, crucial for preventing the spread of the virus, is not a realistic option.  The centre could be a perfect breeding ground for the highly contagious coronavirus, which could rip through the facility very fast.

“The boys are legally bound to stay here,” says Shariful Islam, the centre’s psychosocial counsellor deployed by UNICEF. “But we try to make sure they don't feel like they have been imprisoned even though the relative liberty they used to enjoy has been curtailed to a great extent to defend them against the coronavirus.

“Frankly, I feel that my job has become harder at this trying time. Boys watch the news and become anxious. But I tell them that they are safer here than most people of the country and urge them to wash their hands properly and maintain physical distance as much as possible.” 

Most of the boys, all adolescents and early teens, are under trial at children’s courts, with only a handful serving custodial sentences.

Blessing in disguise

For Tara Miah*, 14, the mandatory stay at the Child Development Centre – where he has lived for more than a year – may have been a blessing in disguise.

"At least, we don't have to worry about encountering strangers and catching the disease. This place has properly quarantined us," he says jokingly while explaining the importance of physical distancing and remaining indoors during the pandemic. "We are not even allowed to meet family members. But this is better for all of us.”

Mr Islam explained that the centre’s isolation policy was introduced after the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Bangladesh.

The boys are permitted to call their parents or family members over the phone, but they are not allowed to attend court hearings and have to comply with strict and elaborate handwashing routines every time they enter different buildings within the compound.

Battling depression and insecurity

Besides maintaining hygiene, social workers at the centre strive to keep the boys engaged. The facility had a radically different approach since UNICEF began training staff members on special protection and care measures for children, including a complete overhaul of services and protocols to make it significantly more child-friendly.

In addition to supporting the provision of critical counselling and social services to detained children, UNICEF has also introduced life skills-based education at the centres while helping adolescents to reach their fullest potential by managing diverse risks and challenges without resorting to violence.

As part of a formal agreement with the Bangladesh Supreme Court, UNICEF provides technical support to improve child protection facilities.

 Mr Islam is one of a group of officials who received multiple training arranged by UNICEF over the last few years. His approach to work reflects what he has been taught, providing him and colleagues with the know-how to address various problems.  

“We try to keep them in high spirits. It is not uncommon for a boy, especially in times like these, to get depressed, feel insecure, or turn violent. When we notice anything like that, we talk to them personally.

“The trick is to keep them engaged. For example, during hour-long counselling sessions in the hall rooms, I make them breathe slowly, concentrate, meditate and practice muscle relaxation. The stretches and exercises help and can be done while maintaining physical distance.”

Developing resilience and confidence

In these stressful and uncertain times, it is vital to make vulnerable children feel safe, healthy and protected. For many of the boys, social worker Rehana Banu Munni is the first person they got to know at the centre. She is one of three social workers employed there.

 “I receive them formally and open a file for each of them. Often, a newcomer tells us that he has not been in contact with his family for years.

“Some do not even remember the phone number of their parents. Following very few clues, if any, we search for their family members,” she says.   

Social worker Rehana Banu Munni
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Khaliduzzaman
ছেলেদের আরও ভালোভাবে জানার মাধ্যমে তাদেরকে ভালো স্বাস্থ্যবিধি সম্পর্কে কিছু বাড়তি পাঠ দিয়ে কোয়ারেন্টাইনে থাকাকালীন সময়ের সর্বোচ্চ সদ্যবহার করছেন সমাজকর্মী রেহানা বানু মুন্নি।

Ms Munni contacts lawyers to provide the boys with legal support. With support from UNICEF, efforts are made to review less serious pending cases in the children’s courts to expedite the release, diversion or bail of detained children. Virtual court options are even being explored.

“Most of the work involves going outside and travelling,” Ms Munni says. “But those activities have stopped since the government asked everyone to stay indoors.”

However, she believes one upside of the pandemic is the opportunity it has given her to know the boys better while providing an ideal chance to teach them about good hygiene and physical distancing. The centre has recently made arrangements to ensure that any new arrivals are isolated for the first 14 days.

“Meanwhile, the ones who are here need more attention. We must maintain discipline to ensure they can stay safe. At the same time, we have to make sure that they don't panic,” Ms Munni says.

The ultimate goal of the centre is to rehabilitate the boys and either re-unite them with their families or prepare them for the outside world. Because Ms Munni has more time to connect with them during the COVID-19 crisis, she says she also has more time to develop their resilience and confidence to cope with difficult situations.


*The name has been changed to protect the child