When grandparents become parents

Social workers help grandparents raise their grandchildren orphaned by COVID-19.

Laksmi Pamuntjak
Putera and his grandmother.
11 January 2022

It’s a sunny afternoon in the quiet rural neighbourhood, and 11-year-old Putera is sitting on the floor of his house, bent over a notebook. An otherwise quiet boy with fine features and sad, impenetrable eyes, he seems completely absorbed in his work.  

Sitting across the table is his schoolteacher, Siska. Since schools reopened, she has been coming to the house three times a week to give Putera extra tutoring. Today it’s math, Putera’s favourite subject.

“The school must have arranged (this tutoring),” says Surati, 71, Putera’s grandmother, as she proudly looks on. She adds that she herself cannot read or write and was not involved in the process. “But I’m sure it’s because Putera is a good student— and an orphan.”

Putera receives extra tutoring from his teacher, Siska, at home.
Putera receives extra tutoring from his teacher, Siska, at home.

The afternoon’s happy scene belies a painful history. Motherless since he was barely a year old, Putera came under the care of his grandmother ever since his father died of COVID-19 a few months ago. Putera’s older siblings live far away and rarely visit.

Surati herself has been widowed for more than thirty years; her six surviving children are scattered around the archipelago. However, she believes that as far as her grandson is concerned, nothing has fundamentally changed.

“Even when his father was alive, I was the one who raised him,” she says, to which Putera nods emphatically. “It’s always been me and mbah (grandma),” he says.

Putera with his grandmother Surati.
Putera with his grandmother Surati.
A family photo of Putera with his parents when he was a baby.
A family photo of Putera with his parents when he was a baby.

Growing up parentless is not the only hardship Putera has gone through in his young life. He was born with an uncommon name given to him by his father. It was only recently, after being bullied incessantly by his friends at school, that he was able to legally change his name.

The legal process for changing his name would have been longer and more complicated had it not been for the tireless assistance of a team of dedicated social workers. Their involvement is part of PKSAI (Integrated Child Social Welfare Services), a UNICEF-supported programme from the Ministry of Social Affairs that provides welfare and protection services to children, especially the most vulnerable.

Putera works on an assignment at school with his classmates.
Putera works on an assignment at school with his classmates.

Over the course of PKSAI’s advocacy, Surati and Putera became increasingly attached to one social worker, Januri. He not only helped move the legal proceedings forward and acted as a witness on Surati’s behalf, but also accompanied Putera faithfully in and out of the courtroom. Since COVID-19 restrictions were eased, he has also been able to visit Putera at home more regularly.

In spite of the hardships, Surati remains cautiously optimistic regarding her grandson’s future. “I don’t know how long I’ll be around, but I know Putera is loved. People will always help him. Even the Chief of Police wants to adopt him one day.”

Encouraging as her optimism is, Januri points out that at some point, elderly people experience considerable difficulty in dealing with their grandchildren’s growing pains. They also struggle to overcome the grief of losing their own children while engaging in full time parenting, and thus require support tailored to their unique needs. This includes mental health and psychosocial services as well as long-term support for their grandchildren’s education and daily needs.

“Caregivers who are old and unable to read or write such as Ibu Surati are the most vulnerable,” says Januri. “Especially when they are all alone, with little support from family. I’m glad that there is financial help for now and that people here really care for her and Putera. I’m also glad I can be there for them.”

Putera and his classmates at school.
Putera and his classmates at school.

How You Can Help

Thanks to the generous contributions of individual donors, UNICEF has been able to work with dedicated partners and social workers across Indonesia to identify children orphaned due to COVID-19, facilitate access to mental health and psychosocial services, and help ensure children remain in family-based care.

But the challenge is far from over, and a long-term, coordinated effort will be needed to protect these children as well as children who are already in institutions. For this we need your support.  

If you want to help support children in Indonesia who have lost one or both caregivers due to COVID-19, during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, please consider donating to UNICEF. We very much appreciate your contribution. 

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