Child safety left out in the cold?

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The murder of nine-year-old Fathima Ayesha of Atulugama, who went to buy chicken from the shop near her house on 27 May evening and never returned home, made headlines and sparked fury islandwide, until a video of an MP’s son and daughter-in-law engaged in a shouting match with Police Officers at an expressway entrance on Thursday (2) popped up on social media.

When a child abuse case, especially one related to rape, murder, or sexual violence is reported, many lay the blame squarely on parents for not being able to protect the child. Parental negligence indeed played a part. However, society cannot just wash their hands off, by blaming the parents of an abused child and console themselves, thinking that their children are safe because they do not let them out of their sight.

The efforts of each and every one in society counts. However, when a child abuse case is reported in Sri Lanka, everyone’s opinions bubble up like a bottle of soda. Many want to punish the suspects mercilessly. However, when another topic or gossip pops up on their social media feeds, the abused child is forgotten, until the next tragedy occurs.

People who are keen to punish the perpetrators are quick to forget that Sri Lanka still lacks a solid system to protect everyone’s children. They have forgotten that the leaders who bagged their votes are neglecting their responsibilities. They forget that if a child cannot walk freely for 200 metres without an adult accompanying them, no one’s child is safe.

95% of abusers known to children

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura highlights that 27.9% of victims who were subjected to sexual abuse are those who are under 12 years.

The research, conducted by Dr. Y.M. Rohanachandra, I. Amarabandu, and Dr. P. Dassanayake of Colombo South Teaching Hospital, titled ‘Child sexual abuse’ presented to a teaching hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka’ highlights that 94.5% of the abusers were known to the child at the time of abuse, while delayed disclosure was significantly high in penetration abuse, multiple incidents of abuse, and abuse by a known person.

Furthermore, in 31.1% of the cases, the victim had been threatened and 15.2% of the cases had been rewarded with a toy or food. The time taken to reveal the abuse ranged from immediately after the incident to more than a year.

The majority (40.9%) of the children had revealed about the incident to the mother, followed by grandmother (13.4%) and sister (9.1%). Delayed disclosure was significantly higher in children who suffered penetrative abuse.

Those who had multiple incidents of abuse were usually abused by a known person, according to the study.

The study further mentions that a higher prevalence in child sexual abuse has been reported in Northern Sri Lanka, an area which has been affected by the war and in areas associated with the tourism industry.

Another important factor to note was that 30% of the children, who are all under the age of 16, were not attending school.

Psychological consequences were seen in 28.7% of the children, with depression being the most common (8.5%), followed by adjustment disorder (7.3%) and acute stress reaction (6.7%).

Moreover, psychological consequences were significantly higher in victims who had physical evidence of abuse, delayed (after 1 week) disclosure of the incident and in children who did not disclose the abuse spontaneously.

The study also notes that not attending school may also be a risk factor for child sexual abuse in Sri Lanka, and gender inequality within the education system may be a possible explanation as a significantly higher number of females were not attending school compared to males in the study.

It shows children and adolescents were found to have disclosed to their mothers the most, followed by their grandmothers. The study mentions that since grandmothers, as representatives of extended family in Sri Lankan culture, often play a greater role in a child’s life, especially in mothers’ absence, may be a reason for this.

Case studies – Managing victims

“Even though all these policies and guidelines are in place, what I have realised as a Consultant Child Psychiatrist is that managing a victim of child abuse is not as smooth as mentioned in the guidelines and policies. Limited awareness of stakeholders, limited implementation of strategies and plans, limited resources and various other factors have made the management of child maltreatment at ground level a seriously challenging task,” Dr. Darshani Hettiarachchi said in her paper ‘Management of victims of child abuse in Sri Lanka: The view of a Child Psychiatrist.’

The paper, in which she expresses her personal view on the matter, was published in the Sri Lanka Journal of Child Health in 2020.

Apart from direct and immediate effects, child abuse can also result in multiple long-term adverse consequences to an individual’s physical and psychological health, behavioural changes, and adverse societal consequences. A 30-year follow up study showed a link between child maltreatment and increased risk of malnutrition, vision problems, lung diseases, and diabetes. Studies also showed a negative impact of childhood maltreatment on both structure and function of the brain. It is evident that child abuse is associated with decreased brain volume both in cortical and white matter regions. Children who experienced childhood maltreatment have been shown to have deficits in cognitive functions like cognitive flexibility, working memory, sustained attention, and inhibitory control compared to a control group of children, the paper said.

Dr. Hettiarachchi, in the paper, presented several case studies which she came across to line up the management of child maltreatment at ground level.

In one of these incidents, six girls from the same school who were in Grade 11 were reported to be allegedly sexually abused by the science teacher at school, multiple times. Abuse was assessed to be of the non-actual physical activity (non-touch) type. The class teacher reported the incident to the relevant authorities. Uniformed Police Officers have visited each girl at their house and transported them to the hospital by Police vehicle for assessment by the Judicial Medical Officer. As the abuse was of the non-touch type, all the girls had no physical injuries. They were sent home and presented to the Consultant Child Psychiatrist after one week for psychological assessment. None of the victims presented with psychological symptoms related to the direct effect of abuse. However, they were all assessed to be having psychological consequences of trauma secondary to being transported in the Police vehicle and the public reaction to it. All the girls reported that travelling in the Police vehicle was more traumatic than the abuse per se. They reported that the reaction and comments of the villagers was much more stressful than the abuse.

“According to the national guidelines of management of victims of abuse and neglect, it is recommended that Police Officers should wear civilian attire whenever they visit the children at home, school, or in hospitals. Victims should be transported in a non-official vehicle. This reflects how the system has further maltreated the victims of abuse,” Dr. Hettiarachchi said.

In another incident, a five-year-old girl was reported to be allegedly sexually abused by the stepfather. Mother, who was the sole caregiver of the child, was unemployed and totally financially dependent on the perpetrator. She did not have any accommodation other than the perpetrator’s house. Even though the mother was desperate to keep the child with her, she was not in a position to provide the expected care and security to the child. During the Institutional Case Conference, stakeholders were unable to find a suitable support system for a homeless mother like her. Eventually, the child was placed in alternative care.

“The National Policy for Alternative Care of Children in Sri Lanka emphasises the importance of preventing unnecessary separation of children from families and considers institutionalisation of children as the last option. In this scenario, mother’s financial constraints were the only barrier to keep the child with the mother. Unfortunately, there was no support system available to provide care for homeless mothers with victimised children.”

Justice delayed is justice denied

Concluding a rape case after nearly two decades, Colombo High Court Judge Navaratne Marasinghe, on Thursday (2), convicted a 45-year-old father of two, on charges of impregnating a minor who was studying in Grade 7 by promising to marry her, and sentenced him to 45 years Rigorous Imprisonment.

The Judge also ordered the convict to pay compensation of Rs 900,000 to the aggrieved party (victim) and imposed a fine of Rs 75,000 on him, over the incident which had taken place 18 years ago.

Judge Marasinghe, announcing the verdict, further remarked that the convict, having known the victim was a minor, had written love letters to her over a period of time, before stealing her cash and gold items, after which he had raped her repeatedly.

He added that the Court will not think twice in meting out the sternest possible punishment to those who commit unpardonable crimes of this nature.

The Attorney General had indicted the convict, on three counts before the High Court and on charges of raping the 12-year-old, during the period from 2004 to 2005.

While commending the Judiciary for giving the perpetrator what he deserves, it should be noted that taking decades to conclude a child abuse case is extremely alarming. It is reported that around 20,000 cases of child abuse were languishing at the Attorney General’s Office for the last ten years, with no prosecution.

“When we look at child abuses, there are various types of abuses according to the Penal Code such as assault, grave sexual abuse etc. To send indictments to the High Court, the type of abuse is clearly needed to be identified. This should be done by the Attorney General’s Department. So, the Police need to seek instructions from the AG’s Department. This process causes lengthy delays, mainly because the department does not have sufficient staff. One State Counsel is in charge of 600-700 files,” Attorney-at-Law Ishara Jayasena said.

The initial investigations on these cases are conducted by the Police. The Police investigations too have serious lapses. They do not have a proper knowledge on how to handle these types of cases. They are not aware of people’s rights and how to obtain statements properly. When the Police send reports to the AG’s Department for instructions, the department has to determine the category of the abuse based on the evidence. When the Police reports have lapses, then the report should be sent back to the Police for correction. This also takes time.

This process can take years. When many months pass, some witnesses are reluctant to come to Court to testify. The victims have moved on with their lives. Some victims are married and even have children. It is natural that they do not want to dig up the past. Some are overseas. However, child abuse is a crime. It is a crime against the State. So, the victims and witnesses are bound to testify. Summons have to be issued. This is why it takes decades to conclude Court cases on child abuses, she said.

“Personally, I think it is unfair for victims to be summoned to testify against their will. They have moved on. Some victims are married. Their in-laws are not aware of the abuse which occurred years ago. This could turn their lives upside down. It is just the victim being victimised further,” Jayasena pointed out.

According to the paper, ‘Justice delayed – Justice denied; a study on time intervals of medico-legal examinations, reporting and giving evidence in cases of alleged child abuse victims’ there was no delay in initiation of medico-legal examination. Responding to summons was satisfactory. However, the mean period of 1.4 years in requesting the report and period of 5 years in High Court proceedings need serious consideration. The researchers said 110 cases of child abuse were selected.

The paper was presented by P.A.S. Edirisinghe, I.D.G. Kitulwatte, A.A.S. Sihanada, and B.A.A.R. Bulathsinhala of Department of Forensic Medicine, Faculty of Medicine of University of Kelaniya.

“Medico-legal examination is an important step in the investigation of alleged child abuse where initiation of serving justice to the victim begins. It is not limited to an examination, but includes relevant referrals to the medical management, writing the report to the Courts, and finally giving evidence in a Court of Law. Any delay in the process can be categorised as the old famous saying by William Ewart Gladstone ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ as well as draining of the value of the judgment.”

A forensic doctor examining a child alleged to be abused for a medico-legal purpose is part of his or her routine duties. However, it may be a turning point in the child’s life though he or she may not be aware or understand the judicial process. While the legal process continues, the child and family too adjust to new challenges.

Nonetheless, research suggests that a prolonged criminal-court experience is detrimental to a child victim’s mental health. One such study found that children who had to wait more than five months for resolution in criminal proceedings had increased depression and anxiety compared to children whose cases were resolved within five months. The process of delivering justice is complex. It involves many stakeholders such as Police, medical experts, childcare workers, State prosecutors and the Judiciary of a country. According to the current phase of delivery of justice in Sri Lanka, an examinee coming to the forensic doctor many years later requesting to stop the judicial proceeding is getting common. The main reason given is that the individual has moved on and is not interested in seeking justice or punishing the perpetrators any more, the paper pointed out.

Failing to work out priorities

If we look closely at the present pathetic plight of the country, it is crystal clear that Sri Lanka has not worked out its priorities to date. That is how we ended up with an economic crisis and the same is true with protecting the Nation’s greatest treasure, the children.

Although Sri Lanka is very keen to celebrate Children’s Day each year, there is no Cabinet Ministry assigned for the protection of children, despite signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). 

The UNCRC has set out well-defined legally binding standards. Sri Lanka was one of the earliest countries which ratified the UNCRC. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) was set up by Act No. 50 of 1998, under the Presidential Secretariat, after it was recommended by the Presidential Task Force on Child Abuse in 1996.

However, in 2006, the NCPA came under the purview of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs. NCPA is the main authority for protecting children and promoting child rights. Some of the main functions of the NCPA include advising the Government on child protection policies, protection and treatment of children who are victims of such abuse, prevention of child abuse, and taking measures to protect the victims of child abuse and increase awareness about abuse.

The Department of Probation and Child Care Services was also functioning under the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs. Some of its main functions are refurbishment of children’s homes, supervision of children’s homes, conducting training for caregivers, reunification of identified children, conducting vocational training for institutionalised children and their life skill development.

However, these institutions were then brought under a State Ministry that functioned under the Ministry of Education.

Sri Lanka also adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 to end poverty, reduce inequality, and build more peaceful, prosperous societies by 2030. The SDGs cannot be achieved without the realisation of child rights. More than 100 UN Member States including Sri Lanka have renewed their commitment to children’s rights in the context of implementing the SDGs

However, the Government’s failure to work out its priorities and not appointing a Cabinet Minister have gravely affected all these commitments.

“This Government removed the Cabinet Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs. A State Ministry was set up on the subject and it was under the purview of the Ministry of Education. Even in the recently appointed Cabinet, there is no Ministry responsible for Women and Children’s Affairs. This is a crucial time and ensuring the protection of children is our priority as a Nation. Children are suffering acutely due to the mismanagement of the adults in government. Yet, the Government has failed to line up priorities,” Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna said.

“When we ask a question in Parliament on the subject, there is no one to provide a proper answer. The State Minister was not present in Parliament regularly. So, we could not get answers from him. It was clear the Minister of Education too was incapable of providing an answer. Now, the situation is even more complicated,” she said.

“Even in the newly-appointed Cabinet, following the people’s struggle, there is no portfolio for Child Development and Women’s Affairs. It implies that the Cabinet is not discussing protection of children and women. There is no one to answer the agitations of the public. As MPs, we do not have anyone to get answers from. No one cares about this and there is no mechanism to solve the issues either,” Wijerathne lamented.

An Auditor General’s Report on the NCPA highlighted how the NCPA has failed to deliver on its primary responsibility, creating a National Child Protection Policy, even after two decades of it being set up.

Furthermore, Cabinet approval was obtained for a national policy in October 2019, however, the NCPA had failed to develop a policy plan for implementation so far.

Last year, when the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) summoned the NCPA to inquire about the Auditor General’s report and questioned the officials about the failure to implement a national policy, then Chairman Muditha Vidanapathirana acknowledged the lapse and promised to appoint a higher body to develop a five-year plan for its implementation. However, a new Chairperson was appointed to the NCPA and it is still unknown about the progress of this five-year plan.

Meanwhile, the most recent report of the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) revealed that The Department of Probation and Child Care Services lacks a mechanism to prevent child abuse.

It is pathetic that children, who are 25% of the total population in the country, are devalued and relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities. The country, the leaders, and the society are indeed dragging the children to the bottom of the pile. How many children like Seya, Vithya, or Ayesha need to lay down their lives to awaken the Nation, which is pretending to be asleep?

By Methmalie Dissanayake