Everyone’s baby but nobody’s child

Lack of coordination among institutions tasked with child care causes concern
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Hansini Munasinghe

Three vital prongs -- one major objective. The “fate” of many Sri Lankan children lies with them.
Is the system working smoothly for the welfare of children who come under its purview? Are the wheels of bureaucracy turning well, with all institutions directly involved in ensuring that the children who need “care and protection” working in tandem? Or are they working at cross-purposes, attempting to upstage each other for a place in the sun?

Commissioner of the Department of Probation and Child Care Services, D.M.S. Abayagunawardana

The vital “cogs” are the Department of Probation and Child Care Services coming under the Central Government, the Departments of Probation and Child Care coming under the Provincial Councils and the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA).

The four groups of children who invariably come into direct contact with these three categories of officialese are – orphaned children (those without both parents); abandoned children; destitute children; and abused children, the Sunday Times learns in extensive interviews not only with officials but also children’s rights activists.

It was just about 10 days ago that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, calling for the strengthening of laws to stop child abuse, urged that the NCPA and the Department of Probation and Child Care should make sure to work together.

NCPA’s Deputy Chairperson
Nanda Indrawansa
Commissioner G.P.D. Somaratna. Pix by Amila Prabodha

While officials stressed that the three sets of authorities are “collaborating” well, many sceptical child rights activists are of the view that there is an urgent need for closer links. The child has been forgotten in the process, was one of the major contentions of these activists.

“There is insufficient focus and attention on child protection and what the authorities tasked with this job must do to ensure priority care for such children. The key institutions – NCPA and Probation -- are not cooperating enough to ensure this,” claimed an activist, pointing out that as a result children are suffering.

Another point highlighted by many was that the NCPA’s District Coordinator and District Psychosocial Coordinator work under the District Secretary while the Child Rights Promotion Officers (CRPOs) report to the Central Government Commissioner of Probation and Child Care and the Probation Officers working at ground level report to the provincial Department of Probation and Child Care.

There is a ripple effect to the inadequate co-operation and coordination among these institutions, for it flows into other sectors as well, hindering the child from getting necessary services especially health, education, social services and poverty relief, the Sunday Times understands.

The inability of the NCPA and Probation to unite has weakened the child protection sector, resulting in their inability to influence these other sectors on behalf of the child victims, an activist said. These child victims need priority attention from these sectors but they fail to get it, said another activist.
Another anomaly is that sometimes one side of a children’s home comes under the supervision of the provincial Department of Probation and Child Care, while the other side is under the Department of Social Services as these are children with disabilities. Don’t disabled children fall into the “children” category, asks a source, adding that this leads to much confusion.

Refuting claims that there was no coordination, the Central Government’s Commissioner of the Department of Probation and Child Care Services, D.M.S. Abayagunawardana said that a recent development was the introduction of the ‘Case Management Policy’ under which CRPOs based at the District Secretariats conduct case conferences to evaluate the condition of each child victim.

Case conferences organized by the CRPOs under the chairmanship of the District Secretaries encompass all stakeholders who are involved in children’s welfare. These have been set in motion at the Districts Secretariats of the Western, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provinces, it is understood, with plans to get countrywide coverage shortly.

Mr. Abayagunawardana pointed out that ‘Family Group Conferences’ have also been initiated since last year in the Western, Southern, Sabaragamuwa and North Western Provinces as community-based programmes.

Explaining the structure set up by government to provide care and protection for children who need it, he said that there is one state ‘Receiving Home’ in each of the nine provinces where children younger than five years are taken in. “This is why we are appealing to parents and single mothers who cannot look after their babies not to kill their babies or dump them in rubbish heaps but to give them to us as the government can take care of them,” he said, adding when the parents find their feet they can always take their children back or if they are still unable to look after them, give their consent for the children to be adopted.

Within the same structure comes the children’s homes run by voluntary social service organizations for children above five years who need care and protection. These homes need mandatory registration by the provincial Departments of Probation and Child Care.

Citing the Orphanages Ordinance, the Commissioner said such homes are set up under strict guidelines and standards but we have suggested that children should be taken in only after registration by the provincial probation and child care authorities.“The provincial governments must bring in laws to limit homes taking in children prior to registration,” he said, pointing out that such homes should also not be given blanket registration. These homes should be evaluated at least once in three years for renewal or cancellation of registration.

The provincial Departments of Probation and Child Care have the power to shut down any home that does not meet the standards, according to him and many in the North Western and Northern Provinces have been closed recently. He, however, underscored the fact that institutionalization of children should be the last resort as community-based care and protection is better for the child.

When asked about the challenges faced, Mr. Abayagunawardana conceded that devolution of the subject of probation and child care may have created some administrative issues, but both the central government and provincial departments handling this vital subject have moved forward after ironing them out.

He agreed that there was an urgent need to strengthen the cadres of the provincial probation officers who handle a heavy workload at ground level and have been doing so silently for a long time.
“There should also be a multidisciplinary approach to children’s issues,” he said, taking as a case in point the economic or housing problems of a family which may lead to the children being abandoned. “Probation alone cannot solve them and we need to work closely with social services, Samurdhi, education, health and police while NCPA should guide these stakeholders.”

NCPA’s Deputy Chairperson Nanda Indrawansa explaining the mandate of the NCPA since its establishment in 1998, said it is to stop child abuse which includes not only sexual abuse but also neglect, domestic work etc.

“When we receive a complaint we investigate and take steps to bring the wrong-doer to book while also conducting programmes to prevent child abuse,” she said going into detail about the setting up of Child Protection Committees in schools in coordination with the Education Ministry.

Some of the other awareness programmes handled by the NCPA cover expectant mothers and family health workers at grassroots level, it is learnt, while mothers who are going abroad for employment can register their children at the NCPA.

Anyone including children can make complaints to the NCPA through its 24-hour hotline 1929.
The District Child Protection Committees (DCPCs) set up to strengthen and expand child protection activities at district level, with the District Secretary as focal point, are working well, said Ms. Indrawansa, with the Ratnapura DCPC being an excellent example.

These DCPCs have created close links among probation and child care workers, the local law enforcement authorities, the judiciary, the health authorities and NGOs working with children, it is understood.

The consensus among all is that the NCPA and probation and child care services must work with mutual respect and in close coordination to achieve the common target – the best interest of the child.

The 24-hour office of the Western Province Dept of Probation and Childcare Services at work

Hotline for child care
A special 24-hour probation unit has been established on September 1 at Bellantara for authorities such as the NCPA, police, hospitals or courts to contact the Western Province Department of Probation and Child Care Services at any time during the day or night to hand over children for placement in a safe place.

The 24-hour phone line is: 011-2713039
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times understands that moves are underway to bring both the Department of Social Services and the Department of Probation and Child Care Services under one umbrella.

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