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27th August 2000
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Cruel haven

Anusha's tragic death while in the care of the state raises the question whether justice is being meted out to these innocent victims 

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
A 15-year-old girl is dead. The cause of death has not been ascertained. No marks of violence, externally or internally, have been found on her body. But the fact remains that Anusha Damayanthi Perera was dead on admission to the Colombo North Teaching Hospital (Ragama) at around 8 p.m. on ImageSunday, August 20.

How did she die? Was she suffering from a disease? Did the negligence or indifference of her custodians cause her death? The death of a teenager is tragic under any circumstances, but in Anusha's case it is doubly tragic - for she was under the care of and in the custody of the state. Anusha was an 'inmate' of the Ranmuthugala Certified Home off Kadawatha. 

She had allegedly complained of a loss of appetite and abdominal discomfort. But by the time the Ranmuthugala staff brought her to the hospital she was already dead. What caused her death? Only time will tell, for after the postmortem conducted by AJMO Dr. S. Chandrapalan on the order of the Gampaha Magistrate, specimens have been sent to the Government Analyst and samples have also been taken to do a histological investigation. The only thing that has been found during the postmortem is that Anusha was suffering from a severe case of scabies (a skin disease) and also infestation of head lice. She had been under medication for the scabies.

However, while the cause of death is being ascertained, an immediate investigation is essential by the government to ensure that children in the care of the state, in homes such as Ranmuthugala, under the purview of the Department of Probation and Child Care do not end up like Anusha. That child victims of sexual abuse, child servants and juvenile delinquents who are released to the "safe" custody and care of state institutions by the courts all across the country are not neglected and harassed by their so-called custodians, that they don't live a life of misery and deprivation.

Anusha's case strongly indicates that if someone in authority took the time and the trouble to look into the running of the Ranmuthugala Home, this 15-year-old girl may have been alive today.

Anusha and her parents were living a hard but happy life in Gampaha, when her father died and their little world shattered. Anusha was just eight years old. After sometime her mother went to live with another man in Neluwa, Galle. Anusha soon had a little brother. Then life took a turn for the worse. Anusha's step-father attempted to abuse her sexually.Her mother went to the police and the man was jailed. But it didn't end there - Anusha was sent to Ranmuthugala on March 16, this year to face a life of untold hardship. 

This is where justice seems to have failed for these hapless victims. 

According to Chief Inspector Neil Hettiarachchi of the Women and Children's Desk there had been many complaints about Ranmuthugala. So on July 5, accompanied by officials of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), a police team visited the home and found the conditions to be shocking. Massive overcrowding was a problem and the children also complained of severe harassment.

The children ranging from about eight to 18 years were locked up in sardine-like conditions for most of the day, every day of the week and let out only at mealtimes. The nearly 170 children in the home were allowed to use the toilet only on a restricted basis. Most of them just had to go out in their cramped living quarters, adding to the filth and squalor. All the children were also suffering from scabies. Where only 10 children were supposed to sleep, 30 or 40 were put in and not just for the night but all throughout the day too.

And on that day, this is what Anusha told the police, "Some of the teachers abuse me. We are locked in a room and even if we want to use the toilet, we are not let out. A teacher with a stick assaulted me until blood came from my hand. When we are sick and ask for medicine, the teacher does not give us any. When we have a bath we are given five buckets of water before we soap ourselves and only five buckets after."

In the Ranmuthugala Home set amidst coconut palms, only the sound of birds and girlish voices can be heard during the day. But most girls cannot be seen, for they are locked up. In an overcrowded room there is a handwritten poster up on the wall, with this plaintive cry "I don't ask for palaces or wealth, only for a little bit of love." And that's just what Anusha and the other girls here don't seem to be getting.

Too many
"Yes, an anonymous caller tipped me off last Tuesday about Anusha's death," said NCPA Chairman, Professor Harendra de Silva, when The Sunday Times contacted him on hearing about this girl's strange death.

He said that after several complaints received by the NCPA, they conducted a fact-finding mission at the certified home, with the Women and Children's Desk police officials. "There were lots of problems especially regarding the staff. They were short-staffed, ill-trained and their whole outlook towards the children was not quite correct."

The mission was conducted on July 5, and a report has been completed. 

Probation officials were categorically informed of the situation prevailing in the home at two Board meetings of the NCPA, the first held last month and the second held last Monday, Prof. de Silva said.

The NCPA has approached several NGOs with appeals for assistance for the Ranmuthugala Home, he added.

Western Province Probation and Child Care Commissioner D.A. Vithanage said, "We have to await the post mortem report."

When Anusha fell ill the staff had taken her to a government hospital close by where she was given some medicine. Two to three days later there had been swelling of her body and she had been taken to the Ragama Hospital, he said.

According to him most of the problems at the Home are due to overcrowding. The Home, the only one of its kind in the country was meant only for about 60-70, but children from all over are sent there now. There are 166 children this week. A three-storey building is under construction at a cost of Rs. 4 million, he said.

When asked about the complaints against the Home, Mr. Vithanage said many disciplinary inquiries have been held and even now one is on against a staff member.

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