Distress call from SOS
By Nalaka Nonis and Mahangu Weerasinghe
SOS, usually a call for help, in this instant was more like a call from hell for about seven SOS Village children who were allegedly sexually abused by an Assistant Director and his wife.

A string of various sexual abuse cases reported from children's homes, has prompted authorities to address the very role of these homes which are expected to give protection to those who have nowhere else to go.

In this most recent and shocking case of alleged abuse, the Child and Women's Bureau Division of the Police and the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) had received anonymous complaints about cases of child abuse at the Piliyandala SOS Village. The NCPA received the first complaint regarding the SOS village on July 9, but it could not act because there were no sufficient police officers to accompany its raid party due to provincial elections the next day, NCPA chief Dr. Harenda De Silva said. By the time the NCPA had decided to act, the Child and Women's Bureau Division team, headed by Inspector Soma Kumarasinghe had already begun investigations.

The suspects, Rohana Kumudujith Kapuarachchi and his wife Geethani Karunaratne, were produced before Magistrate Kusala Wijewardene and remanded till August 3.

"According to our investigations, the suspect and his wife had examined the genital areas of two girls, aged 13 and 9," Inspector Manike, a member of the Police team that conducted the investigation said. However, by the end of the week the number of allegations against the couple had increased to seven.

"When one victim reports an incident, others also find the strength to come forward," said Inspector Manike adding that the SOS incident was one of the first high profile incident reported for the year.

"Although at first we assumed that it was only Mr. Kapuarachchi who was a suspect, later investigations confirmed that there was enough evidence to implicate his wife," she said.

The young couple who lived on the premises of the SOS Childrens' Village in Piliyandala, have now been accused of molesting up to seven young girls. Mr. Kapuarachchi, had earlier served at SOS Villages in Nuwara Eliya and Anuradhapura. "In June 2002, the director at SOS Piliyandala resigned and Mr. Kapuarachchi was brought in to fill that position," said SOS Director Administration Ananda Karunaratne, who claimed that the SOS had conducted a screening check before the recruitment.

'The main suspect, who is a graduate, had previously held positions at both private and government sector firms. He had enough experience in administration, and was trusted by all. Nobody had reason to suspect him," Mr Karunaratne said.

Inquiries made by the The Sunday Times from residents in the area revealed that the complaints about the couple's activities had been made by outside parties but the SOS had reportedly attempted to cover up the incident.

"The SOS Village authorities had a good relationship with the people around here. But after this scandal was exposed, the management does not seem to want to maintain that close relationship," one resident said.

Incidents of sexual abuse in children's homes have been on the increase in recent months. Police and child care officials believe that a lack of vigilance by management authorities on these homes has led to the escalation of such incidents.

"Many children's homes lack proper sanitation and healthcare. The conditions within many of these homes are putrid, and the Department of Probation and Childcare services appears to be doing little about it. Also, when cases of sexual abuse and other cases of ill-treatment arise, many officials try to defend their subordinates by covering up for them," a police officer said.

A similar incident occurred in Ranmuthugala last year where two girls, aged 18 and 14 were victimised by the home's caretaker matron with the aid of her husband, a teacher and another matron. The episode came to light after the two girls fled the home and made a complaint at the Mawanella police. The case is being heard in the High Courts.

Sunil Samaraweera, Director of the Department of Probation and Childcare, explaining his department's position regarding the SOS case and childrens' homes in general, said the department's responsibility towards children's homes was limited.

In a usual case of passing the buck, he said the responsibility of carrying spot-checks on homes was the duty of the Probation Officer who comes under the directive of the Provincial Probation and Childcare Department.

Mr. Samaraweera, however, admitted that the childcare sector was poorly funded and that many homes lacked suitable staff including trained counsellors. He also acknowledged that this lack of counsellors could have a profound impact on the psychology of traumatised children.

"The government pays Rs. 300 for a child per month. This is hardly enough to cover a child's expenses," said Mr. Samaraweera who added he has asked the government to at least increase the amount to Rs. 500 a child.

The director, however, denied that child abuse was on the rise, and said that there was in fact a steady decrease in complaints. When we spoke to the Probation Officer for the Panadura Zone, S.I Abeysekara she confirmed that she did not carry any routine checks on non-governmental homes within her jurisdiction.

"Such checks are the responsibility of the central government," she said. Meanwhile a social worker who helped out at children's homes said that many homes treated the children in a degrading manner.

"Of the homes I visited in Colombo and its suburbs, many were poorly maintained" said the worker who said that in one home the cook had replaced an outgoing warden.

"In another home the male caretaker slept in the same room as the children," he said adding that it was these types of lodging arrangements that often led to sexual abuse. He also said that many homes were severely understaffed and that job satisfaction among social workers was low.

Premier Child Rights activist Maureene Seneviratne who spoke to The Sunday Times also confirmed that most government homes were understaffed and not funded adequately. She revealed that children were often deprived of food and other basic facilities in government children's homes.

"The government must look in to the type of people they employ to look after these children. They should be loving, caring and duty-conscious" said Mrs. Seneviratne who added that private children's homes were managed more methodically.

She said a proper state monitoring mechanism was urgently needed to combat the degradation of the standard of children's homes in Sri Lanka.

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