Vital to focus on the child

Prem Nivesa and the NCPA raid
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi, Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte

Mixed reactions poured forth as the details of the raid by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) on ‘Prem Nivesa’ at Rawatawatte, Moratuwa, came to light. Has the NCPA gone “beyond its call of duty” and overstepped the mark, is one concern while another was that an impartial investigation into Prem Nivesa’s activities should be held forthwith.

Let the judicial process take its course to ascertain whether the nuns at Prem Nivesa have violated the law, said a child rights activist, stressing however that the searchlight also needs to be pointed at the NCPA to find out whether it has acted within the boundaries set by the Act which established it.

There seems general consensus that if the NCPA has acted on “solid evidence”, then a thorough and impartial investigation should be held. For instance questions raised by a child rights lawyer were: How did foreign websites in countries such as Germany and America advertise babies from this home for sale? Were all the children even those under-age mothers (under 16) registered either with Probation and Child Care Services or Social Services? Were the lists of prospective local parents exhausted before foreign parents were given the chance to adopt children from this home? Is there any evidence of foreigners paying “agents” here and abroad to “adopt” a baby from this home? If so, did the nuns know about such payments?

Who are the “agents” abroad and in Sri Lanka who facilitated such adoptions, he asked, urging the government to get to the bottom of the mystery, even if it has to seek international assistance from such organizations as Interpol.

And what of the role of Probation and Child Care in monitoring such adoptions?

“May be the way the NCPA raid was carried out was not the best way. The crucial issues need to be investigated,” urged a rational voice in child protection with decades of work at the grassroots.
In a swoop directed by NCPA Chairperson Anoma Dissanayake, on a tip-off, a team on November 23 raided Prem Nivesa being run by the Missionaries of Charity, an Order of nuns of the Catholic Church set up by the legendary Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, to look after unloved and uncared for men, women and children who were mainly homeless.

The Superior of Prem Nivesa, Sr. Mary Eliza, was arrested on November 25, produced before Colombo’s Additional Magistrate Yvonne Fernando and remanded, but released on bail on November 28. The case which was called up again on December 1 has been postponed to December 15.

Many local parents who have adopted children from the home vouch for the fact that “no money changed hands” and activists were angry that the NCPA Chairperson had reportedly said that she did not know that such a home even existed at Rawatawatte.Prem Nivesa is registered not only with the Western Provincial Department of Probation and Child Care as a ‘Child Development Centre’ but also with the Provincial Social Services Department as well, as there is a section for physically and mentally disabled children, a source said, pointing out the “obvious” lack of coordination by the NCPA with the other government departments working for the welfare of children.

This is the crux of the problem, an activist pointed out, for without coordinating with the other government agencies, the NCPA acts alone and arbitrarily. Acting without studying the functions laid down by the NCPA Act, it has no proper technical direction, he said, adding that “this is a fundamental lack”.

“Yes,” confirmed a lawyer who has been looking after the interests of children. “There have been no coordination meetings on child protection among vital partners such as NCPA and Probation in the last three to four years.

When clearing the chaff from the grain in the recent events, the main issue that comes to the fore is that the government must intervene immediately to make all agencies working for children to come together. The basic fact is these agencies must work in tandem, said another familiar with the subject who analyzed the current situation succinctly. “Therefore, it is the bounden duty of the government to make peace between these warring factions.”

The child should be the focus, a voice of reason in the field of child protection said. Prem Nivesa is known among locals to be doing good work, but have there been lapses when engaging in adoptions with foreign parents? One may say the manner in which the NCPA conducted the raid was brutal, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

This is a good opportunity to put adoptions, not only at Prem Nivesa but also all children’s homes including the state receiving homes in Sri Lanka under the microscope. What needs to be ascertained is whether there is a dichotomy between adoptions by local and foreign parents; are the checks and balances adequate to prevent the abuse of the system; are there shortcomings within the vital Probation and Child Care system, such as poor facilities, low salaries which could lead to laxity among its officers?

The plea echoed and re-echoed is: Harping on child protection is futile if a water-tight system in adoptions is not in place. For, the most important but voiceless being, the child, must not be forgotten in this equation.

What they have to say

The matter is under investigation and in court, said NCPA Chairperson Anoma Dissanayake when the Sunday Times contacted her, declining to comment.

There can be no exchange of money even in the form of “donations” before or after an adoption, stressed a foremost name in child protection, Prof. Harendra de Silva, when asked by the Sunday Times.

Pointing out that he believes Prem Nivesa is a well-run home, where the children are looked after, Prof. de Silva who was not only the first Chairperson of the NCPA but was among the first 10 from around the world nominated in the British Medical Journal Lifetime Achievement Award 2010 (last year) says that he investigated the home not about any alleged sale of babies but about giving a baby to a party with a vested interest way back in 2000. The adoption went through court, but the NCPA felt that the home was influenced to give the baby to those particular parents.

Meanwhile, Western Provincial Commissioner of Probation and Child Care, G.D.P. Somaratne confirmed to the Sunday Times that Prem Nivasa is registered as a Child Development Centre, explaining that they were doing a good job looking after children whom no one wanted and also women who had either fallen into trouble or been abused who were rejected by society.

Adoption figures islandwide

There have been 70 foreign adoptions and 1,571 local adoptions from across the country in 2009, according to the latest figures available from the central Department of Probation and Child Care.

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