Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

The Care of Children 31 - Clarity as to procedures and processes

( Created date: 08-Mar-2013 )

Some heartache has been roused by the detention of a young girl for supposedly stealing coconuts. This is as it should be, but it should also be realized that this is not an isolated case. A few months ago, as I have written previously, a boy in Anuradhapura was punished for having supposedly stolen a pigeon.

The indignation expressed at this by the then new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs is what made it crystal clear to me that government had chosen the right person for the job. Sadly I saw little similar emotion in others. I find this difficult to understand, but I suppose many are now hardened to the suffering that is inflicted on children in so many ways due to the sausage machine mentality that informs so many of our laws and practices.

This mentality arises, as the very sharp, and equally admirable, Consultant on children who helped to draft recent legislation noted, from a continuation of old British Poor Law mentality – which the British of course have made advances on. This explains why the latest proposed Children (Judicial Protection) Bill combines procedures in Courts with processes for the care of children in homes. Though the present draft is much better than what we had before, the idea still persists that children who come in contact with the law need to be controlled, not that they should be supported.

The same mentality informs the Vagrants’ Ordinance, which I seem to be fighting a lone battle against. I should register however my gratitude to the Hon Ajith Perera, who has supported my pleas at the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Justice, more ably I should add, given his experience in the Courts. But the decision made there, that that Ordinance should be repealed, has not been carried out, and so we still function on the belief that women found in the street with no clear explanation of what they are doing should be punished rather than helped. Hence the 71 mentally deficient women at Methsevana, with no medical attention except from an attendant with hardly any educational qualifications. And the commitment of the Institute of Mental Health to visit them daily cannot be activated because government cannot provide transport.
In trying to expedite the new Act the Secretary produced a memo which succinctly laid down the philosophy that should be followed in child care. This included the need for the development (constant I hope) of National Policy and means of enforcing this and monitoring development. I hope then that the slight changes the present draft needs will be introduced soon, since it would be too much to hope for rationalization that would separate the judicial element from legislation about proper care.
With regard to the judicial element, badgering did finally lead to a response in September last year from the Secretary to the Judicial Services Commission, to the effect that they had taken measures ‘to inform Magistrates regarding the detention of women and children’. But if they are indeed constructive, then it is difficult to see how the cases that have prompted these observations could have occurred.

What is regrettable is that there seems no understanding of the fact that any guidelines that are issued should be available to the public and to lawyers. Given that, unlike the other branches of government, the Judiciary is not accountable to the public through an electoral process, it is even more important that their activities should be monitored by the public. This can be done if the rules according to which they function are transparent, allowing for them to be assessed in terms of those rules as well as the legislation Parliament has passed.

Another reason for making such guidelines public is that they could be revised if necessary, since in matters such as this it is best to take into consideration the views of stakeholders who work with women and children. If comprehensive guidelines were combined with the sort of Duty Attorney Scheme envisaged in the National Human Rights Action Plan, then the cases that have been mentioned, and the many others that fall by the wayside, could be avoided.

With regard to the care element, we obviously need to strengthen the input of the National Child Protection Authority, given that is mandate followed on the greater international understanding of Protection of Children as exemplified in United Nations Covenants. Probation is a devolved subject, and it is desirable that delivery of services should be through the Province, and indeed, on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity, through small units that can pay careful attention to local conditions. That is why it seems absurd that Probation Officers are now appointed to District Secretariats, and share work throughout the District, whereas it makes more sense to appoint them to Divisions with specific responsibilities.

But while delivery should be in manageable units, Policy must be developed nationally, albeit with constant consultations, and its enforcement must be monitored nationally. We cannot have different standards in different areas, as happens at present, with some Provinces providing good care and others being negligent.

In both areas, we need to have much better liaison between the Police and service providers, including Probation Officers and officials responsible for the care and protection of children (as well as women). It has been worrying to find that, in many Divisions, there is hardly any contact between the range of actors responsible for these vulnerable groups. The Women and Children’s Units that the Secretary has proposed need to be set up soon, and can follow the guidelines developed by the Social Care Centres set up after the tsunami, while ensuring regular consultations of all actors. But the process of consultation need not wait for that, and should start straight away through the initiative of Divisional Secretaries and those in charge of Women and Children’s Desks at Police Stations.


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