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Wednesday November 14, 2012

Paying heed to our conscience

THE line that separates what is legally wrong from what is morally right is sometimes hard to determine when compassion has to compete against rules and regulations.

For more than two decades, the Kem Modal Insan Kewaja in Gombak has been a safe refuge for many women, including those in their teens, who had been kicked out of their homes and rejected by their families for being pregnant out of wedlock.

On Friday, the halfway house was raided by the Federal Territory Welfare Department and ordered to be closed down, and its inmates transferred to various homes in the Klang Valley run by the department.

Apart from its illegal status, there were also allegations that the living conditions were terrible and that babies were put up for sale to foster parents when the mothers could not afford to raise them.

Home founder Yahya Mohamed Yusof did not deny that the home was unregistered or that living conditions were cramped because of the increasing number of inmates. But he fervently denied the allegation that the home was involved in a babies-for-sale racket.

There are differing versions as to whether the home made any effort to get itself registered but the fact remains that for the past 24 years, it has served a real need in offering hope to the mothers, and a lifeline to their babies.

As Yahya puts it: “We are just trying to fulfil our moral obligation to help these women. Everyone knows that there are not enough shelters.”

Although the desire to help seems more overwhelming than the need to conform to the will of the bureaucrats, a full investigation should be promptly carried out to address all the allegations.

Halfway homes spring up because of specific needs. Apart from unwed mothers, there are also shelters for abused women and former drug addicts undergoing rehabilitation. Often, they operate quietly in residential areas so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Unlike official homes, which tend to have an “institutional” feel, these halfway homes run by caring individuals and NGOs do find it a struggle fighting red tape.

The number of unregistered homes is high. Figures from the Welfare Department reveal that there could be as many as 1,357 unregistered homes compared with 928 registered ones.

And these numbers probably do not show the entire picture.

While it is important that all these homes are properly registered under the Care Centres Act, there are limitations due to the lack of resources and the need to work with other technical agencies such as the local authorities, Health Department and the Fire and Rescue Department.

The Welfare Department should take a leaf out of the recent initiative to register nurseries under the Childcare Centres Act whereby those centres that meet the department's minimum requirements can register with the department straight away, instead of being required to get approval from the technical agencies first.

Approval from the technical agencies is still necessary, of course, but the process can be expedited this way.

The heart of the matter here is that halfway homes serve a useful role in our society, and those that have operated for years without any untoward incidents should be given priority to get the official stamp of approval.

And the heart of officialdom, surely, must beat with compassion when it comes to the needs of those marginalised by society.

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