Welfare Department must act in child abuse cases


  • Letters
  • Thursday, 16 Jan 2020

WE tend to think of schools as being safe places but sadly abuse of children is not uncommon here, as the recent news reports of a secondary school principal who is allegedly involved in the sexual grooming of a student and sending obscene messages show.

We hope that swift action would be taken to support the children involved whenever abuse is detected. It is heartening to hear Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching saying she would not stand for any cover-ups and would take such allegations seriously, and that she is committed to making sure that schools are safe for our children.

We are also happy that the police are investigating this particular case. Remember that besides the Child Act 2001 (amended 2016), we also have the Sexual Offences Against Children (SOAC) Act 2017 to support the authorities that are taking action on child abuse cases.

We, however, appeal to the Education Ministry to be open about the number of cases of child sexual abuse in schools that have been brought to the attention of the authorities but not acted on. There have been allegations of children in boarding schools being sexually abused (especially in Sabah and Sarawak) but these have been brushed aside.

When action is taken, it is usually to transfer the teachers concerned to another school or place them in administrative positions instead of initiating legal proceedings against them. Teachers are placed in administrative positions for years (at taxpayer’s expense) for alleged abuse because no one trusts them to return to teaching children.

We would like to point out the common misconception that “the victim has to lodge a police report”. It is important to recognise that the Child Act clearly outlines “children in need of care and protection” and makes it mandatory for the police and Welfare Department to act regardless of a police report being made.

Section 18 states: “Any Protector (Welfare Officer) or police officer who is satisfied on reasonable grounds that a child is in need of care and protection may take the child into temporary custody.”

What is of concern in this discussion is the frequent lack of response by the Welfare Department in most cases of abuse in schools be they national type, tafiz, private or home schools.

The Welfare Department requires no notification or request to act. The Child Act mandates it to act to ensure the safety of a child, and other children, in a school once there is an allegation of abuse, as in this recent case which was highlighted by the media.

Under the Child Act, a social welfare officer who is appointed is called a child “Protector”. The powers of this “Protector”, as clearly spelt out in the Child Act, are vast and comprehensive. A child protector (social welfare officer) is empowered to enter any premises, including schools/religious institutions, and remove any child in need of protection.

So why, we need to ask, is the Welfare Department so powerless despite being backed by such a powerful legislation?

There are a number of possible reasons, the first being that the majority of social welfare officers are not trained social workers. They are trained in other basic disciplines that often have no relevance to child protection. Hence, they lack the expertise required for child protection.

Secondly, some social welfare officers do not know the Child Act well. This is the reality experienced by those of us who have worked with them over the years.

Thirdly, majority of social welfare officers may have a patriarchal outlook towards figures of authority. They may operate from their cultural and religious perspective and tend to defer to religious and other authorities even though the allegations are covered under the Child Act and are possibly criminal.

Fourthly, some do not understand that children have rights and that the Child Act has placed the rights of children above the rights of parents/teachers when there is an allegation of abuse.

Ultimately, many may not have the best interests of the child at heart. What they have is the interest of the parents, organisations and society as their focus.

We may appear harsh and critical in saying this, but we know the reality on the ground because we are child advocates (paediatricians, lawyers, social workers, NGO officers and etc) who have worked for many years with the Welfare Department to try and get our system in place.

Remember that the Child Act was already in place in 1991 as the Child Protection Act. We’ve had decades to get our act together, but we appear to be still struggling with the basics.

Over the years, many of us have lobbied the Welfare Department, reached out to the minister concerned, attempted to support by working alongside or offering training, and written to the press about the Child Act and child protection, but all efforts appear to have failed. So the time has come to be transparent and fully honest about the Welfare Department. The sad reality in Malaysia is the Welfare Department has failed in its child protection role.

The way forward is clear and has been articulated many times but not acted on. Social welfare officers who are child protectors should be trained social workers, and we need not hundreds but thousands of them in the Welfare Department. This single step alone may help reform child protection in Malaysia and bring it into the 21st century.

The preamble to the Child Act states: “Acknowledging that a child, by reason of his/her physical, mental and emotional immaturity, is in need of special safeguards, care and assistance, after birth, to enable him/her to participate in and contribute positively towards the attainment of the ideals of a civil Malaysian society:

“Recognising every child is entitled to protection and assistance in all circumstances without regard to distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, social origin or physical, mental or emotional disabilities or any other status...”

DATUK DR AMAR-SINGH HSS (Senior consultant paediatrician)

DATIN P. H. WONG (Project director, Childline Foundation)

ANANTI RAJASINGAM (CEO, Yayasan Chow Kit)

GOH SIU LIN (Child advocate)

BOARD OF TRUSTEES CHILD RIGHTS INNOVATION & BETTERMENT (CRIB) FOUNDATION

MARY CHEN (Child advocate)

VIJAYAKUMARI PILLAI (Child advocate)

YAP SOOK YEE (Child advocate)

WOMEN’S CENTRE FOR CHANGE

VOICE OF THE CHILDREN

SPOT

P.S. THE CHILDREN

SITI HAWA (Child advocate)

TG. NUR FADZILAH TG. HASSAN (Child advocate)

KASTHURI KRISHNAN (Child advocate)


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