In the Best Interest of the Child

A mobile exhibition by the National Child Protection Authority titled Daruwan Surakimu in 2018 'to protect children who are the life of the nation and to build a safe environment for their physical and mental, development" (Courtesy NCPA)

Kshama Ranawana

If there is one thing that is clear, following the recent interactions the police had with children, it is that Sri Lanka has a long way to go in terms of raising awareness amongst the public, and more so the with public officers in child rights and  interactions with children.

“Child Protection in Sri Lanka is a National Crisis!” says Dr. Tush Wickramanyake, Founder Chairperson of the Stop Child Cruelty Trust.

“One of the fundamental principles of Child Protection endorsed globally “in the BEST interest of the child”. This is the gold standard principle that all members of society, irrespective of their personal/professional/political agendas should aspire to – consider every child as their own and protect their privacy, confidentiality and dignity.”

This is not to say the country lacks suitable policies and regulations on child rights.  In fact there’s a plethora of mechanisms put in place to protect our children; there is the National Child Protection Authority, the Department of Probation and Child Care Services and the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs etc.   Sri Lanka signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 26th January 1990 and ratified it on 12th July 1991, which was followed with the Children’s Charter in 1992.

A more recent creation is the 2016-2020 policy frame work on the National Plan of Action for Children in Sri Lanka.  The Department of Probation and Child Care Services, the implementing body of the Convention on the Rights of the Child has a Child Rights Protection Officers attached to every Divisional Secretariat according to information on its website. And then of course we have the Children and Women’s Desks of the Police Force.

Despite all that the two incidents that took place in May and June this year makes one wonder about how aware and prudent the public officers such as the police is in cases that involve children, and how well citizens are aware of the rights of the child.

From Elpitiya we learnt that a 14 year old boy had been taken to the police station until his father, who was needed for questioning turned up.  The police, according to the news reports had taken the boy, though he had been left to care for his younger brother, while his mother was out. So it seems that he was taken to the station, without parental consent or in the company of a guardian.  That boy has since lodged a complaint with the National Police Commission.

A stamp issued to mark the Convention of the Rights of the Child
A stamp issued to mark the Convention of the Rights of the Child

Then there was an even more disturbing case, when video footage emerged showing a young boy being man-handled by some of the policemen near a check point in Dharga Town.  While the police maintained the child was not assaulted and that he came by his injuries when he lost control of his bike, when they attempted to stop him, the fact remains that at least four grown men were seen man-handling him.  What’s more one of the civilians who joined in the melee was seen fetching string or a piece of cloth, which is believed to have been used to restrain the boy.

That boy was identified as Tariq Ahmed on Twitter, a 14 year old, who had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was 4, and it is reported that currently his mental capacity is that of a six year old.  The police, in their media releases stated that Tariq had been seen cycling about the area in violation of the COVID-19 Quarantine regulations.  The media statement said that he was well built and that they had put his behaviour down to being under the influence of drugs.  While the three police officers involved in that incident have been interdicted pending investigation, the police state that the disciplinary action is because they failed to arrest the boy, and not because they man-handled him.  Twitter reports also said that the Judicial Medical Officer Tariq had been referred to following the incident, had also made disparaging remarks about his condition.

For the sake of argument let’s accept that the police officers believed Tariq to be under the influence of drugs.  Both in his case and in the case of the boy from Elpitiya however, the police should have acted in accordance with the various laws and policies dealing with children; “Every child has the right to life, liberty and security of person as well as opportunities for equitable wellbeing and development. No child shall be subjected to abuse, neglect or forced labour. No child shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and persons under 18 years of age shall have the right to recognition everywhere as a child before the law.”  So goes the first of the guiding principles and values listed in the National Child Protection and Policy.

Says a former Inspector General of Police, Chandra Fernando, who had also been the Senior DIG in charge of training, “there are more than enough regulations formulated for the protection of children and women and police officers are trained in all of these laws.  They are given a thorough understanding of the laws so they could carry out their duties efficiently.  However, the drawback is in the proper implementation of the regulations’.   Talking to Counterpoint Mr. Fernando stated that strict implementation of the law happens only when integrity and commitment are displayed by all; from the top down. There are Children and Women’s Desks at Police Stations, however that does not mean that a  Police Officer would do that job right, unless the right officer, who has dedication to the assigned work is placed in that position.

The police, he said is also trained in soft skills, to be ‘human, honest, to have integrity and show the right attitude.’  “We train them on a case by case basis, where there is discussion on how different situations should be handled.’    If that is the case, asked Counterpoint  how did the police officers in the Dharga Town incident man-handle the child?  “Training or not, police officers must learn to use their discretion, show sympathy and empathy,” Mr. Fernando said.

A legal officer attached to a Child Rights organisation who spoke on condition of anonymity told Counterpoint that in the case of Tariq Ahmed, the fact that he was prevented from moving, amounts to the child being in custody.  That is in violation of the constitutional guarantees that protect all children, irrespective of situation or status, the officer explained.  While victims can appeal for justice through a Fundamental Rights petition or complaint to the Human Rights Council of Sri Lanka, the officer also stated that section 308 A of the Penal Code, which deals with actions that can be determined as cruelty to children would also apply.

Says Dr. Rekha Attidiya, a Clinical Psychologist, when children are a in a vulnerable position, police must learn to adhere to the guidelines provided in handling the situation.  In the case of an autistic child, more often than not, it is difficult, at first glance to realise the child is intellectually challenged, owing to varying degrees and manifestations of the condition.  “Therefore, it is important is to ensure that all those having contact with children in their official capacity are provided the training to minimise any harm; they need to learn not to be reactive.’  In this case, Dr. Attidiya says, both parents and officials need to be more aware of how to deal with the intellectually challenged. ‘Such children usually keep to a routine, and may refuse to do something different.  This is not being stubborn and officials and public need to understand that.’  These incidents are an eye opener she says, to introduce better training and awareness programmes so society learns to be more accepting of all; the abled and the differently-abled.

While the case of the boy from Elpitiya was reported in the media, the first to highlight the Dharga Town incident was former MP for Batticaloa Ali Zahir Moulana, through Twitter.  Speaking to Counterpoint Mr. Moulana agreed that sensitivity training for those  dealing with children is very important.  ‘More so, he said, when officials are dealing with the intellectually challenged and marginalised, they must have the training on how to interact.”  In the case of Tariq, steps are being taken to ensure he and his family receive the justice they deserve, he added.

Hemanishantha Withanage, Senior Mental Health Officer at the National Council for Mental Health says not only the police, but educationists, the medical profession, the judiciary; in short, anyone interacting with children in their official capacity must have a good understanding of how to deal with the young.  Conducting one or two day workshops on how to handle children is insufficient, and there must also be better training and awareness around working with special needs kids. ‘Their knowledge in dealing with such persons is very low,” he said, adding that the current practice of conducting mental health awareness programmes on request is insufficient.

Courtesy UNICEF Sri Lanka
Courtesy UNICEF Sri Lanka

“In developed countries, any professional who comes into contact with child services or inter-action with children such as educators, doctors, sports coaches, dance instructors, child protection officers, law enforcement, legal/judiciary etc. all MUST undergo compulsory Child Protection Training and update every 2-3 years,” says Dr. Wickramayake.  She also said that in other countries civilians and Civil Society organisations work together to protect children, adding that in Sri Lanka, there is a common repulsion by the Authorities to build partnerships with civil societies.”

“There are clear Government rules about sharing of images of children on Main Stream Print/Electronic Media and Social Media. If one or two persons are prosecuted without favour, Law and Order is established instantly, even without the need for a special task force, she told Counterpoint.

Dr. Wickremanayake stated that she had been appointed in June 2019 by the then Minister of Justice to the committee on ‘Justice in Matters Involving Child Victims and Witnesses of Crime’, The Committee was tasked with looking into a law in justice matters involving Child Victims and Witnesses of Crime, Consideration of the Child protection Bill and Ending Corporal Punishment in schools, a common form of abuse both here and globally. ‘We were successfully working on the first matter mentioned including the introduction of a Child Protection Training and Appraisal scheme. However, the work of the committee was suddenly arrested due to a political agenda, a very common and primitive unprofessional practice of the Politicians in our progressive paradise isle.”

‘Please, tell me of any country except Sri Lanka that has released convicted child murderers on death row,” Dr. Wickramanayake added, stating, “Such is the measurement of child protection in Sri Lanka!’

 

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