I discussed in Rights Watch last week the need to develop community structures for protection purposes. Whilst this will go some way towards helping the vulnerable, we also need much better structures at state level for dealing with problems, in particular those affecting women and children.
The conditions of many of our children’s homes are disgraceful. Some do a good job, and I am sure that many who fall short do so out of helplessness rather than cruelty, but that is no excuse in the eyes of those who suffer. We need then to radically rethink the system, making more use of foster care and ensuring both proper supervision, and a practical allocation of available resources.
One suggestion we have made to the police is that they maintain a system of accurate statistics that should inform all decision makers. Thus, if they are recommending to a magistrate that a child should be sent to a particular home, they should also provide statistics as to how many the home is designed for and how many are actually in residence. They should also request clear instructions from magistrates as to how long children should be placed in custody, with specifications as to when that custody should end or be renewed, and if so, under what conditions.
Records of such matters should be maintained with probation offices as well as magistrates, with regular reports to the National Child Protection Authority. I have been impressed with the tremendous work done by that agency in recent months, and in particular the close attention paid to the North, with regular visits and inspections of homes. Recently I found a situation where a Magistrate had ordered the continuation of a home that had not been registered, where children were kept with no proper authorization. I am sure there are many such examples, and officials in the regions must work together with the police and the judiciary to prevent abuse or even slipshod approaches to formal requirements.
Because children’s homes are often in a mess, children are frequently remanded in jails without second thoughts. This is disastrous, because it generally dooms them to a life of hopelessness. The result is even greater problems for the state, in addition to increased expenditure. It would be far more sensible to embark now, as envisioned in the President’s budget speech, on a programme of radical reform that would give such youngsters training and hope for the future, through programmes of rehabilitation. The cost may seem more at this stage, but it would be economical in the long term. Supervision of such programmes could also be entrusted to the graduates the government often has to employ, to no productive end.
Other simpler measures that should be instituted include ensuring that Magistrates fulfil the responsibilities laid upon them to visit places of remand, prisons as well as children’s homes. Some do this regularly, which suggests that others are simply lethargic. If the Judicial Services Commission insisted, as I gather it used to do when Justice Priyantha Perera was a livewire there, that Magistrates should fulfil their duties, and that promotions would depend on both acting and reporting in a responsible fashion, I have no doubt the situation would improve. Even if visits were not as frequent as originally envisaged, when magistrates had more leisure, knowledge that such visits could occur at any time would keep those responsible for custody on their toes.
Magistrates should also require from probation officers regular reports on their work. The need for counseling and psycho-social support may not be easy for a magistrate to judge, but probation officers should be trained in such and should record their findings and their recommendations on a regular basis. Such monitoring will also prevent situations that are not infrequent, of children who are committed, often for protection rather than because they have themselves committed any offence, being forgotten. In this regard we have also suggested that specific timelines be given for reports that are needed. The Government Analyst sometimes delays reports which means unfair incarceration, and sometimes delays in the Attorney General’s Department dealing with files has the same outcome.
In addition to all these improvements that could be made to correctional procedures, I found however in recent discussions that there is also deep concern about a very different type of pressure that is now being brought to bear on children in general. This arises from the current educational system, which is dedicated to cramming of knowledge for examinations, rather than productive of rounded citizens.
Tackling the issue as a whole will require much cogitation, but one point that came up is the absence for most children of programmes of extra-curricular activity that contribute to socialization. I remember when I was in school there was a requirement that one should do either cadeting or scouting, but I suspect that would not go down well today with parents dedicated to tuition. The result is that children forego the opportunity to learn about working together and taking initiatives and responsibilities.
It would make sense then to restore the concept of the school being responsible for more than mere teaching. This would be easier if schools were permitted to revert to double session, to build up the sense of community that was a feature of education in the past. An interval for children to play actively, opportunities to engage together in productive activities after school instead of rushing home to lunch and tuition, would help in strengthening the other capacities children need. And this might also help to reduce all the improper if not criminal activities that were brought to my attention when I was at Reconciliation Committees in the North. The concern in particular in Jaffna with the ills of the tuition industry brought home to me how seriously the people there took education, and we in turn should recognize the importance of their concerns in this regard.
By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha