Be aware, act on all forms of child abuse

Children deserve every form of protection we can extend to them.
Children deserve every form of protection we can extend to them.
WAITING for the scars may be too late to save a child. Over the past two decades, there have been increasing efforts worldwide to prevent the rising incidence of child abuse. In Malaysia, the Welfare Department's 2008 statistics provide evidence for this alarming increase.The Unicef "Get on Board" campaign was launched last year, aimed at educating the public on child abuse.

The term "child abuse" brings to most people's minds a vulnerable child, covered with scars from physical or sexual abuse. But those of us who work with children have seen the equally damaging effects of emotional, psychosocial abuse, or neglect: the substantial parental failure to care for a child.

The Unicef representative to Malaysia, Hans Olsen, urged the nation to understand this broader definition of child abuse. It is imperative that the public understands the importance of this statement. If you think that physical and sexual abuse are the only types of abuse, then all the other child abuse cases would be missed.

Equally, do not wait for cuts and bruises on a child before taking action. We cannot wait for more children to die or be scarred for life. How many more deaths from child abuse are needed to prompt earlier action? Or do we forget the last death after sufficient time has passed, until the next case shocks the nation again?

If there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or likely to suffer significant harm, then action needs to be taken to protect the welfare of the child.

This advice falls flat if the public does not change its attitude and take action. Perhaps this stems from a lack of awareness, different moralistic or religious backgrounds, different opinions on what is acceptable, or reluctance to be seen as menyebok or interfering.

The fact is that enquiries into deaths from child abuse often show up missed opportunities for prevention. If only someone had taken earlier action. In my article here on March 26 last year, I expressed my disappointment at learning the Malaysian public's attitude to the caning of young children. Although most people would strongly object to caning, there remains a significant minority who are complacent about this practice. "Ah, unfortunately caning is common in Malaysia."

I regard this as an irresponsible, apathetic acceptance of an age-old culture. We are a forward-thinking society and will soon be a developed nation. It is time for Malaysians to stand up to this complacency, to declare any form of child abuse unacceptable, and to act accordingly.

I work in an unforgiving environment with zero tolerance of child abuse. Any professional working with children, be it a doctor, nurse, social worker or teacher who comes across yet fails to document, or report their concerns on a child's welfare, is heavily reprimanded, sacked, demoted or retrained. This zero tolerance needs to be adopted in Malaysia.

However, if public attitudes are going to change, then well-regulated government agencies need to be in place. There is nothing more disheartening than when mustering the courage to take action, one hits a brick wall because no regulated system exists. At present, we may have legislation on paper, but in practice, many with first-hand experience will readily report the lack of standardised regulations, the inadequacies of social welfare workers and most alarmingly, the lack of a "quality control" monitoring system to enable the early detection of these failures.

In April 2007, the New Sunday Times revealed that only one out of 10 social workers in the country was trained for the job. Three years after the story was published, the National Competency Standards for Social Work was introduced to establish standards for social workers. Last year, the New Straits Times reported another update on the lack of trained social workers.

On making important decisions, one often has to call upon one's own beliefs and morals. In child protection matters, no one should be making decisions alone. The inadequacy of this individualised system is a disaster waiting to happen.

In the case of a child abuse victim in the United Kingdom, Victoria Climbie, the enquiry learnt that the social worker for the victim made serious errors of judgment and decided that Victoria was not at risk of "significant harm". The case was closed a week before she died from horrific injuries.

We need to learn from this tragedy. Decisions surrounding child protection should not be left to any one individual. They should be multi-agency, with strict regulations in place.

We should applaud the plans for the Social Workers Bill, proposed last year by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. There is an urgent need for this. Similarly, nationwide child protection regulations and legislation-approved child protection training of all relevant workers should be enforced in the Malaysian judicial, police force, medical and education systems, to ensure a well-monitored and standardised, not individualised, system of safeguarding children. Or we would be failing to protect children. And this would not be in line with our trajectory as a developed nation.

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