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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tsunami children revisited: the need for professionals in child protection

Daily News: 26/10/2006" By Dr D. CHANDRARATHNA

CHILD PROTECTION: Two years after the tsunami we need to take stock of the efforts taken to rehabilitate the children who lost parents and siblings in the most tragic manner. Both State and non State organisations have expended large sums of money and many man hours to attend to the plethora of problems that the children are facing and likely to face in the future if no action is taken now.

In 2004 when tsunami struck it was abundantly clear that the country had no professionally qualified workforce in the social welfare sector to handle the clinical needs of the children. It is true that those currently in the child protection field are graduate officers without tertiary level professional training.

Though they are committed and motivated they have not been afforded the competencies needed by today's international standards to attend to these problems that have come to our attention in various gatherings of the child protection workers.

Let us examine a few of the serious issues that have recently cropped up which are of concern. The tsunami atmosphere has now virtually dissipated in the minds of the general populace and hence the correct attitudes of concern, compassion, non judgmental reactions which were manifest everywhere in 2004 are all but gone.

The compassion has turned into ridicule in some places. My interest here is about children and they have become objects of ridicule. Children are subject to stereotypical labeling with serious consequences in the young minds.

We have known for decades that it is one thing to commit a deviant act such as lying or stealing but to label someone as a thief or a liar has more potent consequences on the individual.

The label evokes a characteristic imagery, that suggests a person who is given to certain kinds of behaviour as a matter of habit. There are a whole host of sinister and odious implications in the application of this label. I am told that the labels are far too many to recount.

But they activate sentiments and call out responses in other children and adults: rejection, contempt, suspicion, withdrawal, fear and hatred. The acceptance of the label obviously is not inevitable.

We have all experiences when our classmates and parents have at times called us various things, ugly, black, white, short, long: the list is long. These definitions are not real and do not mean that we act them out always. But certain definitions when applies are real in their consequences.

But these labels, as we have come to know them are real because they happen in the immediate social self of the victims.

Our Tsunami children have no escape from these social interactions and they are subject to them far too frequently. What we fear most is that these children may drop out of the education system if nothing is done about it.

If the labels engender the wrong psychological perceptions in the victims it might hasten them on a deviant career. The self is a delicate construct in young children and the way we act as adults is determined mostly by the manner in which we are seen by others.

If others begin to see these kids as somewhat different and strange from them those children may conceive them as strange and different. Studies have demonstrated overwhelmingly in the past that when we treat people as different because of our ignorance.

The result is that the person may act in the way we perceive. Studies have also shown that schoolchildren seen as liable to be educationally backward or vice versa turn out to confirm our presuppositions. If we define ourselves as incapable as a result of others' definitions we begin to act as if we are incapable.

We are certainly worried whether the lack of treatment for the children who are victims of labeling will jeopardize their life chances by being victims to the process. That definitely we would label as double jeopardy.

It will be apparent to many that some of the children who were caught up in the tsunami were or are now becoming teenagers. The sudden loss of the mother and the father has put them at terrible risk in search for love and affection.

They tend to turn to anyone who shows affection. For some it has been forthcoming from the grandparents or other good natured relatives. But for a few that we know, this has turned out to be a nightmare.

There are many who are becoming victims to the predatory hawks. The child protection workers have been informed of instances where teenagers have been duped by young and old and seduced and dumped.

The psychology of the teenager can be understood by a professionally trained worker, a resource that we are lacking. In a country where a psychiatric service of note is sadly lacking these young people have no recourse. Even to identify the presence of psychological problems we have no trained staff.

This is a sad indictment on all of us because these are vulnerable children who will suffer the worst if they are preyed on by unscrupulous persons. Prostitution, rape, HIV and suicides can be round the corner lurking at the young.

The relatives who rushed to look after the children who lost both parents are not guaranteed of the protection promised in the courthouses. Some tsunami children are treated as servants in the household. The step mothers have found a ready made servant for housework.

The children have no option but to continue the drudgery of menial labour. To properly interview a child and get the truth out of a friendly interview demands an expert like training which we have not given to any of our officers.

The child protection scene is advanced to prevent such abuses in other countries and we have to provide similar training to our child protection cadre but cost is not the prohibitive factor.

It is the lack of awareness of the need for such services that is rather unfortunate in Sri Lanka. 'Fit person orders' under the Sri Lankan law are not the end of a child protection issue but it has to be seen as the beginning.

Social workers are sorely missed in this tragic event and efforts are urgently needed to rectify this glaring void. Imagine the social problems in the country, child abuse, street children, displaced children, tsunami orphans, child soldiers, child trafficking and child servants, but why are we not preparing for the future.

Sri Lanka, in my estimation needs about 40 to 50000 social workers with tertiary qualifications. It is a fine vocation for graduates in the arts and humanities who follow courses in the universities which are not vocationally oriented.

The developed countries do not follow this pattern. We must learn from the good practices of other countries and offer our young people a meaningful career.

I have only listed a few issues out of a multitude of instances that has come to our attention. While some areas of child protection work are functioning well there are many that we need to revamp for the sake of the poor, vulnerable children.

They will not be able to enjoy full citizenship rights in this nation if their childhood is destroyed either wittingly or unwittingly by us. What needs to be done is to deliver a competent work force like in other countries.

Child protection is a specialization that warrants training and educational competence which cannot be equated to life experiences or custom and folklore. There is a bewildering array of knowledge bases that we have to impart.

There are so many that it is difficult to describe in this short paper. But certainly the world knows pretty well the value of family therapy, behaviour modification techniques, counselling, psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, and others.

A professional only can help these young people by mobilizing human resources for emotional support, social companionship, affirmation and social regulation.

They only can direct these teenagers in the pro-social behaviours. Preparing the child for life in difficult circumstances is the role of professionally trained persons.

Strengthening good behaviour patterns through operant learning, and modeling and eliminating the bad are important in work with these children.

These are techniques now used by psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and others trained in these approaches.

These behaviours are not 'sick' behaviours but problematic ones that can be modified by behavioral treatment. The post tsunami problems can satisfactorily be solved through modern psycho-social methods and we should equip our child protection staff on these lines.

Finally I must congratulate the Ministry of Social Services and Social welfare for planning for a diploma as the first response to this tragic situation. In Sri Lanka that Ministry is the lead Ministry in welfare education.

Experimenting with a diploma level program is the right approach for it can be improved in the fullness of time. It is heartening to note that they are preparing to fill a void that should not have been there in the first place.

The writer is Professor, Curtin University Perth, Australia.

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