All of us need to be constantly vigilant and to have inter-agency networking and support to ensure the protection and well being of children. Directly or indirectly, children depend on us for their safety and well being, writes Prema Devaraj.
The recent allegation of sexual abuse in a children’s home in Penang, as highlighted in the press, has brought to the fore a problem in some children’s homes which is not often spoken about. While recognising the many efforts taken by individuals as well as state authorities in setting up and managing children’s homes across the country, the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC) remains deeply concerned over the incidents and allegations of sexual abuse in children’s homes. We offer the following suggestions which may help manage and reduce the risk of sexual abuse of children in children’s homes.
Screening of staff and volunteers
Sexual abuse offenders in homes are often the children’s care givers who work with or spend a lot of time with the children, for example, a staff member or a volunteer. To help minimise the risk to the child, it is crucial that adequate screening or vetting of staff /volunteers be carried out prior to their employment or work with children in the home. The management board of homes should also ensure that there is regular supervision and monitoring of staff and volunteers in their interaction with children.
Empowerment of children in homes
Children are often powerless against a sexual offender who is usually in a position of authority over them. Their lack of knowledge of and lack of confidence over their rights, their fear of being blamed or disbelieved, and their lack of access to help means that children can be easily exploited and manipulated by offenders. If we are to protect children, children must be taught about the differences between good and bad touch and about not keeping secrets about bad touches. They must also be encouraged and empowered to seek help immediately should abuse take place. For this to happen, children’s homes need to operate within a framework in which the children’s rights and empowerment are central. This includes creating avenues where children are encouraged and taught how to raise and discuss the problems they face, for example, by having weekly children’s meetings with a trusted staff or board member. Keeping children docile or subservient only serves to allow abuse to continue once it starts.
Working with young offenders
Many of the children who live in children’s homes have come from difficult backgrounds where they have been victims of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. Sometimes a child, who has been sexually abused in the past, becomes an offender and sexually abuses a younger child or other children in the home. It would serve state and privately funded children’s homes to have trained staff who can identify and work with such children through intervention or therapeutic programmes to help the child heal from such trauma and to ensure the cycle of abuse is not perpetuated. Government funds should be put aside for recruiting child psychologists and other professionals in the community to support the staff in this work.
Reporting the abuse
Very often, a lack of awareness, disbelief and/or inaction by care givers and board members in a children’s home means that a sexual offender continues to have access to children, enabling the sexual abuse to continue, often over many years, with devastating long term impacts to the children. There is no shame in reporting the abuse. In fact, lodging a report shows a commitment to protecting children and stopping the abuse. Not only do staff and management boards of children’s homes need to be vigilant over the possible occurrence of child sexual abuse in their homes, they also have to respond immediately and appropriately when they become aware of such abuse.
Child protection, including risk management and reduction, is not a job done by a single agency. Sexual offenders live and operate amongst us in a variety of ways. All of us need to be constantly vigilant and to have inter-agency networking and support to ensure the protection and well being of children. Directly or indirectly, children depend on us for their safety and well being. We simply cannot let them down. We have to step up our efforts.
Prema Devaraj is Programme Director at the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC)