Amongst the suggestions made at recent Reconciliation meetings in the North was that Divisional Secretaries should prepare systematic schedules of assistance that has been received in each Grama Niladhari Division in vital areas such as housing and livelihood. The first such returns have now come in, and will provide a useful planning tool for helping to ensure that assistance is supplied in the future to where it is most needed.

I am however also indebted to the Divisional Secretary of Vavuniya Town for initially adding on a page on Child Protection work, since that is an area of particular concern, and should be all over the country. Prominent on this page, in addition to Divisional Child Development Committees, were Children’s Clubs, which had only recently come to my attention. This was because, when I was looking through the schedule of aid projects, in a massive document that dealt with all projects in the North, I found several relating to the establishment of Children’s Clubs, with tiny amounts spent in each area, expenditure about which the Divisional Secretary concerned had no idea at all. This suggested that such projects were not especially useful, but when I questioned them I was told by the head of the National Child Protection Authority, which has been instrumental in promoting some packages that included these projects, that such institutions were essential.

They provided a forum for those concerned with the welfare of children to meet, and discuss problems and try to provide solutions. Such coordination it seemed had not been common previously. Indeed I noted that the membership did not in all places include all relevant personnel, but at least a start had been made in bringing together officials such as school Principals and Public Health Inspectors with members of Rural Development Societies and other community based organizations. Officials such as the Police and Child Protection and Samurdhi Officers were also included in different areas, and members of the crucial but much neglected profession of pre-school teachers. I was also glad that the unit of responsibility was the Grama Niladhari Division, since that is the best way of ensuring a sense of responsibility, although, as the reports noted, problems of any degree would need to be referred to the next level up. This is the Divisional Secretariat, which has better access to professional support services.I am however also indebted to the Divisional Secretary of Vavuniya Town for initially adding on a page on Child Protection work, since that is an area of particular concern, and should be all over the country. Prominent on this page, in addition to Divisional Child Development Committees, were Children’s Clubs, which had only recently come to my attention. This was because, when I was looking through the schedule of aid projects, in a massive document that dealt with all projects in the North, I found several relating to the establishment of Children’s Clubs, with tiny amounts spent in each area, expenditure about which the Divisional Secretary concerned had no idea at all. This suggested that such projects were not especially useful, but when I questioned them I was told by the head of the National Child Protection Authority, which has been instrumental in promoting some packages that included these projects, that such institutions were essential.

Responsibilities range from monitoring the school milk project to identifying vulnerable cases. No details were supplied as to what is done about these, but I noticed in one report a reference to preventing admission to the children’s home, which suggests that the NCPA has succeeded in creating awareness of the need to provide children with a home environment. Unfortunately, many children are sent to what ends up being impersonal and sometimes destructive care because of economic need, and it was good that the NCPA had identified this as a problem and encouraged mechanisms to prevent this. Sewalanka had earlier sent me a schedule of a project they worked on through which livelihood assistance was provided to families that would otherwise part with their children, and Save the Children, which had overall charge of the project, explained the concept and the benefits that had resulted.

In some instances of course parents are absent, or cannot manage, but in principle, even without the added reason of the generally sorry state of most children’s homes, we need to promote foster care, along with effective systems of monitoring and supervision. Ideally this should not be on the basis of simple handouts, but should promote livelihoods, as incentives to households to take responsibility for other children if they are able to. In particular given the large number of orphaned children in the North, or children with a single vulnerable parent, developing a community based network would make a lot of sense.

However we should also note that similar mechanisms are desirable in the rest of the country too. By and large the children’s homes in operation now do not provide proper care for children committed to them. I should note that there are exceptions, and in some cases those in charge do their best though defeated by financial and other realities, but by and large we need to implement reforms so as to limit the suffering, and the long term problems, of children in such institutions.

A few years back, Justice Shirani Thilakawardana produced a very helpful report suggesting reforms in several areas affecting children, but I fear that movement on these has been far too slow. Certainly efforts have been made, but in particular with regard to developing much more consistent systems with regard to children in care, and ensuring regular reporting and monitoring, there is much more that must be done. We also need to ensure proper follow up on the part of magistrates when children are remanded or otherwise sent to homes. At present, though there have been instances of conscientious magistrates who visit homes and interpret their duties in a broad sense, such obligations are more often observed in the breach.

Given current concepts of judicial independence – where I fear there is confusion between independence as to decisions, which should be sacrosanct, and independence as to procedures, where the judiciary should be as subject as any other institution to rules and concomitant obligations – it is only the judiciary that can ensure its responsibilities are taken seriously. The Secretary to the Ministry of Justice has, following discussions on the National Human Rights Action Plan, written to the Chief Justice asking for regular meetings to be convened to discuss reforms with regard to sentencing and remanding, but as yet we have not seen progress. If only for the sake of our children, and in view of the judicial and judicious recommendations of Justice Thilakawardana, I hope action will be taken soon – or at least advice given – to remedy the situation.

Daily News 13 July 2012 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/07/13/fea05.asp

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