What I think of as the brilliant idea of the Secretary of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs to set up Women and Children’s Units in Divisional Secretariats did have a precedent in what were termed Social Care Centres. These were set up in tsunami affected areas to coordinate the work of all agencies concerned with social service. Though they were comparatively few in number, and some have ceased to function, the successful coordination efforts that many brought to bear would provide useful lessons for the new Units. Indeed, in recent visits to the East, I have found that some still function, which will facilitate the coordination needed.
They had developed an operations manual that can be used to develop procedures, bearing in mind the difference between the DS Office and the SCC in fulfilling the needs and the rights of the people. Joint ownership of this model between the Ministries of Social Welfare and of Child Development should be developed, with officials of the former also being active members of the Units.
The resources the Government can make available must be known by the community, and these should not be diminished. Technical gaps with regard to delivery should be narrowed by developing models and setting up partnerships between academics and practitioners. The model must also be promoted and officer profiles developed so that working in it will be attractive to diploma holders and graduates of social work. The public image of the social work professional must also be raised.
Amongst the most important needs at present, and not only in the North, is Psycho-social support. Providing this must be a primary responsibility of the Women and Children’s Unit, working together with the Ministry of Health.
We need better counseling mechanisms, which need to be coordinated, preferably by the Ministry of Health, which should allocate responsibility for coordination of work in each Division to the Medical Officer. For this purpose, as well as for better coordination in general, it would make sense for the Health Ministry, and the Education Ministry too, to ensure that areas of responsibility for local officials were commensurate with those of other government officials, on the basis of Divisional Secretariats.
The MoH, or a Psycho-Social counselor and coordinator designated by him and reporting to him, should provide overall psycho social support to communities in the designated DS division and initiate support mechanisms in the community with stakeholders. Delivery must be monitored by the Woman and Children’s Unit, given also its responsibility, through representatives of the Ministry of Social Services, for social care in the wider sense.
For all this to be successful, we need to develop professionals, with a Degree or Diploma in Counselling, and appropriate experience in counseling and training. It is also important to ensure sensitivity to the needs of internally suffering vulnerable children as well as adults, and good organizational management and leadership skills.
While the work of psycho-social counselors will include attention to adults, special attention must be paid to children and adolescents. This should include work with the families of vulnerable children. There should also be basic education on protection concerns related to women and children. Attention should also be paid to developing supportive groups within the community for vulnerable children, while regular workshops at community level and schools, in collaboration with the Ministries of Health and Education, are essential.
With regard to Social Care, while the Unit will have to deal with a range of vulnerabilities, special attention must be paid to children. In particular, strategies should be implemented to help those with Learning Disabilities. Social Care must also be extended creatively to children in contact with the criminal justice system. Early intervention is vital in this area, with counseling to reduce re-offending and also deal with mental health problems as well as problems arising from substance misuse.
All officials of the Ministry of Social Services should be responsible for monitoring the general situation in the Divisions in which they work, and for preparing Vulnerability Indices with the assistance of Grama Niladharis. Attention must be paid to families with one or both parents away, for migrant or other labour or other reasons, and the families of those in prison.
The Unit must in particular ensure protection of children who come into contact with the Law. New regulations in this regard should come into force soon, but in any case we should establish clear guidelines now to prevent secondary victimization of children in need of care and protection as well as Juvenile Offenders. Responsibilities should be shared between the Judiciary as well as Probation Officers, with monitoring by the National Child Protection Agency. The presence of Court Registrars is essential when District based cases involving women and children are taken up.
The need for strict adherence to the system laid down, and the maintenance of records, must be made clear. We cannot allow children to slip through the system, or fail to ensure that both the judiciary and the social care agencies fulfil their responsibilities to such children. It must be mandatory then for the Registrar of the Court, on the very first date of contact with the Law, to send details of any institutionalized children to the NCPA and the Provincial Probation Commissioner
The Probation Commissioner and the NCPA officer should liaise then with the relevant Probation Officer and the officer in charge of the relevant institution to verify arrival and the wellbeing of the child. Special cases must also be identified and appropriate action taken. The NCPA officer must promptly fill up the prescribed status report with observations and recommendations, and take action to ensure monitoring and follow up as required.
Joint trainings for NCPA Officers and Provincial Probation Officers to implement the procedure in the best interests of children is essential, as also to ensure coordination of the different agencies and institutions involved, but the proposed new Units should be able to ensure this.