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Amidst a number of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees in the North last week, I also had a number of interactions with children, and with persons working with children. Two instances were serendipitous, but I was privileged to participate actively – and indeed exhaustingly – on one occasion. This was when I conducted, in a small school near Nedunkerni, one of the games that the former combatants had delighted in, during my first visit to the Rehabilitation Centre for girls in Vavuniya three and a half years ago.

The laughter of the girls on that occasion still illuminates in presentations of the Rehabilitation Bureau, as I saw last month at the Officer Career Development Centre Seminar at Buttala.  In Nedunkerni the children were younger, and even less inhibited.

I had come across well over 50 of them in the playground of the school at 5 pm, which was heartening. I have long argued that we need to ensure that schools are centres of community activity, but all too often schools are deserted after 2 pm. Here however, in addition to attractive new buildings, the school had quarters for the Principal and several staff. They too were in the playground, encouraging the activity and joining in.

The school had teachers even in subjects such as English and Maths and Science, as to which there had been complaints about shortages in almost all Divisions I had visited. Whilst obviously we need to increase supply, the situation here showed that one needs to provide decent facilities to ensure teachers will stay in remote areas to which transport is difficult. The youngsters I saw playing with the children were from Jaffna, but seemed quite content to stay in the school and participate in student life in the evenings. Almost no one had taken more than a day’s leave thus far in the year.
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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.
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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.
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One of the main problems faced by officials involved in the care of children is the lack of precise structures with aims and reporting mechanisms. The task of the NCPA and the Probation Department, whether they are combined or simply work together coherently, involves several dimensions. They must deal with the real needs of children and families instead of being governed by archaic concepts of control. They must understand their responsibility for policy, and ensuring accountability, without dissipating energies on service delivery, which should be left to local officials.

For this purpose they must ensure structured linkages, with other central ministries as well as provincial bodies, and promote multi-disciplinary networking, This requires strong community representation and linkages, withe staff employed on the basis of appropriate skills, with mechanisms for constant training.

The other institution within the Ministry of Child Development is the Children’s Secretariat. Currently this concentrates on children under 5, but its responsibilities should be extended to cover all children. Though other government agencies will provide education and health etc, the Secretariat should promote children’s rights in the fullest sense, and ensure holistic development. Its officials should liaise with officials at Divisional level to monitor progress and satisfactory delivery of services, and conformity to national standards. They must liaise with officials of the Ministries of Health and Education to develop guidelines for action and appropriate areas for intervention.
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An important item on the legislative agenda over the last few years has been a change to the 1939 Children and Young Persons Ordinance. A few years back, when Milinda Moragoda was Minister of Justice, he had asked for reports in various areas where it seemed justice was not being served. Not all the committees appointed have reported as yet, and there seems to have been little concern to expedite these. However, the indefatigable Shirani Thilakawardhana headed the committee asked to report on children, and she did a typically thorough job.

Unfortunately in the silly way we sometimes function, it seemed to have been decided to do nothing till all the reports were in, and so the proposed amendments have not yet come to Parliament. However the new Secretary to the Ministry of Justice understood the urgency of going ahead, and got comments from various urgencies, and has sent now sent what should be a final draft to the Ministry of Child Development for taking forward.

The new draft is certainly an advance on what we had before, and if we cannot improve on it soon, we should go ahead with it anyway, simply to get rid of provisions for caning, and the generally punitive approach taken 70 years ago to children in need. However it would be best if we had some intense consultation and produced something better, since this would also help with introducing some general principles with legislation.

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Last week saw an extremely productive consultation on promoting the Rights of Children. Organized by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, as decided at the meetings we have been holding over the last several months to better understand the problems and possible interventions, it was presided over by the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs.

In addition to officials from different branches of his Ministry, we also had excellent input from the Ministry of Health, which is especially important given the gaps in the provision of psycho-social support nationwide that we need to fill. While delivery will have to be through various agencies – school counselors that the Ministry of Education appoints, Probation Officers appointed by the Provinces, Social Service Officers appointed by that Ministry – we obviously need better coordination as well as training, and this can best be provided by the Ministry of Health.

We also had representation from the Ministry of Social Services. The Secretary had not been able to attend, which was in part our fault because it was only after the meeting had been arranged that we realized the importance of her presence too. But she was enormously cooperative when we met her and, though committed to a visit to Japan – which is a model that we should aim at in the care it provides for the vulnerable – she has agreed to pursue cooperation in this field on her return.

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On August 24th the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs held a consultation on children’s issues which brought together the various agencies working on the subject in his Ministry, together with representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s Department and the police, as well as some Non-Governmental Organizations that have contributed significantly to the promotion of the Rights and the Welfare of Children.

The purpose was better coordination, and the meeting followed on a request the Secretary had sent to his counterpart in Public Administration, requesting that he ask Divisional Secretaries to set up a Unit in each Division for Women’s and Children’s Affairs to ensure more coherent action. He noted there the various officials dedicated to this purpose, which include Women Development Officers, Child Rights Protection Officers, and Early Childhood Development Officers responsible to his Ministry. Others concerned with the issue include officials of the National Child Protection Authority, also under his Ministry, and Probation Officers who function under Provincial Ministries. The Unit would also need the close cooperation of officers from the Women and Children’s Desks that the Police have now established nationwide, effectively as far as the North is concerned, though I cannot speak for other areas.

One of the decisions made at the Consultation was that clear job descriptions should be drawn up for all these officials, to ensure comprehensive coverage of all areas whilst avoiding overlaps. At the same time it was noted that ensuring comprehensive coverage at all levels would require a division of responsibilities on a geographical basis, with one officer monitoring activities in a particular area and reporting on these to colleagues.

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Following the consultation at which the Probation Department produced an illuminating note about Children’s Homes, members of the contract group worked out suggestions to prevent what might be termed SECONDARY VICTIMISATION OF children brought before the courts. Though procedures have been laid down, they are often observed in the breach, as with the failure to specify and enforce limitations on those deemed to need care and protection.

This is unfortunately not unique in Sri Lanka for similar things happen with regard in general to those who are remanded, and in particular women arrested under the grotesquely outdated Vagrant’s Ordinance. This has been noted and a few years back reports were commissioned to proceed with reforms. But not all the reports were handed in, and they seemed to have been long forgotten, when we brought the matter up at the Parliamentary Consultative Committee.

One report that had been completed, characteristically, was that of Shiranee Tilekawardene, and it made some excellent recommendations with regard to children. However, again perhaps characteristically, it has not been acted upon systematically, one excuse given being that the Ministry was waiting for all the reports to come in.

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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

In dealing at some length, over several columns, with the meeting on Prisons convened by the Task Force on expediting implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, I have neglected an equally important meeting that took place the next day. On August 4th the new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment had a meeting to discuss initiative regarding children, to deal with problems raised in the plan.

The meeting on Prisons, which I had convened as requested by the Minister to look into the excellent report the ICRC had prepared on Overcrowding in Prisons, had ranged over a number of other issues too, including former LTTE combatants and those still in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Though we dealt much more swiftly with these problems after the conflict was over than other countries engaged in what they term a war against terrorism – which has with one notable exception never laid low hundreds of their citizens as happened to us, Muslims and Sinhalese and Tamils – there are still some issues to be resolved, and better coordination would I think help us to ensure justice as well as security for all our citizens.

In a very different way, this is what we need for children too, and the discussion in the Ministry covered a number of issues. Most important perhaps was a proposal the Secretary had initiated previously, by writing to the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, to ask that a Unit for Women and Children be set up in every Divisional Secretariat. The nucleus for such a Unit is present, with Women and Children’s Desks now established in most police stations, and a host of officials appointed to deal at that level with the problems of Women and Children.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2017
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