The powerlessness of our Welfare Department
LETTER | The abuse of children in schools is sadly not uncommon. Schools are places we think of as safe but can be locations where children are physically, sexually or emotionally abused.
The recent case of a secondary school principal, who is allegedly involved in the sexual grooming of a student as well as sending obscene messages to students, is one of many that have occurred.
We hope to think that swift action is taken to support children whenever abuse is detected. It is heartening to hear Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching say that she will not stand for any cover-ups, that she takes such allegations seriously and that she is committed to making sure that schools are a safe place for our children.
It is also good to know that the police are investigating. Remember that besides the Child Act 2001 (amended 2016), we also have the new Sexual Offences against Children (SOAC) Act 2017 to support children and the authorities.
We, however, appeal to our deputy education minister to be open to the numerous cases of child sexual abuse in schools that have been brought to the attention of the education authorities but not acted on. Multiple children in boarding schools sexually abused (especially in Sabah and Sarawak) but allegations are often brushed aside.
Teachers are transferred out to other schools rather than action taken against them for their sexual abuse. Police reports are lodged but little action has been taken months later. Teachers are placed in administrative positions for years (at taxpayers’ expense) for alleged abuse, as no one trusts them to return to teaching children. We could go on. Much more action to support schooling children is required.
Could we point out a common misconception, that the “the victim has to lodge a police report”? It is important to recognise that the Child Act clearly outlines “children in need of care and protection” and makes it mandatory that the Police and Welfare Department act regardless of a police report. Section 18 of the Child Act states: “Any Protector (Welfare Officer) or police officer who is satisfied on reasonable grounds that a child is in need of care and protection may take the child into temporary custody…”
What is of concern in this discussion is the frequent lack of response by the Welfare Department in most abused cases that occur in schools - be it national type schools, tahfiz schools, private schools or home schools. The Welfare Department requires no notification or request to act. The Child Act mandates them to act to ensure the safety of a child, and other children, in a school once they are aware of an allegation of abuse happening, as in this recent case highlighted in the media.
Under the Child Act, a social welfare officer who is appointed is called a child “protector”. The powers of this “protector” are clearly spelt out in the Child Act and they are vast and comprehensive. It empowers the child protector (social welfare officer) to enter any premise, including schools/religious institutions, and remove any child in need of protection.
So we need to ask, why is the Welfare Department so powerless with such powerful legislation?
There are a number of possible reasons for this. Firstly, the majority of social welfare officers are not trained social workers but are trained in other basic disciplines, often with no relevance to child protection. Hence they lack the expertise required in child protection.
Secondly, some social welfare officers do not know the Child Act well. This is a reality for those of us who have worked with them over the years.
Thirdly, the vast majority of social welfare officers may have a patriarchal outlook towards authority figures. They may operate from their cultural and religious perspective and hence tend to defer to religious and other authorities, even though the allegations are covered under the Child Act and possibly criminal.
Fourthly, some do not understand that children have rights, and that the Child Act has placed the rights of children above the rights of parents/teachers when there is an allegation of abuse. Ultimately, many may not have the best interests of the child at heart. What they have is the interest of the parents, the organisations and society as their focus.
The statements above may appear harsh and critical but recognise that many of us as child advocates (paediatricians, lawyers, social workers, NGO officers, etc) have worked for many years with the Welfare Department to try and get our system in place.
Remember also that the Child Act was already in place in 1991 as the “Child Protection Act”. We have had decades to get our act together but appear to be still struggling with basics. Over the years, many of us have lobbied the Welfare Department, reached out to welfare ministers, attempted to support by working alongside or offering training, written in the press about the Child Act and Child Protection, but all efforts appear to have failed. So the time has come to be transparent and fully honest about the welfare department.
The sad reality in Malaysia is the Welfare Department has failed in its child protection role.
The way forward is clear and has been articulated many times, but not acted on. Social welfare officers, who are child protectors, should be trained social workers. And we need large numbers of them in the Welfare Department, not hundreds but thousands. This single step alone may help reform child protecting in Malaysia and bring it into the 21st century.
We leave you with the lofty preamble that comes from the Child Act, which states:
“Acknowledging that a child, by reason of his/her physical, mental and emotional immaturity, is in need of special safeguards, care and assistance, after birth, to enable him/her to participate in and contribute positively towards the attainment of the ideals of a civil Malaysian society.
“Recognising every child is entitled to protection and assistance in all circumstances without regard to the distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, social origin or physical, mental or emotional disabilities or any other status”.
This letter is signed by the following child advocates and organisations:
- Dr Amar-Singh HSS, senior consultant paediatrician
- PH Wong, project director, Childline Foundation
- Ananti Rajasingam, CEO, Yayasan Chow Kit
- Goh Siu Lin, child advocate
- The board of trustees, CRIB Foundation (Child Rights Innovation & Betterment)
- Mary Chen, child advocate
- Vijayakumari Pillai, child advocate
- Yap Sook Yee, child advocate
- Women's Centre for Change (WCC)
- Voice of the Children
- P.S. the Children
- Siti Hawa, child advocate
- Tg. Nur Fadzilah Tg. Hassan, child advocate
- Kasthuri Krishnan, child advocate
- Association of Women Lawyers