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The Care of Children 36 - The need for comprehensive care

( Created date: 11-May-2013 )


Having written a column on the Care of Children for nine months now, I feel it is time to move on. This is not because the topic of the problems children face has been exhausted. On the contrary, these problems should generate ongoing debate of a serious and constructive nature. I doubt however that this will happen, given our capacity to forget problems after maximum emotion has been milked from them. 
 
But the recent crises, from abuse in children’s homes and the execution of a girl sent to work abroad when she was a minor, to the leaking of Ordinary Level Exam papers and the sad case of a child arrested for allegedly stealing coconuts to find money for her school, will I hope stay for some time in the public mind. In particular I trust it is understood now that the education system we have in place, developed by Kannangara to ensure opportunities for all children, serves now to oppress children rather than liberate their creativity.
 
The reason I wish to move on however, is to examine in depth, if the Editor will permit me, the crisis of governance that has affected us, which contributes to the plight of children as well as much else. We have over the years destroyed our administrative system as well as our administrators, by multiplying both entities and tasks without working out coherent systems.
 
I will look at all this later in detail if possible, but for the moment I will touch on how children are adversely affected by all this. Given the multiple nature of the problems that affect children, we need to have coordination both of monitoring, and of the services available to them. But this does not happen, with officials responsible for different aspects not liaising with each other, and indeed not even thinking of doing so.
 
Thus, in the Divisions, which I have visited regularly over the last year and more, I find that government officials concerned with women and children do not meet regularly with the Women and Children’s Desks of Police Stations. Probation officers too have not been told of the need to work together with the police. Though nutrition is supposed to be monitored through schools, and though the Ministry of Education has appointed Teacher Counsellors, there is no coordination with the Ministry of Health. In particular these Counsellors, who are now not very useful, need to be trained, so that they can deal effectively with minor problems while referring more serious matters to relevant support systems.
 
One reason for the lack of coordination is that these functions are exercised in different areas of responsibility. Most government officials function in the Divisional Secretariat, though sometimes they are appointed to District Secretariats, as with Probation Officers in some Provinces. Such people then are  meant to work in all Divisions, which means they do not develop understanding of the Division and contacts with their fellow officials who deal with children. The Education Ministry works through Zones, and the Divisions under them have little power. Health is generally based on Divisions but this is not systematic, while the Police are completely different. Their areas of responsibility are based on the Court system, and that has nothing to do with Divisions.
 
Another problem is that though, as the population increased, it became necessary to give greater administrative powers to Divisions – just as earlier Government Agents, who were appointed to Provinces, had to be appointed to Districts too – cadre positions were not created for other officers. So women and children have no one specifically to look after their interests in several Divisions. Absurdly, though several schemes for graduate employment have been implemented over the years, these are on an ad hoc basis, whereas it would have made sense to assess needs and create and fill cadre provisions.
 
The third and perhaps biggest problem is the overlap created by the 13th amendment. The perfectly sensible principle that government had to be brought closer to the people was confused with creating multiple political authorities, and it is not at all clear how national policies are to be implemented and monitored, while facilitating action and rapid response at local levels.  
 
Fortunately there are efforts now to change things, with some capable and imaginative people heading relevant agencies. The Police have strengthened their Women and Children’s Desks and the officers who man them – or rather administer them, for several women are amongst them – seem well trained and sensitive. The Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs has instructed that Women and Children’s Units be set up in every Division, and is taking steps to recruit officials to all Divisions. And the Education Ministry has finally unveiled a proposal to abolish Zones and strengthen Divisional Offices – though they also want to set up District Offices, which I think would be a mistake because that would remove decision making to an even greater distance. 
 
I have also noted some efforts at conceptualization, which has been lacking in the past. The Ministry of Child Development produced a simple concept paper on the relations that should exist between its different agencies and also Provincial agencies. There has been confusion about this, since the 13th Amendment was a hasty business, and there were several developments since it was introduced with regard to the Protection of Children, which led to the establishment of a National Child Protection Authority, which is mandated with protection in the widest sense. This includes ensuring educational provision too, but this has not received much attention in the past.
 
But in addition to strengthening official mechanisms, we also need to involve parents more actively in ensuring the welfare of their children. They should work with the officials to monitor basic services, while knowing to whom to turn in difficulty. That also requires better information and consultation systems. 
 
All of which suggest I should look at wider issues, and I hope this will be permitted. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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