Within the first 60 days of 2020, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) received over 2,500 cases of child abuse. On average, their hotline to report child abuse – 1929 – receives about 40 such complaints a day. According to the NCPA, the reasons behind the spike in complaints over the past few years are more cases being reported and swift action being taken to prosecute the suspects.
“It is not that the number of incidents has increased. The best example is where the child abusers of a recent case were arrested within two hours of the incident being reported in Kotawehera. Such swift action has increased the confidence of the public towards the NCPA,” said NCPA Chairman Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana, speaking to The Sunday Morning.
According to statistics published on the NCPA website on complaints they received via the hotline, cruelty to children, depriving compulsory education, neglect of children, and types of abuse that fall under the miscellaneous category recorded the most amount of complaints.
When asked as to what action the NCPA takes following the receipt of such complaints, Prof. Vidanapathirana responded that all complaints received by the NCPA through the hotline are directed to the relevant area’s law enforcement unit, which categorises the complaints based on the nature of the complaint.
Complaints relating to sexual abuse are directly referred to the Police Unit of the authority, following which the complaint would be forwarded to the relevant police division. Then, investigations would be commenced. In an instance where the relevant police division is not taking proper action, the NCPA would take responsibility and conduct investigations through its Police Unit.
“This was the method used to investigate the sexual abuse case of a minor by nine suspects – a case that had not been investigated properly by the relevant police station. The investigation of this case was therefore directly handled by the NCPA and the law enforcement unit attached to it. All nine suspects were arrested after the victim had identified them, and the sentence was passed on all nine of them recently,” Prof. Vidanapathirana elaborated.
Furthermore, complaints received under the category of deprivation of compulsory education – regarding a child under the age of 16 not going to school – are referred to the NCPA Legal Department, which would then take necessary measures. The NCPA gets in touch with its district office which co-ordinates with the divisional or zonal educational office to arrange schooling for the child.
When it comes to child labour cases, they too are referred to the Legal Department as well as the Labour Department, following which the NCPA takes legal action.
“The reported cases would be investigated by our child protection officers who are appointed in all 25 districts. We have district child protection officers as well as district psychosocial officers. Furthermore, we have divisional child protection officers in all 331 divisional secretariats, and we conduct investigations through these. All these cases are then reported to the NCPA head office,” Prof. Vidanapathirana added.
In the past, the NCPA had not taken the lead in conducting certain investigations. However, due to the increased interest in the welfare of children, the NCPA had decided that it would intervene, and if certain cases do not come under their mandate, such cases would be referred to the relevant authorities.
Prof. Vidanapathirana also noted that a lot of previous cases are now getting re-reported, seeing that the hearing of such cases has been expedited.
We then inquired if the legislation of the country to protect children from child abuse and to prosecute child abusers is adequate, and whether some of the archaic laws need to be amended. Prof. Vidanapathirana stated that the outdated laws are in the process of being amended.
“A very important matter to note is that the National Child Protection Authority Act No. 50 of 1998 is a very strong act. But the contents of the Act have not been made use of. For instance, our officers are considered to be government officials and are also considered as peace officers. Furthermore, according to Section 37 (4) of the Act, these officers are empowered by the NCPA to prosecute cases. However, over the past years, our officers have not prosecuted a single case,” he further explained.
The NCPA would be conducting several discussions with the President’s Counsels and the Attorney General’s (AG) Department to seek the possibility of increasing the prosecution capacity for the NCPA’s child protection officers. With that ability, the NCPA believes the officers would be in a better position to tackle these issues efficiently.
Ensuring a child-friendly environment cannot be achieved by the NCPA alone. Therefore, the authority is looking at implementing alert groups in every grama niladhari division across the country within this year. The alert groups will comprise volunteers from each community who will be given the task of keeping an eye on child abuse cases, identifying high-risk groups, identifying abused children, taking preventive measures, and informing the NCPA to take legal action.
Sixteen more programmes will be initiated over the coming months to further ensure the safety of children. One programme will look at safeguarding and protecting the lives of newborns who are killed just after birth or within the first year of birth.
The NCPA aims to save at least a few of these children by establishing newborn receiving centres in nine provinces that would be attached to nine main hospitals and nine paediatric units.
In some instances, older children are handed over to relatives and the last resort is to send them to a child development centre. To monitor the welfare of such children, the NCPA is planning to implement child welfare panels in each divisional secretariat.
Laws adequate, can be amended
The Sunday Morning contacted Child Protection Force Founder and Attorney-at-Law Milani Salpitikorala to inquire on whether the laws that are currently in practice are adequate to protect children’s rights and prosecute perpetrators of child abuse.
“The laws that are in place to ensure the protection of a child are somewhat adequate at the moment to control the situation. But the problem that we are currently facing is the implementation of the laws, where there is a lot of corruption in the system, and a lot of perpetrators get away from prosecution due to corruption,” she noted.
With the Children and Young Persons Ordinance being a very old law, Salpitikorala agrees that it can be amended to suit the present times. While the amendment of such laws could take a considerable amount of time, at present the best method to control the situation is to implement the existing laws.
“Furthermore, the method of conducting court hearings for cases relating to children too should be changed, as it is not child-friendly at all. We are following the same process that we would practice when hearing a court case for adults,” Salpitikorala opined.
Police Media Spokesperson SP Jaliya Senaratne, when contacted to inquire about how the Sri Lanka Police is contributing towards protecting children from abuse, informed The Sunday Morning: “We have a special investigations unit attached to the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). These officers are well trained and sensitised in the field of child protection and are empowered to investigate complaints of child abuse that takes place anywhere in the island. They are also instructed to be in civil clothes so they could approach children in a friendly manner.”
SP Senaratne too agreed that the laws should be amended to suit the present requirements and clear out any grey areas.