Children falling through the cracks
While legal protection is critical to the well-being of the nation’s children, it will take a radical change in culture to achieve sustained progress.
Take the case of the father who was fined $3,500 for neglecting his son. Lester Ramcharan, a coconut vendor, routinely left his son alone at home while he went out to work. Investigating police officers discovered that the boy had never been to school, quite possibly because he has no birth certificate. It turns out that his father was in jail when he was born and his mother had left the family when he was two years old. Between one thing and another, this child remained unregistered and invisible to the system.
We can have no objection to the law taking its course by punishing parental neglect. The message about parental responsibility needs to go out loud and clear. But it is not enough. To be effective, the system needs to be proactive in ferreting out abused children. For this, we need an integrated infrastructure that brings together elements of the health services where children are born and/or treated, the social services and Children’s Authority which are mandated to look after their welfare, the police as points of contact with the public and the community as the eyes and ears of what’s happening on the ground.
In his defence, Mr Ramcharan’s attorney claimed that when his client came out of jail, he could not locate the child’s mother to complete the birth registration process. Clearly, this father should not have allowed the matter to remain there. The onus was on him to seek the necessary advice for what should be done in such circumstances.
Still, we cannot rule out the possibility that there may be other parents solving the same problem in ways that are similarly disadvantageous to their children. The challenge is for the system to find them and for them to find the system in seeking help. This is where initiative and information come in.
Repeatedly, the public service systems are short-changing the society by a failure to communicate essential information to people. Far too many people do not know the requirements of the law as it applies to children, nor do they know how to find out. In too many quarters, the culture still views children as property, with parents believing they have the right to do as they wish with their property.
For some children, being rescued is not the end of their pain. A good case in point involves the recent tragedy of 14-year-old Brandon Hargreaves who hit his head and died at the St Michael’s School for Boys where he had been resident since being rescued by the police, naked and scared from a kennel two years ago.
Though a necessary part of the social order and the legal process, punishment alone will not solve our problems. Only an informed and alert society, supported by effective institutions, can escape enveloping darkness.