Tsunami children revisited: the need for professionals in child
CHILD PROTECTION: Two years after the tsunami we need to take stock
of the efforts taken to rehabilitate the children who lost parents and
siblings in the most tragic manner. Both State and non State
organisations have expended large sums of money and many man hours to
attend to the plethora of problems that the children are facing and
likely to face in the future if no action is taken now.
In 2004 when tsunami struck it was abundantly clear that the country
had no professionally qualified workforce in the social welfare sector
to handle the clinical needs of the children. It is true that those
currently in the child protection field are graduate officers without
tertiary level professional training.
Though they are committed and motivated they have not been afforded
the competencies needed by today's international standards to attend to
these problems that have come to our attention in various gatherings of
the child protection workers.
TSUNAMI CHILDREN: they need proper attention
Let us examine a few of the serious issues that have recently cropped
up which are of concern. The tsunami atmosphere has now virtually
dissipated in the minds of the general populace and hence the correct
attitudes of concern, compassion, non judgmental reactions which were
manifest everywhere in 2004 are all but gone.
The compassion has turned into ridicule in some places. My interest
here is about children and they have become objects of ridicule.
Children are subject to stereotypical labeling with serious consequences
in the young minds.
We have known for decades that it is one thing to commit a deviant
act such as lying or stealing but to label someone as a thief or a liar
has more potent consequences on the individual.
The label evokes a characteristic imagery, that suggests a person who
is given to certain kinds of behaviour as a matter of habit. There are a
whole host of sinister and odious implications in the application of
this label. I am told that the labels are far too many to recount.
But they activate sentiments and call out responses in other children
and adults: rejection, contempt, suspicion, withdrawal, fear and hatred.
The acceptance of the label obviously is not inevitable.
We have all experiences when our classmates and parents have at times
called us various things, ugly, black, white, short, long: the list is
long. These definitions are not real and do not mean that we act them
out always. But certain definitions when applies are real in their
But these labels, as we have come to know them are real because they
happen in the immediate social self of the victims.
Our Tsunami children have no escape from these social interactions
and they are subject to them far too frequently. What we fear most is
that these children may drop out of the education system if nothing is
done about it.
If the labels engender the wrong psychological perceptions in the
victims it might hasten them on a deviant career. The self is a delicate
construct in young children and the way we act as adults is determined
mostly by the manner in which we are seen by others.
If others begin to see these kids as somewhat different and strange
from them those children may conceive them as strange and different.
Studies have demonstrated overwhelmingly in the past that when we treat
people as different because of our ignorance.
The result is that the person may act in the way we perceive. Studies
have also shown that schoolchildren seen as liable to be educationally
backward or vice versa turn out to confirm our presuppositions. If we
define ourselves as incapable as a result of others' definitions we
begin to act as if we are incapable.
We are certainly worried whether the lack of treatment for the
children who are victims of labeling will jeopardize their life chances
by being victims to the process. That definitely we would label as
It will be apparent to many that some of the children who were caught
up in the tsunami were or are now becoming teenagers. The sudden loss of
the mother and the father has put them at terrible risk in search for
love and affection.
They tend to turn to anyone who shows affection. For some it has been
forthcoming from the grandparents or other good natured relatives. But
for a few that we know, this has turned out to be a nightmare.
There are many who are becoming victims to the predatory hawks. The
child protection workers have been informed of instances where teenagers
have been duped by young and old and seduced and dumped.
The psychology of the teenager can be understood by a professionally
trained worker, a resource that we are lacking. In a country where a
psychiatric service of note is sadly lacking these young people have no
recourse. Even to identify the presence of psychological problems we
have no trained staff.
This is a sad indictment on all of us because these are vulnerable
children who will suffer the worst if they are preyed on by unscrupulous
persons. Prostitution, rape, HIV and suicides can be round the corner
lurking at the young.
The relatives who rushed to look after the children who lost both
parents are not guaranteed of the protection promised in the
courthouses. Some tsunami children are treated as servants in the
household. The step mothers have found a ready made servant for
The children have no option but to continue the drudgery of menial
labour. To properly interview a child and get the truth out of a
friendly interview demands an expert like training which we have not
given to any of our officers.
The child protection scene is advanced to prevent such abuses in
other countries and we have to provide similar training to our child
protection cadre but cost is not the prohibitive factor.
It is the lack of awareness of the need for such services that is
rather unfortunate in Sri Lanka. 'Fit person orders' under the Sri
Lankan law are not the end of a child protection issue but it has to be
seen as the beginning.
Social workers are sorely missed in this tragic event and efforts are
urgently needed to rectify this glaring void. Imagine the social
problems in the country, child abuse, street children, displaced
children, tsunami orphans, child soldiers, child trafficking and child
servants, but why are we not preparing for the future.
Sri Lanka, in my estimation needs about 40 to 50000 social workers
with tertiary qualifications. It is a fine vocation for graduates in the
arts and humanities who follow courses in the universities which are not
The developed countries do not follow this pattern. We must learn
from the good practices of other countries and offer our young people a
I have only listed a few issues out of a multitude of instances that
has come to our attention. While some areas of child protection work are
functioning well there are many that we need to revamp for the sake of
the poor, vulnerable children.
They will not be able to enjoy full citizenship rights in this nation
if their childhood is destroyed either wittingly or unwittingly by us.
What needs to be done is to deliver a competent work force like in other
Child protection is a specialization that warrants training and
educational competence which cannot be equated to life experiences or
custom and folklore. There is a bewildering array of knowledge bases
that we have to impart.
There are so many that it is difficult to describe in this short
paper. But certainly the world knows pretty well the value of family
therapy, behaviour modification techniques, counselling, psychotherapy,
cognitive therapy, and others.
A professional only can help these young people by mobilizing human
resources for emotional support, social companionship, affirmation and
They only can direct these teenagers in the pro-social behaviours.
Preparing the child for life in difficult circumstances is the role of
professionally trained persons.
Strengthening good behaviour patterns through operant learning, and
modeling and eliminating the bad are important in work with these
These are techniques now used by psychologists, psychiatrists, social
workers and others trained in these approaches.
These behaviours are not 'sick' behaviours but problematic ones that
can be modified by behavioral treatment. The post tsunami problems can
satisfactorily be solved through modern psycho-social methods and we
should equip our child protection staff on these lines.
Finally I must congratulate the Ministry of Social Services and
Social welfare for planning for a diploma as the first response to this
tragic situation. In Sri Lanka that Ministry is the lead Ministry in
Experimenting with a diploma level program is the right approach for
it can be improved in the fullness of time. It is heartening to note
that they are preparing to fill a void that should not have been there
in the first place.
The writer is Professor, Curtin University Perth, Australia.