We had the opportunity to sit down and discuss with Mrs. B. Vijayakumari Pillai who is a former JKM staff member with 22 years of experience specializing in foster care, adoption, child protection and child rights.
“We had to learn and study all the principles of social work when working with children on our own”, she said reflecting on her time as a child protection officer. She continued by saying that later in her career, some of the mistakes on how to interview or build a rapport with the child had to be made first, for example not within the compound where the perpetrators of the violence were located.
She said these mistakes were attributed to the lack of training, facilities and also the type of investment there was in child protection back then, even now.
She was one of the pioneers that did the research that led to the setting up of homes like Rumah Tunas Harapan. There are some important factors to consider when it comes to providing care for vulnerable children, ranging from their age and academic aptitude.
The parents who were chosen to take care of these children in the Rumah Tunas Harapan also known as Cottage homes, were meant to take care of children from the same dysfunctional families, so that siblings were not separated. She then stated that there were cases where separated siblings came back and tried to look for each other to no avail as this was still in the late 80’s early 90’s where communication technology was not as far reaching as it is now. The Rumah Tunas Harapan project was meant to curb such issues and it did exactly that, keeping families together.
IMPROVING THE SYSTEM
“The worst of the abuse happens to young children 6 years and below, because they don’t have any form of protection like in schools”, she said, emphasizing how important it was to amend the Child Act 2001.
In improving child protection in Malaysia, Mrs.Vijayakumari made changes to the 1947 Juvenile and Young Persons Act, she took inspiration from legislations from Australia and New Zealand to improve and create the Child Protection Act in 1991, which made it mandatory for doctors and TASKA staff to file reports against child abuse and later in 2001, the Act included any household member to anonymously file report on alleged child abuse happening in the house.
Soon after the Child Protection Act 1991 was enacted, a community-based violence prevention program was put into action in 1992 called Pusat Aktiviti Kanak-kanak where available premises were transformed into activity centers, with the intention to provide opportunities for children from impoverished families to be guided and mentored.
“They were so happy”. Mrs. Vijayakumari reminisced about a trip to Putrajaya where the children from the activity center had a chance to see the newly opened (at the time) administrative hub.
Moving away from that, there were also improvements made at the district level where there were Child Protection Teams made up of professionals from the community, non-governmental bodies and from the health and education sectors who were trained to identify abuse in children as well as conduct prevention programs. She made it a point to ensure that the prevention programs by the Child Protection Teams were low cost and had a high impact.
CHALLENGES IN KEEPING CHILDREN SAFE
“One child protector handles so many cases, compared to other countries. I remember when I was training two girls from Petaling District, they were very good, but (they ended up) having high blood pressure and (were) admitted into the hospital and they were both quite young” said Mrs. Vijayakumari.
This rhetoric is however true even today as the ratio of social worker to people in Malaysia is 1:8,576, which is low when you compare it countries like the US (1:490), Australia (1:1,040) , the UK (1:3,025) or Singapore (1:3,448).
The pressure of keeping the standard of competency is high and has adverse health effects to the social workers who are meant to keep children safe, physically and mentally.
She then stated that the Child Protection Act 1991, Women and Young Girls Act 1976 and Juvenile Courts Act 1947 were amalgamated into a single Act, which in her professional opinion was a huge mistake as it only gives the social workers in different sectors a heavier caseload and they have to handle very complex cases which are not within their expertise.
Funding, staffing and advocacy were also challenges that are still prevalent in the social work sector in Malaysia. This is also supplemented by the fact that some NGOs and CSOs are still hounding JKM and the staff gets the brunt of the force. At times the non-governmental bodies are not even aware of the facilities available, how well they are managed or not due to budget constraints.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
These are still the issues that are prevalent in social work, especially Child Protection, in this country today and that is exactly why MASW and UNICEF have partnered for the Heroes Among Us campaign, seeking to address these issues of keeping our children, women and the impoverished safe.
It is important that we keep the momentum and keep fighting for the social workers who do the work behind the scenes to make Malaysia a better place to be.
Show your support and spread the word of the #SocialWorkWarriors to your friends and family.
Know more here: https://www.masw.org.my/heroes-among-us.