It’s up to us: Child protection is everybody’s responsibility

The illustration is set against a bright orange and yellow background with a halo-like effect at the centre. A girl seated in the halo, is painting and holding flowers in the other hand. There are people in green and red standing on the outline of the halo, seemingly protecting the child.

Empowering the child to act on her own behalf is the most effective, long-term protection we can provide.

Some time ago, we sent two of our staff to Mumbai to be trained as Child Development Aides, equipping them to work more effectively with children with disabilities and their families. One of the sessions in the training program was on child protection and the facilitator asked those in attendance how many of the organisations they worked in had a Child Protection Policy. Our two staff were the only ones who raised their hands.

‘That’s great,’ the facilitator said. ‘What does your policy say?’

‘If you see anything, tell Jo didi,’ they answered confidently.

Jo didi is me and I can assure you that our policy was a bit more detailed than that.

But it didn’t really matter what was written in the policy. What mattered is what our staff understood. Clearly, they hadn’t gotten it. That lack of understanding and awareness was a red flag for us and an urgent reminder of how much more we had to do.

Child protection is a complicated, multi-faceted issue, full of grey areas which are hard to define and harder still to act upon, particularly as regards kids with disabilities. One thing we can say with conviction is that child protection is everyone’s responsibility. So while reporting suspicions and concerns is crucial, just telling someone else doesn’t absolve you of further action. In a country where child protection systems are inadequate and where the perpetrator is often protected instead of the child, follow-up is essential. And sometimes caring professionals have to work around the law and against the family’s preferences.

Two in every three children in India have been abused physically, sexually or emotionally. Think about that. Surely you know three children. Statistically, two of them have been abused. Nine times out of ten, it has been by a member of their own family. (The same goes for the readers of this article. Chances are many of you were yourselves abused as children.)

In 2012, two major review studies published in The Lancet provided compelling evidence that children (and adults) with disabilities were even more likely to face abuse. Overall, according to a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services, a child with a disability is twice as likely to be abused and among these, children with intellectual impairments are the most vulnerable.

Abuse takes many forms. As professionals and parents, we tend to be most aware of and vigilant about physical and sexual abuse, as the toll they take is more obvious and the signs are easier to identify. But emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and neglect – often overlooked – is actually the most common form of abuse in the list.

In the last year, after the call to action inspired by that Mumbai story above, our organisation has been working hard with a volunteer consultant to create what she calls a ‘Circle of Protection’ for the children in our care. It is an incredibly demanding and complex task which must be approached from multiple directions, with implications for everyone involved with the organisation, including volunteers, employees and board members.

We did a Child Protection Audit to assess our own systems and it was revealing and humbling. So many missing parts! At all levels of the organisation – from how we recruit new staff to the culture of respect we create, from communication channels when reporting a problem or a suspicion to how we portray children in fundraising materials or on the – website child protection concerns emerge. Doing the audit was the first step for us to address the gaps that inevitably exist. Having a policy in place is meaningless if, like so many organisations, it’s simply been copied from what’s available online and stuck in amid all the other mandatory policies (anti-bribery, sexual harassment, gender equity) for the staff handbook.

Frequent, extensive training for staff at all levels is a vital part of the plan. It may seem like yet another requirement, one more thing to squeeze into an already packed training and development plan for the organisation, but seen in its totality, effective child protection encompasses all of the values we hold dear and almost all of the learning and development objectives we are trying to achieve with the children anyway.

So while training involves giving staff a clear understanding of the policy, the skills to identify signs of abuse and the proper procedures to follow when a problem is identified or suspected, training also involves facilitating better communication in children and with children; it means instilling in kids a strong sense of themselves and their inherent worth and dignity; helping them to understand what constitutes abuse and what to do if it happens and developing strong, positive relationships with families.

All these life skills are urgently required for children with disabilities, and the emphasis on working closely with their families (where, remember, 90% of abuse takes place) offers our best chance of success in achieving the ultimate goal of protecting them.

One of the key components of our Circle of Protection is becoming aware and alert. In a recent workshop, Nicola, our consultant, shared stories from her own long years in the field – they were harrowing and difficult to hear. One story she illustrated with a photo of an adorable child bent over a drawing pad. The little girl, at four, had a cognitive impairment and was completely non-verbal. She did not respond to any overtures but while Nicola was around, she remained as close to her as possible, almost as if she wanted to tell her something. Finally, Nicola gave her a drawing pad and markers. The child took up a marker immediately and set to work. The drawing she produced showed graphically and heartbreakingly the horrific abuse she was being subjected to, abuse her long years of silence should have alerted her caregivers to much, much earlier.

The single biggest risk to children is our own inaction. If we won’t listen to what children are telling us (through their silence, their drawings, their actions, their pretend play), if we refuse to see what is plainly in sight (scars, burn marks, avoidance of certain individuals, flinching on touch), if we won’t speak out when we know what is happening (because the parents are in denial or the abuser is a relative or the police won’t cooperate), we are complicit in allowing the abuse to continue and we violate the trust that every child has the right to expect from the adults around her.

Empowering the child to act on her own behalf is the most effective, long-term protection we can provide. But along the way, and until they can, it’s up to us to circle round and protect the children in our lives.

Featured image credit: Alia Sinha