We are failing our sexually abused children

The recent case of a mother’s failure to get justice for her nine-year-old son who was repeatedly sexually abused together with other children in a tahfiz school in Manjoi, Ipoh is a travesty of justice.

This is the view of senior consultant pediatrician Datuk Dr Amar Singh HSS regarding the decision on Monday by the Ipoh magistrate’s court in a child abuse case.

The court had dismissed an application to call a deputy public prosecutor to explain why the investigation paper into the sexual abuse had been closed with no suspects being identified.

Magistrate Mohammad Afifi Mohammad Deen made the decision after being handed a letter from the Perak Legal Advisor’s Office.

The boy’s mother had lodged two police reports in August 2016 alleging that her son, then 10 years old, was consistently sexually abused together with other students by their seniors in the tahfiz school. Last August, she filed a complaint under Section 377E and Section 14 (a) of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017.

The court had then acknowledged that an offence had been committed, and after going through the case in chambers, the magistrate had fixed Oct 14 to call the DPP to explain why the investigation paper was closed previously with no suspects identified.

Dr Amar said he cannot imagine the anguish that the mother and her son have gone through and are still experiencing.

He said it is important to question why the system has failed this child and other sexually abused children again and again.

“Less than 5 per cent of sexual abuse cases involving reach the courts, let alone convictions. So why are we failing our sexually abused children?” he questioned.

He said according to the police, only 1,559 child abuse cases were reported to them in the past five year of which 348 cases were brought to court with only 124 cases resulting in convictions.

He said data from the Welfare Department, however, shows that 4,000 to 5,000 child abuse cases are reported each year.

“Most of these cases do not reach our courts and ‘no further action’ is the order of the day. The recently introduced Child Sex Offenders Registry will fail as the vast majority of culprits will not be convicted and hence not be in the registry,” he said.

He said one of the reasons for so few child sex abuse cases reaching the court was the non-implementation of the Child Act.

“The police allow withdrawal of police reports of sexual abuse (hence not recorded). It is a tremendous ordeal for children to testify and often the deputy public prosecutor feels there is insufficient evidence to proceed.

“This has been the situation for a very long time and little has changed over decades,” he noted.

He added: “There have been some incremental attempts to provide video evidence but by and large, there are very few who are trained to obtain evidence from children. Our courts are still not child-sensitive.”

Fight for Change 2019

Dr Amar also said there is still no control of facilities like tahfiz schools to protect children from abuse.

“There have been a number of reports of sexual abuse in tahfiz schools. There have also been reports of severe physical abuse, often in guise of discipline.”

“There have been more than 1,000 fires in these schools and more than 50 per cent of those inspected are considered fire hazards.

He said the curriculum at these schools are also varied and may not be comprehensive, citing Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mujahid Yusof Rawa who had been quoted saying that parents who wish to send their kids to religious schools should make sure they know the background of the teachers as some are not even qualified to teach the Quran.

He said while Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Religious Affairs Fuziah Salleh has promised that the government will amend current laws regulating tahfiz schools to prevent sexual abuse and protect students, no concrete action has been taken.

“Instead, we see a RM50 million allocation to tahfiz schools under Budget 2020 with no oversight of child safety. The message we are giving here is one of political expediency over the safety of our children. We must recognise that this is not a religious issue but an issue of child protection,” said Dr Amar.

He also questioned why it appears that the school and abusers received more support than the victim?

“This nine-year-old boy and his mother have tried very hard to get justice but the system has not been supportive. The police appear to have completed initial investigations very rapidly; interviewing the school management, victim and other students and submitting a report within two weeks.

“We wonder about the completeness of such a report without other vital agencies (health and welfare) giving their input. The Welfare Department had difficulty entering the school to do an investigation. Despite a request by the Health Department to examine the many children who were also allegedly abused at the school, these children were not brought forward as required by the Child Act.

He said a conclusion was then made that other children were not abused despite the lack of a proper medical examination.

“We can only wonder how they are faring. Despite the victim being able to name the perpetrators and other abused children, the child’s opinion has been ignored.

“If indeed the sexual abuse was carried out by older children, these children also need to be examined by the health department and may need psychiatric evaluation.”

Dr Amar, who was previously head of the paediatric department at Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun in Ipoh, wonders if these children will ever get justice.

“Do we care for the welfare of children as much as we care for the welfare of adults and those in power? I hope the questions that I have raised will be answered.”