By Dr Amar Singh
We are currently seeing a reactive response from our Malaysian authorities and public to the discovery of a prolific paedophile. While this is welcome, it is not useful if it lacks maturity and depth. We choose not to face the facts and reality but demand some action, no matter what action.
Often the suggestions provided are harsher penalties and legislation. While these are necessary for such horrific crimes against children, they are not going to really protect our children. We need to face and deal with three important facts.
First, there have been a number of paedophiles over time in our country, mostly Malaysians. Some of these cases have been hushed up by the authorities. This is not a western issue but one that we need to deal with from within our own country.
Second, this is only the tip of the iceberg. From community studies, one in 10 of all Malaysian children are sexually abused, often within the family, by the father or a close relative. While this is not paedophilic behaviour, this is the bulk of sexually abused children that require our concerted effort to prevent, identify and support.
Third, our systems to protect children are broken. The police, welfare and health authorities are not coordinated and not adequately responsive to the needs of abused children.
I have attempted to highlight the failure of our systems in an early letter to the press and will not repeat the issues here. But there must be a serious revamp our services if we want to deal with the sexual abuse of children and paedophiles.
I would like to offer some suggestions on how to deal with minimising the risk of children becoming prey to paedophiles and how to reduce the impact of such activities. It is important to note that prevention is critical. Eradicating paedophilia is not easy, but we can better protect our children. I offer these suggestions as checklist or report card (audit) for us to assess if our systems are in place to protect children from paedophiles. We need to strengthen the following areas as well as seriously evaluate their effectiveness.
Minimise the employment of paedophiles through a routine background check
As far as possible we must prevent the employment of paedophiles in any area of work involving children. All staff working with children in any capacity should be screened. These include teachers in school, nursery teachers, volunteers in NGOs, police, health and welfare personnel, etc. Currently there are hardly any background checks. Let’s also not be naive to think that all sex offenders are male: women also need to be screened as 5-7 percent of sexual abuse of children is by women.
Access to a National Sex Offender Registry
For the first suggestion to work, there must be a local registry of sex offenders of all types. This must be available to governmental and non-governmental services, to screen any volunteer or potential employee. This is not that difficult to do and can be organised centrally by police fairly quickly. Currently it takes a few months for requests to the police for such a search to be finalised; far too long to be of much value.
Limiting the entry of foreign paedophiles into the country
Foreign paedophiles often target Asian countries. Those who are known to international authorities can be prevented from entering the country. The immigration department needs to collaborate with overseas colleagues and have a list of known sex offenders and stop them from entering the country. We are unsure if such measures are in place, constantly updated and audited. If our police are not able to coordinate with international authorities about a known paedophile operating in the country then it is unlikely we can be very effective on blocking the entry of such individuals.
Teach All Children Sexual Protective Behaviours
Children must be made aware of safety issues and must be taught sexual protective behaviours. This must be done for all children including those in residential care. Training should be provided based on age. Here is a short summary of what is required and the areas to cover:
At 3-5 years of age teach: ‘Appropriate and Inappropriate Touch’ (Good Touch & Bad Touch).
At 4-5 years of age teach: ‘Dealing with Unfamiliar/Difficult Situations’ (lost in supermarket; confronted by a person who wants to take advantage of you sexually) and ‘Response to Strangers’. Teach children common sense with respect to strangers; do not be nice to strangers, avoid them completely.
All children need to know that they should “Shout, Run, Tell a reliable person” when confronted with a person who tried to take advantage of them in any way sexually. Adults need to trust children when they disclose any inappropriate sexual contact and act on it; not uncommonly children’s concerns are dismissed.
At age 9-12 years teach: Pubertal changes and gradually offer opportunities to discuss common issues faced as a teenager; peer pressure, pornography, dealing with social media, the right to say no, etc.
Ideally such advice to children should come from parents but is not commonly imparted. It should become a standard part of the curriculum of all nurseries, preschools, NGO & welfare children’s homes, daycare, etc.
Availability and Access for Children to Report Concerns (Helpline)
It is important that all children are encouraged to inform reliable and safe adults about concerns of inappropriate touch or sexual activity and abuse. This must include the ability to call for help outside the home or centre. We currently have a helpline available for children (Talian Nur) which was supported by NGOs. But awareness about it is still limited and, of more concern, the abilities of those manning the helpline need to be significantly improved. In addition access to the helpline for children needs to be considerably widened if it is to be of some use.
Professional Investigation of Online Child Sexual Activities
There is a need to actively monitor the online activities of possible paedophiles from Malaysia or those involved in Malaysia. The police have a Child Cyber Sexual Investigation Unit and we hope that they are actively infiltrating potential paedophile groups online to identify and prevent their activities. In addition there is a need for the unit to come down hard on all forms of child pornography, including any cartoon or art forms. We are unsure how much manpower is dedicated to these activities and how effective this unit is.
Full Disclosure of Paedophile Activity
It appears that our community has only now woken up to paedophiles operating in Malaysia, but this not a new activity. Non-governmental organisation and governmental organisations must not cover up any individual who is found to have conducted any inappropriate sexual activity with a child. There must be a full investigation with public disclosure so that transparency can be maintained. This is especially true for religious organisations which frequently cover up sexual abuse in the country. Public disclosure enables parents and the community to develop awareness and put in place protective behaviours.
Safety Rules in Working with Children in All Settings
Adults should not be allowed to work with children on a one-on-one basis. It should be recommended that all volunteers, non-governmental workers and government officers should be chaperoned. It does not matter whether it is male to male or female to female, all work with children must have chaperones.
Remember that paedophiles are not individuals unknown to parents or to NGOs or governmental organisations. They are often people who appear ‘safe’, are extremely helpful and keen to volunteer their time or working in positions that involve children. They often practice ‘grooming’, first of the parents, the volunteer organisations or governmental agencies before ‘grooming’ the children.
Hence all teachers disciplining children, doctors examining children, children being counselled, child in the care of NGO or Welfare homes, etc need to be routinely chaperoned by a second adult. This basic guideline is not in place in majority of government agencies and must be made mandatory. It also may be non-existent in some NGO and religious organisation settings and this is worrying.
Parental Responsibilities with Social Media
Parents need to be more careful with the use of social media both for their children and themselves, especially in displaying their children’s photographs (Facebook, WhatsApp, etc). Paedophiles are internet savvy and trawl the social media sites looking for ‘cute’ kids. Parents put their children at risk by sharing their children’s images as their profile image. Parents also need to monitor their children’s social media use. This is a fine balance between intruding into your child’s privacy and supporting your child from being a victim of an on-line perpetrator.
Support for Identified Abused Children
Children who are sexually abused, especially by a paedophile, need mature counsellors to deal with the severe emotional abuse and loss of trust issues. We lack adequate services to support these severely traumatised children. The work is not easy, some counsellors lack experience and may aggravate the situation, others are simplistic in their approach.The media has an important role not to further harm these children by public disclosure or a ‘drive’ to interview and sensationalise their stories.Our understanding as a nation of the extent and types of sexual abuse of children is still limited. The services and policies in place to protect children from abuse are decades behind developed nations and some of our neighbours.Our ability to support identified sexually abused children and take action against perpetrators is poor. Our social services are grossly lacking in mature trained staff that can act effectively.
We hope this horrific event serves to galvanise us as a nation, to demand for some improvement of our fragmented and limited services for our fragile children.
Dr Amar-Singh is the senior consultant paediatrician and head of the paediatric department, Hospital RPB Ipoh.