6 June 2024

A recent scandal at the Saraburi Welfare Home for Children has raised questions as to whether vulnerable kids are safe in the hands of state institutions.

Evidence shows that young girls at the institution were confined in a toilet with their hands and legs bound as punishment for wetting the bed and minor misdemeanors such as stealing.

A psychologist at the welfare home eventually decided to blow the whistle because she could no longer tolerate such inhumane treatment of vulnerable children. In response to her complaint, an investigation was launched and the welfare home’s director along with some of her team members were transferred.

“This welfare home is operated by the state. Such practices should have never happened in the first place,” said Chettha Mankhong, director of the Foundation for Child Development.

Authoritarian care

Chettha blamed authoritarian attitudes for the maltreatment of children at state-run homes, which are tasked with protecting and nurturing the youngsters in their care. Such attitudes, he said, are deep-seated and longstanding in Thailand, where parents and guardians often think that they can treat children under their care however they like.

“But, in fact, children have rights, which should be protected,” he said.

The child rights activist also suggested that children who face so many problems that they have to be moved to care facilities, in essence, need even more care than others.

Chettha laments that the emotional trauma inflicted on kids at the Saraburi Welfare Home for Children could now last for the rest of their lives.

Last month, Montri Sintawichai – a former senator who was once dubbed Thailand’s guardian angel of children – was charged with eight offenses against kids under his care.

Of the 58 children under his supervision, 33 alleged he had hit them with a bamboo cane and other implements. Some kids even said he had strangled them. Many said he had forced them to work at his resort. Montri argued that those who worked at the resort did so voluntarily in exchange for special allowances. He admitted to hitting the children, but said the punishment was imposed to discipline, not harm them.

“His behavior reflects authoritarian attitudes. He acts this way because he thinks such behavior is normal,” Chettha commented.

After the scandal broke last year, Montri lost his license to operate a children’s home.

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Are better standards coming?

The Saraburi Welfare Home for Children operates under the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. In an effort to learn lessons from the latest scandal, the ministry convened a meeting with UNICEF Thailand and other relevant agencies to forge measures that will boost standards in welfare homes and offer better protection to children.

“We have decided to set up a committee of specialists tasked with a mission of upgrading standards for institutional childcare,” the ministry’s permanent-secretary Anukul Peedkaew said.

Risk assessments will be conducted to support the upgrade. Meanwhile, reviews will be conducted with the aim of reducing the number of children entering institutional care, in recognition of the fact that they often benefit more from growing up in their family environments.

UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, emphasizes that institutional care should be the last resort because studies have shown that children may fare better in family-based care where they received individualized attention and love.

In cases where children need to receive institutional care, the government should make sure effective mechanisms are in place to monitor facilities and ensure that kids are safe and live in the protective and stimulating environments necessary for their development and well-being. UNICEF also recommends stringent coordinated action among civil society, child-related organizations, the private sector, and government agencies.

“For those children who do go into welfare homes, we will require individual development plans to determine the possibility of them returning to their family and reducing their time under institutional care,” Anukul said.

He added that provincial authorities, including the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), would also be nudged to intensify their efforts to protect at-risk children.

Chettha said he hoped relevant authorities understand that they need to take care of not just children but also the staff who provide institutional care by providing sufficient budget, facilities, and management system.

“It is also necessary that external inspectors are assigned to check on welfare homes,” he added.

Chettha cited a fact-finding trip he took to England and Scotland, where he discovered that there were more than enough staff for each welfare home. At one facility, staff could almost provide one-on-one attention because they had just four kids under their care.

How vulnerable are Thai kids?

Over 10,000 children in Thailand are treated in hospital every year due to physical abuse, according to data from the Public Health Ministry. Most cases are related to sexual violence.

Meanwhile a 2017 survey by UNICEF found that one-third of Thai children aged between one and 14 had been punished physically or emotionally by their own family. On average, about two kids per hour suffered physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, exploitation or abandonment.

Statistics show that 1,307 kids were sent to the Police General Hospital alone between 2004 and 2020 for treatment due to violence. Trends indicate the number of young victims is rising, while recorded cases may be just the tip of the iceberg since many children who are abused have no access to help.

Call for safe spaces

Chettha said that relevant authorities should ensure that children are safe everywhere, not just at state-run welfare homes, because there are complaints of abuse at schools, communities, and in family homes.

“When we rehabilitate children in institutional care and seek to send them back home or to their communities, we must also strive to ensure that their homes and communities are safe,” he said. “If safety cannot be guaranteed there, let’s keep them in welfare homes.”

He also insisted that the care of children is not limited merely to providing a roof over their heads and food on the table. They also need emotional support and a sense of security, he said.

By Thai PBS World