Child abuse protection is in its infancy

  • 2000-04-06
  • By Anna Pridanova
RIGA – The Latvian government is trying to adopt new practices to meet the old challenges of how to protect children from sexual abuse. The problem Latvia now faces is insufficient human and financial resources necessary to deal with the problem and also a lack of stable traditions in this field.

Last week the State Center for the Protection of Children's Rights held two seminars within an information project dealing with the sexual abuse of children, one with school teachers' training staff and another with journalists.

The particular interest in sexual abuse of children according to Ineta Ielite, the head of the Center has nothing to do with the current pedophilia scandal. The State Program for Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse was already in discussion when the first pedophilia accusations were pronounced publicly. But the need for a particular project was to some extent triggered exactly by the Parliament's outrage and society's inability to deal with and react to this problem.

The essence of the project is to raise student awareness about the violence they might become exposed to, explaining what instances are those of sexual abuse and what to do in such cases.

The idea underlying this particular project on informing children about their rights and ways to seek guaranteed protection is the objective evaluation of the resources available to them in their everyday life. One of them is the telephone, though center representatives believe it is not the best solution, since sexual abuse is a very intimate experience. Victims might not be willing to confide to an unfamiliar person.

The way to prevent abuse and raise the efficiency of registering the instances of sexual harassment is for school teachers to mediate this process. The teachers will distribute 235,000 booklets among students with short descriptions of the actions which constitute sexual abuse and telephone numbers of the institutions able to explain, talk to and even offer shelter. The problem in regard to these attempts to inform children about sexual abuse is its inability to cover those not going to school – street children. And these form one of the risk groups of pedophilia victims.

The core of this problem in Latvia is the same throughout the world – an inefficient mechanism of registering the cases of victimization and in Latvia, a shortage of money. According to available statistics, only 28 children in Greater Riga were victims of sexual abuse in 1998 and in 1999 – 45 in the Riga region and 137 in Latvia.

These are only the registered cases, where criminal proceedings were taken against suspects. Apparently these figures are not representative at all, but until today, no nationwide research existed to define the scale of the problem. Social workers claim that the real figures regarding the sexual victimization of children in Latvia might be the same as elsewhere – from 10 percent to 15 percent of young people will experience it at least once a lifetime. Regardless of the lack of the proper research, the state program was designed and approved in December 1999, being the first state preventive action in this field.

The rehabilitation of victims has a slightly longer history. There are several Child Rehabilitation Centers in Latvia, which certainly are unable to catch the problem. This year the government spent only 65,000 lats ($112,000) supporting four of these centers. Another 60,000 lats are spent on the professional education of social workers to take care of these children. Mirdza Vaivare, the head of the rehabilitation center "Saulespuke," not supported by the government this year, said "alcohol is often the reason for violence in the family. We bring children here and take care of them, but children have short physical memory. When their wounds close, they want to get back home. And we have to take them back, because we don't have much money to keep them here for long." Besides, the rehabilitation of those who committed violence is now only on paper.

Considering the context (in 90 percent of pedophilia cases children are abused by family members, friends or at least familiar persons) and the outcomes of the rehabilitation provided in Latvia (because of the shortage of money and overloaded centers, children are usually sent back home within a month after their arrival), the quality of state care is under question. Although the centers' workers can not give precise calculations of this year's budget, they claim there are significant improvements in comparison to last year.