Concerned that child abuse is grossly under-reported, a University of the West Indies (UWI) academic today appealed directly to this island’s medical doctors to play their part in combating the domestic scourge by filing reports with the relevant authorities on all suspected cases.
“You do not need to have proof. The onus of proof is not on you. You have to suspect it and we expect you to report it,” advised Dr Sophia King, who is an associate lecturer in the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the UWI’s Cave Hill campus.
“Don’t assume that someone else is going to raise it. Don’t assume that because they [the alleged victim] saw your colleague last week that they said something about it,” she stressed.
Her impassioned plea came during a symposium jointly hosted at the state-run Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) by the UWI medical faculty and the Centre for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School.
During today’s event, strong concern was also expressed that the actual level of abuse could be close to double the 1,446 cases reported by the Child Care Board for 2015/2016 reporting period, up from 1,171 for the 2014/2015 period and the 1,045 the prior year.
“I know that those figures are an under-representation of child abuse in this country from my own experience and anecdotes. I suspect that our under-reporting is massive. I think it is more slightly double that,” said Faith Marshall-Harris, who is a former magistrate and UNICEF’s Children’s Champion.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of Friday’s symposium, she also suggested that a change in domestic mindset was needed to combat the worrying scourge.
Earlier, King had revealed during the event entitled, Confronting Child Abuse: Recognition, Reporting and Responsibility, that last year alone, between April and December, more than 33 suspected cases of child abuse were referred to social workers, including 26 sexual assault cases and seven of physical abuse.
She further disclosed that 20 suspected child abuse victims were admitted to the QEH, including teenaged girls who were forced to terminate pregnancies.
“We also had on the ward a young lady who presented with attempted self-induced termination,” she added.
Marshall-Harris, who has helped with the drafting of legislation to make it mandatory for child abuse cases to be reported, lamented that it was yet to be passed into law.
However, she acknowledged that legislation alone would not solve the problem.
“What we really need is a cultural revolution, that is, we have to change the culture of how we see children, how tolerant we are of abuse, what we feel should happen to children [as forms of punishment],” she said, while pointing out that there were parents who would prefer to spend money on expensive consumables than on taking their children to the dentist or for medical check-ups.
On the issue of corporal punishment, the child advocate said she would not be drawn into any discussion on whether it should be banned or not.
However, Marshall-Harris said, “I have a concern that it is very easy to slide from corporal punishment into physical abuse. We have many cases of it and also too many people see it as a first resort and not a last resort.
“We have to have our conversations. We have always had conversations but it always gets emotional and very fraught unfortunately, but we have to soberly consider how much licence is given to parents in terms of physical abuse,” she added.