Society must act now to protect minors

Updated: 2013-06-28 08:07

By Wang Yiqing (China Daily)

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The death of two girls, aged 1 and 3 years, because of starvation in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on June 21, after their drug-addict mother left them alone at home exposes the loopholes in China's social and legal systems to protect minors.

The Law on the Protection of Minors requires parents and/or guardians of minors to fulfill the responsibilities of guardianship and forbids them from abusing or abandoning them. But since it is hard to effectively implement the law, parents and guardians who fail to fulfill their responsibilities evade punishment.

Although Article 53 of the Law on the Protection of Minors stipulates that people's courts can deprive such parents and guardians of the custody of minors if they find evidence provided by people or authorities against them convincing, there are no official organizations to take care of the minors. In many cases, parents who fail to fulfill their responsibilities get off after being reprimanded by local residents' committees or police and continue to have the custody of the minors they abuse or ill-treat.

The lack of necessary measures to protect minors was one of the main reasons why the Nanjing tragedy took place. The two girls were raised by their mother, after their father was imprisoned for being a drug addict. Their mother, who too is a drug addict, was in the habit of leaving the girls alone at home, but last week her absence was far longer than usual.

Police and members of the residential committee where the girls lived knew for some time that the mother was an awful guardian. But despite that, the local legal authorities did nothing except giving the mother a monthly allowance of 800 yuan ($130) and visit the family once or twice a week. They couldn't apply to a court to seize the custody of the two minors because there is no legal children's home to take care of minors.

Traditionally, Chinese parents have had great authority and influence over their children. That's why even if parents neglected or physically punished their children in the past, it was seldom regarded as an offence. It is not a crime for parents to neglect or physically punish their children. Parents are punished only when they cause serious harm to their children, and even then the punishment they receive is almost always light. That not only fails to deter other parents from neglecting or abusing children, but also goes against the original intention of the law to protect minors.

The absence of community supervision and help is another problem that led to the Nanjing tragedy. Many people still believe that parenting is a family matter that is not covered by law. Neighbors and community members are reluctant to report parents to the authorities even when the latter neglect or abuse their children. This makes it all the more difficult to protect children from irresponsible or abusive parents.

Legal action is the last thing we turn to when parents neglect or abuse children, and we cannot rely solely on law to protect children. International practice shows sound social and legal systems - including mandatory reporting of irresponsible or abusive parents to the authorities, social and community family support, compulsory parental education and laws to protect minors - are crucial to preventing Nanjing-like tragedies.

The entire society, especially parents, should realize that minors' safety and healthy development is protected by law. So a mandatory reporting mechanism should be introduced in China. And people should be educated about the importance of reporting irresponsible and abusive parents to the authorities.

Parenting doesn't come naturally to some people. Therefore, residential communities should provide necessary support to such people and make them aware of the legal responsibilities of guardianship. Most importantly, a mechanism should be established to supervise guardianship and when parents neglect or abuse children, the authorities should transfer their custody to children's homes which should be legally set up.

Guangdong province issued a draft "Regulation on the Protection of Minors" in May soliciting public opinion. The draft stipulates that parents and guardians should not leave children below 10 years, who need special care, alone. The regulation is a good step toward protecting minors and may help parents appreciate the legal responsibilities that come with guardianship.

There indeed are a lot of difficulties to overcome before minors can be effectively protected. But as adults, it is our responsibility to ensure that tragedies like Nanjing do not recur and for that the authorities have to do everything it takes to set up a proper mechanism to supervise parents and establish legal children's homes.

The author is a writer with China Daily.


(China Daily USA 06/28/2013 page16)