DUBAI// Staff in government centres for children with disabilities are being encouraged to watch for signs of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in their young charges.
"As a measure of precaution, we have to take all the necessary steps in order to prepare our staff to deal with such cases," said Ahmed Al Omran, a legal researcher in the Ministry of Social Affairs special-needs department.
The ministry runs runs five educational and vocational centres for young Emiratis with cognitive disabilities, autism or other special needs.
After hearing from staff about scattered cases of suspected abuse, ministry officials held a workshop on the issue to raise awareness.
"Of course we are talking about a few cases," Dr Al Omran said. "We don't talk about this as a phenomenon … but again, it's really important to actually know how to deal with such cases in order to prevent these from happening."
About 20 psychologists and social workers from the government centres attended the workshop last month. In addition to learning how to recognise signs that a child is being abused, they discussed how to empower children to protect themselves.
The ministry plans to hold the workshop again next year and invite staff from privately run centres.
Children with disabilities are "doubly vulnerable" to abuse and neglect, said Prof Eman Gaad, dean of the education faculty at the British University in Dubai. They are susceptible to abuse first because they are children, and again because their disability can inhibit their understanding and ability to speak up.
"It is very important for staff and parents to understand what abuse is," said Prof Gaad.
"There is also a need for training for parents to understand the risk of leaving the child with strangers."
At the ministry's Fujairah special needs centre, staff are conducting workshops for mothers of teenage girls about the risk of their daughters becoming targets for sexual predators.
There have been no serious abuse cases discovered at the ministry's centres, said Moza Al Waly, a psychologist at the ministry's special needs department.
"I've worked in this field for 16 years now and, thank God, we've never come across a major sexual or emotional abuse case," she said. "It just never happened."
However, during a field survey three years ago of unregistered children with disabilities, ministry inspectors discovered a 16-year-old boy with a cognitive disability who had been "deprived of a normal life by his own family", Ms Al Waly said.
"These are exceptional cases. I'm not going to tell you there are no abuse cases in the UAE, but there are no patterns either; it's far from endemic."
In this case, the boy's family had locked up him in their home because they were afraid he might hurt his siblings.
"Some families believe a mentally ill child is possessed and tends to be violent," Ms Al Waly said. "Some remote communities, given their low literacy and awareness levels, still believe in those things, and do not understand that it is a mental condition that should be dealt with otherwise."
The family did not intend to torture the child, she said; they simply thought that keeping him from harming others was the only way to handle him.
If centre staff discover a case of abuse, first they should contact the child's family to take precautions to stop the abuse. Then they should report the case to the ministry.
"From here we can study the case," Dr Al Omran said. "If it deserves being referred to the police, we can do so. Otherwise we might try to find a solution. We don't want to open up that each case we report to the police, because some cases might be minor."
Staff have been encouraged to search for and respond to any cases they find in the coming year, said Dr Rawhi Abdat, a ministry psychologist.
"Next year, they will explain what they did about it - how they resolved these problems," he said.