x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Sharjah's child-abuse helpline may go national

24-hour helpline allows relatives, neighbours, teachers and others to anonymously report child abuse or neglect.

Lt. Col. Faisal Mohammed Al Shamari, Director of the Ministry of Interior's Child Protection Centre, talks with Samia Kazi, COO of Arabian Child, after a debate titled Hidden Scars: A Forum About Child Abuse.
Lt. Col. Faisal Mohammed Al Shamari, Director of the Ministry of Interior's Child Protection Centre, talks with Samia Kazi, COO of Arabian Child, after a debate titled Hidden Scars: A Forum About Child Abuse.

SHARJAH // The federal government is interested in taking Sharjah's child-abuse helpline national.

The Ministry of Interior is in early talks to use the helpline as part of a federal child-protection system, said Lt Col Faisal Al Shamari, director of the ministry's Child Protection Centre.

The emirate's 24-hour helpline, 800700, allows relatives, neighbours, teachers and others to anonymously report child abuse or neglect.

"It is the oldest in the UAE and has experience," Lt Col Al Shamari said at a panel discussion on child abuse.

The helpline's social workers and psychologists cooperate with police to investigate cases, provide services to families and give shelter to children in danger.

"We follow the problem until it is finished," said Ahmed Altartoor, manager of the protection of children's rights administration at Sharjah's Social Services Department.

There are other hotlines but the one in Sharjah, which is for Emiratis and expatriates, was the first of its kind.

There should be one phone number across the country for people to report child abuse, Lt Col Al Shamari said at the discussion last Saturday. "It is difficult for children to remember a mobile number."

Mr Altartoor said the ministry wanted Sharjah to take the lead.

"We would be the central line and after that we will cooperate together," he said.

The Ministry of Social Affairs has drafted legislation for a national system for the handling and reporting of child abuse and neglect.

Anita Akkawi, who researched child protection for her master's at the Dubai School of Government, said the idea of a national helpline was encouraging but "means nothing" without a legal basis.

"All of these efforts are really very appreciated but, really, the law comes first," Ms Akkawi said.

Sanjana Bhardwaj, an instructor at Zayed University and a child-protection consultant, agreed.

"In the absence of a unified legal framework for all the Emirates, how would a centralised hotline respond?" Ms Bhardwaj asked.

A national helpline would also require more trained social workers, which the country lacks, she said.

"If a decision is made that Sharjah is going to be a central hotline, they really have to look at building the capacity of the Sharjah social-support centre so that it caters to all emirates," Ms Bhardwaj said.

Created in 2007, the helpline is a member of the global network Child Helpline International, and Mr Altartoor said people from across the UAE used it.

Some callers ask for parenting advice or help with a child's developmental disability, he said. But the helpline also received many calls about physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.

In one case a few months ago, a mother used a hot knife to discipline her son, placing it against the boy's hand but not burning him.

"The child escaped the home," Mr Altartoor said. "A neighbour found the child and called us. When we called the mother, she said, 'Come, come help me with the child'."

He said the mother thought disciplining her child this way was for his own good, but she needed to learn new ways. The department handled the case internally.

"Some people think like that," Mr Altartoor said. "… sometimes you solve the problem without the police, keeping the family connection."

Other times, abuse stems from the stress of poverty, he said. The department eases the problem by providing support such as rent payments, school fees or food coupons.

In another recent case, a girl accused a bus driver of molesting her. She told a teacher, who called the helpline.

The case was referred to police this month, Mr Altartoor said. "Now the psychologist is working with the child."

He said staff faced resistance when the helpline was new, but then the number of calls began to increase.

"After they saw what we were doing, they started to accept us," Mr Altartoor said.

vnereim@thenational.ae