HOLLYWOOD can see the humour in a child left at home alone. It can also turn parental negligence into entertainment. But, that is the world of fiction. Reality, however, shows that a 3-year-old left unattended finds being alone in the middle of the night intimidating. And, there is nothing amusing about a mother wilfully leaving the little child behind while she visits her relatives as happened recently. No matter what the excuse is, this is a case of child abuse and abandonment, pure and simple. The mother has been arrested and an investigation under Section 33 of the Child Act 2001 is ongoing.
Section 33 of the act views as an offence the act of leaving “a child without reasonable supervision”. And, if found guilty, the offender is liable, under the 2016 amendments, to “a fine not exceeding RM20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or both”. These sentences have been increased from a fine of RM5,000 and imprisonment of two years. However, those active in child welfare have warned that the effectiveness rests with enforcement. It has been argued that the Child Act 2001 needed amending because it had not been enforced effectively, thus leaving the law looking inadequate. In the case under consideration, therefore, there should not be any mitigating circumstances to enable the mother to escape the full consequences of her action.
The government promised a public education campaign to make Malaysians aware of the law and the consequences of parental neglect and other offences against a child covered by the amendments. But, public education alone is not enough for deterrence. Balancing childcare and fulfilling economic demands of the family is, for the disadvantaged, quite a feat. Unless parents and guardians understand that the authorities mean business, “neglect” and “abuse” will remain subjective, much influenced by traditional norms of “father knows best” and “children are seen and not heard”. These are but a couple of the most pervasive values leaving parents thinking that corporal punishment is what keeps children in line to prepare them for adulthood.
But, of course, this is, tragically, the best-case scenario. There are, though, parents who are wilfully neglectful and violent, and children have been killed as a result: like the little girl who wandered off with a stranger who killed her; or, the little boy kicked to death by a father under the influence of drugs; or, the child killed by the mother’s boyfriend, a drug addict. Then, there are unmarried mothers abandoning newborn babies to their fate, not to mention the victims of paedophiles and kidnappers. There are also incidences of carelessness by parents, as in the case of a 17-month-old baby who had been accidentally locked in a car by the mother. Fortunately, nothing untoward happened to the baby, who was later rescued. The list is endless and, sometimes, tragic. The children are our future, so goes the song, and therefore, are in need of protection, the kind that is best provided for by the law. The Child Act (Amendment) 2016 has been made tougher, covering all conceivable offences. What is left is its unforgiving enforcement.