Doctor Ong Kian Soon from Singapore and English teacher Stivi Cooke from Australia have recently shared their thoughts with Tuoi Tre News on how to handle children accused of misdemeanors.
The discussion happened following an incident in which T., a fourth grader was found with several bruises on his body after he was taken to a police station in southern Vietnam.
The child was taken there for questioning without his family as he was suspected to have stolen a teacher’s phone.
Earlier, he had also been questioned by his school’s supervising teacher.
T.’s father said that the bruise was cause by police because he had only given the boy a slap himself after learning about the theft, while T.’s grandfather had only hit him in the bottom a few times with a thin plastic ruler.
Police claimed the opposite had occured.
Corporal punishment does not teach
As a doctor, I have seen several cases of children being brutally beaten, even by parents and relatives. It’s always heartbreaking to see a child in this state. I have always felt that beatings of children are a form of betrayal by adults who should know better.
In this case where a minor has been accused of a misdemeanor, there are two important issues that merit discussion. The first involves the handling of minors by people in positions of authority (e.g. the teachers, law enforcement personnel etc). The second involves the use of corporal punishment on children (e.g. caning etc.).
In the first issue on dealing with minors, especially very young children, one needs to remember that the psychology of children is very different from that of adults. Thus, they should be handled with more sensitivity and sympathy. It is difficult to predict how the little boy in the story would be affected mentally by the incident. The psychology of children is less predictable and very different from that of adults. Due to their youth, they have less psychological reserves to deal with stressful or intimidating situations and may react in an unpredictable manner.
I remember a recent case in Singapore of a 14 year old boy who committed suicide after the police questioned him earlier this year. This case made waves in Singapore as it showed how important it is to handle minors with compassion and understanding. In the Singapore case, this lack of sensitivity cost a young life.
Being questioned by adults, especially adults in a position of authority, e.g. teachers and police officers, is inherently an intimidating situation. Even if the questioning is done as a matter of procedure, it can be extremely bad for a child's mental well being.
In these cases, it is preferable to have a child questioned in the presence of an adult who is trusted by the child e.g. a legal guardian. The handling of minors/children who are accused of wrongdoing is inherently a very tricky issue. However, at the very least, the minor/child should always be accompanied by an adult. Parents, guardians, social workers or school counselors can all fulfill this crucial role as long as this adult is a person who is "trusted" by the child.
In an ideal situation, there should be counselors who are trained in both matters of the law and child psychology to act as advocates of the child who is being questioned by police. These counselors will be there to ensure that the child is not being misunderstood and also that the child understands the investigation process and what transpired during the questioning process.
The second issue deals with the use of corporal punishment on children. In earlier generations, I believe that corporal punishment was widespread and an accepted form of punishment for children. However, recent research shows that this form of punishment is not an optimal way of educating a child and can in fact be counterproductive. Things have changed now and corporal punishments are rare and frowned upon.
Specifically, corporal punishment fails to teach a child why his behavior is wrong. Instead of helping a child develop the moral desire to behave well, this type punishment teaches the child to simply avoid getting caught. After all, a naughty child misbehaves far more times in a day than an adult can punish them. Soon, the child will recognize that the punishment comes not because he did something wrong but because he got caught doing it. Obviously, this is not good for the moral education of a child. I believe that instead we should educate them. Children can and will understand if you teach them what is right or wrong and explain it to them. Explanation is the key.
Dr. Ong Kian Soon
Deep impact for the rest of life
An incident like this can have a very deep impact on a child for the rest of his life, especially at that age. They can become withdrawn, shy and distrustful of adults. The incident could teach children that violence is normal and later they may act out violently themselves in order to solve problems. It also has the potential to teach kids that they will never be treated fairly so they are more likely to behave more aggressively in the future.
If the family trusts their son then they should have given him the ‘benefit of the doubt’ until the truth was proven with evidence. Simply hitting the boy sends the message that ‘you are bad’ regardless of the truth. I’d wait until there was a full investigation of the incident.
I think the teachers in the incident should have defended and investigated the case more carefully. Certainly I think that both the teaching staff and the police involved should be taught more clearly that the Vietnamese law does state that children have legal rights.
I can’t understand why the boy had to be taken the police station without the parents’ consent and presence during the police station interview. I also find it a little strange that the grandfather and father chose to use violence even though the phone is NOT in the boy’s possession and the story doesn’t clearly show if anyone made an effort to track down the phone itself. Besides which, why would a fourth-grader take a teacher’s phone?
The case raises serious questions about intimidating and bullying a child, a possible forced confession and physical assault against a minor.
I find the whole thing very disturbing and worrying and I hope it’s not a common trend in dealing with minors and the law.
The law in Australia requires that parents MUST be notified of any serious incident involving their children at school before any action is taken by authorities. Children also have the right to have a responsible guardian or representative present during any questioning over serious incidents by police if the parents are not able to be present. In very serious cases, a lawyer should be present to represent and defend the child.
I believe the child should have been interviewed at the school with witnesses present and a written or recorded report made of the interview. The police should have looked closely at the actions of the school staff too.
In Australia, children can only be taken to a police station if they are arrested and there are very strict rules about this. Both the schools and the police have legal responsibilities to protect and look after children underage (18 in Australia) and can be sued if they do something seriously wrong.
English teacher Stivi Cooke