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Child Protection Officers
The “Child Protection Officer” is the new name that the 2016 Juvenile Protection Law adopted for the Ministry of Social Development’s personnel in charge of dealing with juvenile justice issues. Previous names were “probation officers” and sometimes called “social supervisors.” Child protection officers are assigned with a role to perform across all stages of the juvenile justice chain: arrest and detention by the police, investigation and indictment by prosecutors, trial by courts, rehabilitation in social institutions, and aftercare programs. Probation could also mean placing the juvenile under the supervision of a child protection officer instead of incarceration.
The Law attached a great deal of significance to probation, as an alternative to incarceration. The court might order placing the child under the supervision of a child protection officer for a term ranging from 1 to 5 years. The order can stop anytime during this period upon the prosecution’s request, the child protection officer, or the juvenile himself or his guardian; and after reviewing the child protection officer’s report on the progress that has been achieved. If the child fails to follow the probation’s term, the court might consider other dispositions, including deprivation of liberty. If the juvenile commits another offence during the probation period, the probation would come into an end and the child might be retried on the original offence, besides the new one. The Ministry of Social Development, by administrative decisions and capacity building programs, should give a greater attention to the probation as a referral disposition by strengthening the system and its staff.
Child protection officers work under the direction of the Child Protection Unit, headed by the supervisor at the headquarters of the Ministry of Social Development in the city of Ramallah. Such officers work at the district level under the daily administrative management of the head of Social Directorate of the Ministry of Social Development within each district. As in other countries, the work of these social officers, as they are not supposed to be technically juvenile lawyers, is quite informal. They assist courts and law enforcement officials in determining the personal and social context of the child who violates the law on a case-by-case basis.
The role of child protection officers starts upon the arrest of the child by the police. Once detained and transferred to prosecution, the child officer should continue to monitor the juvenile’s case in each interrogation session. At the court hearings, the judge obtains a report from a child officer on the juvenile’s personal and social status. The report of the child officer, provided in practice upon formal request from the court, might comprise “general information about the child, his environment, performance in school and his heath.” The Ministry has designed a form to be filled out by child protection officers and be used before courts.
Child protection officers in practice provide the required information after interviewing the juvenile and his family. To complete the report, some officers visit the child at home, police station, and in detention. Despite the efforts that some child officers take in its preparation, judges often ignore such a report and include it to file merely as part of a routine procedure. Most judges do not even bother reading the officer’s report. Unfortunately, Article 30 of the 2016 Juvenile Protection Law (on court sessions) uses a language that may imply that the courts only “listen” to, but not under an obligation to build its findings based on the report of the child protection officer. However, the report might have significant weight in the judgment in case of no objection to its content by the parties or the juvenile judge.
Once the court makes a disciplinary measure, particularly if the measure is to place the child in a care institution, the role of child officer will not end. In this connection, Article 48(1) of the Law stated that: “The child protection officer shall supervise the execution of the dispositions set forth in this Law. He shall monitor the convicted child and present recommendations to the juvenile and to those in charge of his education. The officer shall prepare periodical reports to the court and prosecution every three months on the child’s situation.” The court, based on such reports, might modify or end the measure. In practice, however, a few child officers do visit care institutions or detention centers, mainly on their own personal initiative. The child protection officers have also the power to bring a child prior to the completion of his disciplinary measure to the court to request an extension to that measure. The officers, at the same time, have the right to request the court to release the juvenile after spending one-third of his term at the social care institution.
As noted earlier, child protection officers are overwhelmed with daily work and have no time to work on all cases of children in conflict with the law. With about 10-30 juvenile cases a month in each district, coupled with the lack of transportation to police stations, courts, or rehabilitation institutions, “it is next to impossible for probation officers to perform well in studying all cases of juveniles. The time of the probation officer is barely enough to prepare the report to the court.”
Under such circumstances, child protection officers perform on ad hoc basis. Sometimes they respond to phone calls from police stations having cases of children in conflict with the law. It is difficult to respond positively when there are a number of police stations in the district in which the child officer functions. In other instances, child officers coordinate between the family and prosecutor. Such officers cannot attend all juvenile hearings, but rather observe selected court sessions.
In order to advance their efficiency, it is estimated that each district needs minimum three child protection officers. At least one officer should work on fulltime basis on juvenile justice issues. Now as the juvenile court can no longer be convened without the presence of the child protection officer (Article 25(2) of the Law), hiring more officers cannot be avoided. The Ministry should make transportation available for the officers to visit children at home, school, police stations, detentions, courts, and social care institutions. The work of these officers does not lack legal basis, but it rather requires executive orders and appointing adequate number of qualified staff.
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