Boy killed in school bus symptomatic of social apathy to child protection

By Tran Huong Thuy   August 10, 2019 | 11:03 pm PT
A few days ago I took my child through the gates of a beautiful school for a new chapter in his life: first grade.
Tran Huong Thuy

Tran Huong Thuy

I was doing the exact same thing a father and mother who are now grieving inconsolably for their child had done.

I, a parent of a child at the Gateway International School in Hanoi’s Cau Giay District, have been in a state of panic that can hardly be described in words for the last few days.

My son stood along with that unfortunate boy for their first ever flag-raising ceremony and together childishly mumbled the national anthem, trying to catch up with those in higher grades.

My son and that child, both six years old, had their first buffet lunch at the school where they enjoyed foods that are appealing to kids: spaghetti, deep-fried chicken, ice cream.

And just like that boy, Le Hoang Long, who died Tuesday after being abandoned in the school bus for nine hours, my son has the habit of sleeping on the bus.

Luckily, my home is close enough to the school, and I can take my son there.

What if the day the boy died the employee traveling on the bus with the students had checked and double-checked the number of kids who got on and off the bus? What if the driver had checked the entire bus before leaving the vehicle in the parking lot? What if the school staff had contacted Long’s family as soon as they noticed he had not come to class? What if ...

There are too many "What ifs" here.

And if just one of them had been done, the boy would still be with us. We parents are angry. Many want Gateway to be shut down because it "is not worthy of providing education to any child any more." A majority of us have been thinking about moving our children to some other school.

But then, one question bothers us: Could our kids really be safe if they leave Gateway for another school?

The series of mistakes that led to the death of that boy ... Are they occasional or are they something that happen frequently but have not, for some reason, caused any serious consequences or come to light?

In 1990 Vietnam became the second nation in the world to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We also have the Law on Children and the Month of Action for Children in June every year. The motto "child protection is the responsibility of the whole society" is repeated on various media time and again, and news about Vietnam’s achievements in child protection have been flaunted more than a few times.

Now let’s take a look at the attitude toward children of a nation that has never signed the convention: the U.S.

A story made headlines in that country a few years ago.

Leslie, whose name was changed to protect her privacy, an 11-month-old baby, played with her mother’s curling iron and got her leg singed. The mother, Mercedes, a single mother of two, did not take Leslie to hospital but took care of the girl's burned leg herself.

The case then came to the notice of authorities. Staff from the American Community Survey came to check on Leslie’s wounds. Mercedes prevented them from doing so. The case escalated, and it was concluded that Mercedes was not capable of raising her children. She was separated from her own kids.

To win the right to get her children back, she had to take courses on proper parenting and attend conferences on ensuring their safety. She was also told to detox herself of drugs, and authorities frequently made surprise checks on her house.

Her fight to get her kids back lasted more than a decade. During that time they were in foster care chosen by the authorities.

The story of Mercedes, which started from a burn, is a typical example of cases in which parents lost the right to raise their own children in the U.S. Child protection in the U.S. is for sure inadequate and often plagued by bigotry and racism. However, it shows determination in protecting children and has practical solutions for that.

To protect children needs more than a conscience and responsibility. It's not something one does out of good will. We cannot just rely on campaigns and propaganda by some agencies or institutes or some "month of action for children." Child protection must be clearly enshrined in the laws and thoroughly implemented through an efficient judicial apparatus and supporting agencies.

Children play during break time at a primary school in Ho Chi Minh City, September 2017. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Children play during break time at a primary school in Ho Chi Minh City, September 2017. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

We hear stories every day of children’s rights being violated. Traumatic incidents in which children are victims occur all too frequently.

High-rise apartment buildings have mushroomed in large cities in Vietnam along with news of young children falling to their death from balconies. In most of these cases the reasons are similar: adults were not at home, tables and chairs were placed close to balconies or windows and they were not barred.

Yet, though this occurs again and again, it is considered a "tragic accident" rather than the result of lack of responsibility. Tears are shed and everyone feels sympathy, and maybe that is why people hesitate to discuss responsibility in these cases.

However, even a much easier task remains undone: inspection of all high-rise buildings to prevent the risk of children falling off. In fact, no one has even made this proposal.

There are mistakes that occur because of individuals’ lack of awareness, and then there are mistakes that occur because of the entire system’s lack of awareness.

For example, the government does not require children under six to wear helmets on motorbikes, without giving a convincing reasons why they don't need such protection.

In a report to the Ministry of Transport in 2009, a joint working group of the World Health Organization, the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation and the United Nations Children's Fund already clarified that helmets do not affect the necks of young children.

And then there are the newborns abandoned on sidewalks, even in rubbish dumps. Vietnamese laws do carry specific penalties for this, like revoking the right to raise the child and imprisonment of up to two years. But these laws are rarely enforced.

Normally in these cases, members of the public look for the parents and persuade them to take their child back. Think about it ... Giving the poor babies back to the same persons who had egregiously violated their rights is considered the most reasonable solution!

We should not forget the case of Nguyen Hao Anh, who had been forced to work on a farm shrimp at the age of 12 and, for two years until his case was discovered, brutally beaten by his employers.

When his unfortunate story came to light in 2010, benefactors opened their hearts and purse strings to support him, but the entire nation failed to offer him what he needed most: a capable and responsible guardian to take care of him.

He failed to find a proper job, and after exhausting all the money he got, he turned to crime and committed a theft at the age of 19.

Protecting children also means preventing all the risks that could happen to them instead of running after consequences and picking up the pieces. Even after mishaps, even fatal accidents, occur, we are still hesitant in taking measures to prevent them from happening again.

Earlier this year I was shocked at a school in Hanoi with quite a good reputation to see cars coming in and parking right in the yard where students were playing. And this was not long after a car injured an elementary school student in Hanoi and another killed a child in Son La Province northwest of the capital.

And then there are the farcical killer wardrobes. Wardrobes have toppled and claimed the lives of at least four children in kindergartens in less than 10 years now.

We are paying too high a price for lessons that are not at all new.

How many more children do we need killed by cars in schoolyards, falling wardrobes, unbarred balconies, drowning, and being abandoned in cars before someone actually thinks about creating a set of criteria and procedures to ensure the safety of children everywhere?

"Protecting children is not the responsibility of any single individual" would only mean something when society actually has specific regulations and proper enforcement mechanisms so that everyone can take that responsibility.

And when it is just an empty motto, the responsibility of protecting children, far from being everyone’s, becomes no one’s.

*Tran Huong Thuy is a mother and journalist in Hanoi. The opinions expressed here are her own.

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