Child-Abuse Case Reveals Vietnam's Lax Social Services

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Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP / Getty Images

A poster for a local family, children and population committee in Hanoi on Sept. 9, 2008

For much of the past year, residents of a village in Vietnam's southern Ca Mau province heard a child screaming in terror in a nearby house, but no one alerted the authorities. As 14-year-old Nguyen Hoang Anh was being branded with hot irons, had solvents poured in his wounds and had his teeth pulled out with pliers, those who heard him ignored his cries. Neighbors feared the couple that employed the boy on their shrimp farm might retaliate against them if they notified officials. Others, knowing police rarely interfere in domestic issues, did not know whom to call.

In most countries, suspicions of any kind of child abuse, let alone such a horrific case, would rouse a small army of social workers and police. Vietnam, however, has no such public system and only loose laws protecting children and other vulnerable people. "We don't consider beating a child to be violence against children," concedes Nguyen Hai Huu, director of the Ministry for Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs' child-protection unit. Disciplining children has traditionally been considered a family matter and officials are still loath to interfere. Under the current law, a criminal case of child abuse can only be filed if a child suffers injuries on more than 11% of his or her body. (When Anh was hospitalized in April, police determined that the boy was scarred across 66.83% of his body and arrested his employers.) The laws, as well as people's awareness about vulnerable populations, says Huu, have failed to keep up with rapid, often wrenching social shifts and the rising rates of domestic abuse, divorce and homelessness.

Now this is set to change. Vietnam has launched a massive effort to overhaul its social-support system over the next 10 years. In May, social work was officially recognized as a profession, a vital legal distinction in Vietnam's communist society, in which nothing can happen without the central government's assent. The country plans to offer counseling services, set up crisis hotlines, revamp its social-protection laws, educate the police and spend $123 million to train tens of thousands of social workers in dealing with problems ranging from domestic violence to drug addiction. "Until now, the government didn't recognize social workers and didn't think they were necessary," says Le Hong Loan, head of UNICEF Vietnam's child-protection department, which has been working with the government for more than a decade to develop a social-work system as well as write tougher laws and encourage their enforcement.

It's not that Vietnam doesn't have existing social-welfare offices. There are hundreds of centers across the nation. But staff members have no formal training in counseling or providing intervention services, says Loan. Their skills are more focused on ensuring that poverty-alleviation programs are properly carried out or immunization quotas are met. They would rarely get involved if a child dropped out of school or a woman was suspected of being a victim of domestic abuse. In fact, says Loan, there's little understanding among local officials of what social workers even do.

Vietnam has undergone unprecedented change in the past two decades as breathtaking economic growth lifted millions out of poverty. But modernization has created new vulnerable populations. Workers have left tight-knit communities and migrated to the cities, where there aren't enough services, let alone jobs. Today the disparities between rich and poor have never been greater. Drug and alcohol abuse are at record levels. Local welfare authorities, who may be proficient at handing out poverty subsidies, are facing issues such as street children and child trafficking for the first time.

Broken families, drug abuse and domestic violence are issues that can't be solved with paperwork or passing new decrees, says Le Thi Thu Thuy, director of Thao Dan Street Children, one of a handful of private grass-roots organizations caring for vulnerable families in Ho Chi Minh City. "The work is very different compared to five or 10 years ago." The country today, she says, needs trained social workers with experience working with people in crisis, something that has simply not previously existed in Vietnam.

Huu, of the government's child-protection unit, says the new regulations slated to go into effect next year will begin to address such failings. Vietnam's plan calls for the training of 60,000 social workers by 2020. The hope is to get skilled personnel stationed in community centers, hospitals and government offices that can provide counseling and assistance.

It is an ambitious — and probably unrealistic — target. The biggest stumbling block is that only 30 people in a country of 88 million have an advanced degree in social work. This means almost no one is qualified to train the first generation of social workers — a profession that requires hands-on training and supervised field experience. That hasn't stopped dozens of Vietnamese universities from recently offering undergraduate degrees in social work, complains Vo Thi Hoang Yen, who earned a masters degree in human development from the University of Kansas. She wonders exactly who is teaching these courses. "Lecturers come from the English, economics and political-science departments," says Yen, who works with people with disabilities. "But they lack any social-work training."

Reforming education is just one element of the equation. Graduates also need jobs, warns Loan of UNICEF. "Right now there is no role for social workers," she says, noting they are not even allowed to accompany victims of child abuse into court. "If you want social workers to be recognized, you have to give them duties, power and responsibilities. Where do they work? What services will they provide?" These are issues Vietnam will have work out in the coming years. "It's not easy developing an entirely new profession," says Loan.

Meanwhile, the case of the boy who was tortured by his employers has received unprecedented media coverage around the country since he was rescued in April. Investigations were launched into why no one reported the torture, and local party members and police were rebuked for failing to detect the abuse. In a rare move, the trial of the couple was opened to the public, with huge crowds showing up to watch the proceedings in Ca Mau. Last month, the husband and wife were each sentenced to 23 years in prison. Many of those who attended said the punishment was not nearly severe enough.