There has been a disturbing trend of crimes against children, with an estimated 541 reported cases during the last financial year alone.
Nineteen children were murdered during the same period.
The figure is quite possibly much higher as this number represents only the cases that are brought to the attention of the police, according to director of the Children's Authority Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, who added many others go unreported
Ali-Abdullah disclosed the statistics yesterday, during a news conference at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad, Wrightson Road, Port of Spain. The conference was held to herald the start of the authority's operations, following the recent proclamation of key legislation.
The Children's Authority Act, Chapter 46:10; Children's Community Residences, Foster Care and Nurseries Act, 2000; Children Act, 2012; and Adoption of Children Act, 2000 were proclaimed by President Anthony Carmona on Monday.
Ali-Abdullah said most crimes committed against children in this country are sex related, and these incidents increase during the July-August vacation period when perpetrators have greater and extended access to their victims. She added there was a 100 per cent increase in reported cases in east Trinidad, as well as in Tobago.
With the proclamation of the legislation, she said the authority now has the power to intervene and ensure the well-being of the nation's children.
Its functions include receiving and investigating reports of child abuse, removing children from their homes if they are deemed to be in imminent danger, and ensuring children's homes around the country are inspected and properly licensed.
The authority also now has full responsibility for the foster care and adoption systems in Trinidad and Tobago.
Rush to adopt
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook, with people wanting to adopt children," Ali-Abdullah said, adding the new legislation would allow a greater number of children to be adopted.
However, Ali-Abdullah made it clear the authority would not separate children from their families, unless absolutely necessary.
"We cannot build enough homes and we cannot recruit enough foster parents. We need to really have children remain with families as far as possible. As far as it is in the best interest of the child, we are going to work with families to ensure that children grow up and are nurtured in a family environment," she said.
The authority will also seek to provide services to children who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. During the last year alone, 149 cases of serious crimes committed by children were reported.
Ali-Abdullah said detention facilities such as the Youth Training Centre (YTC) were not the answer in these cases, and the age of criminal responsibility should be increased from seven to 12.
"We are asking parents to contact us and for us to intervene by providing counselling, family team conferencing and looking at various interventions. Sometimes, they may just need a mentor. We have identified a series of options rather than sending the child through the judicial system and to a children's home," she said.
Historic day for children
Chairman of the authority Stephanie Daly SC also expressed optimism about the impact the organisation will have on the country's children.
"All children have a right to be nurtured," she said. "There has always been people with an interest in protecting children, now, they have the structure to do so."
Also speaking briefly at yesterday's conference, Minister of Youth and Child Development Clifton De Coteau said the proclamation of the legislation on Monday was a historic day for children in Trinidad and Tobago.
Persons can make reports anonymously and confidentially, via the authority's hotline at 996 or 800-2014.