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Anatomy of failure

By Sheila Rampersad

 Dr Petronella Mannning-Alleyne rose even further in my estimation when, after submission of the report into Simeon Cottle, announced that she will sit on no more commissions or committees that examine the death of infants in health institutions. The recommendations in this latest report, she said, were the very same ones made ad nauseam over many years and still little has been done to implement them.

It is a pity that more professionals do not take that position. If they had, perhaps, just perhaps, governments would have been forced into dealing with the cruelty meted out to children throughout the post-Independence history of T&T at all the old institutions that were designed to care for them and perhaps, just perhaps, governments would have been coerced into making sustained and professional investment in the care of children who have no alternative but to be wards of the State.

Brandon Hargreaves ought not to have been housed at the St Michael’s Home for Boys in the first instance. The Home is for children who are ordered to be there by the courts because they have committed an offence; it is not for boys who have been tortured and abandoned. Brandon would have been sent there by default because there was and is no State institution to house him.

Also, when there is no room at St Dominic’s, St Jude’s, St Mary’s etc, boys and girls are sent to the adult prisons, as in the case of two young women represented by the late Dana Seetahal, SC, mere weeks before she was cut down.

The same has happened to 13 girls housed at St Jude’s, another institution at which previous reports have identified severe ongoing problems. The most recent eruption was last month. Following the riot, 35 girls were sent on retreat to Manzanilla and 13 to the Women’s Prison. Of the 35 sent on retreat, two ran away and are currently being sought by the Anti-Kidnapping Squad.

There have been a number of lengthy, detailed reports into goings-on at these institutions; there is no need for more and professionals must stop agreeing to sit on committee after committee to replicate work already done, perhaps earn a stipend while serving and place fancy names and dates on their resumes.

The call now has to be for a timetable to phase in implementation of fundamental change to how we deal with children in the care of private, State and State-assisted facilities.

Even as the report into the death of Brandon is being sent to the police and Director of Public Prosecutions even if, by a long and meandering shot, charges were to be laid, under what act will that happen? The Children Act (2012) sets out a fine of $50,000 or imprisonment for 10 years (High Court) and $5,000 or imprisonment for six years (Magistrates’ Court) upon conviction for cruelty to children (including neglect, ill-treatment and abandonment). That act, however, has not been proclaimed despite repeated assurances by the Prime Minister and the Child Development Minister that it would have been proclaimed in mid-2014.

A sub-committee of the Child Protection Task Force insisted that at least the penalty clauses be proclaimed now, if not the full act. 

Well the deadline has come and the act, whether in full or in part, has not been proclaimed.

Charges then might be laid under the 1925 Children Act which basically says that for between $5,000 and $10,000 people could inflict all manner of cruelty on children ($10,000 fine or two years imprisonment in the High Court; $5,000 fine or six months imprisonment in the Magistrates’ Court).

Proclamation of the new act, and an assorted package of other legislation to protect children, depends on making the Children’s Authority operational. In January the PM said the authority would be operational by June; that date has come and gone. 

The Child Protection Task Force, for its part, is but another unnecessary layer of people studying the same issues from the same reports and recommending the same things. Its original deadline of six weeks has become elastic and, according to revelations made Wednesday night by Task Force member Rondell Feeles, its ability to act on complaints is also compromised.

So forgive me, Trinidad and Tobago, for my cynicism: little or nothing is going to come out of the current dramatic report on the torture of children at the institutions in which they are housed.

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