It is likely easier to report—and have the report acted upon by trained professionals—sightings of the Giant African Snail than it is to report—and have the report acted upon by trained professionals—a child in danger of physical and/or sexual violence and/or neglect.
A story in this week’s newspaper told about a mother who called the Family Services Division of the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development about the physical abuse of her six-year-old son and was advised to lodge a report at the Police Complaints Bureau at Mon Repos Police Station. The police are reportedly looking for the alleged perpetrator who was identified by the child’s mother.
Many of us have received text messages on our mobile phones advertising Childline but the pressing questions are: what happens after the call? Can Childline intervene when abuse is reported and how quickly? Are these children removed from dangerous homes and if they are, where are they lodged? For how long? What happens after that? Childline, an NGO initiative whose line almost went dead sometime ago because of inadequate funding, is also the main tool that exists to report child abuse in T&T.
It provides an invaluable service but ought not to be the only such avenue available in the whole country.
The text messages and the public service spots I see running across the TV screens now are in response to the recent savaging of Keyana Cumberbatch but long before that presumably the Ministry of Agriculture was running advisories about the giant African snail. Surely this could be done for other critical issues such as child protection and domestic violence which, incidentally, often extends to children.
The reality is that only a very limited number of services are available. Those that exist are severely under-resourced and cannot withstand plenty demands.
Dissemination of information is a critical concern registered by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in its concluding observations to Trinidad and Tobago in 2006. The CRC commented then that “measures to raise awareness among the public, parents and children as well as professional groups working for and with children on the principles and provisions of the (Rights of the Child) Convention are insufficient.”
In 2013, little has changed in this regard.
The CRC recommended that T&T “undertake systematic education and training on the rights of the Convention for children and their parents, as well as all professional groups working for and with children, in particular parliamentarians, judges, magistrates, lawyers, law enforcement officials, civil servants, personnel working in institutions and places of detention for children, teachers, health personnel and social workers; include human rights education in the official curriculum, at all levels of education; and develop initiatives with journalists and the media to disseminate widely the principles of the convention and to promote a respectful treatment of children by the media.”
In the last regard, the board of the Children’s Authority last year did contract the services of Sunity Maharaj to raise these issues with journalists. Some media houses participated and benefitted from the training sessions.
On parental responsibility and the payment of maintenance for children, the CRC noted that recovery of maintenance is not always effectively enforced, especially when one or both parents live abroad. It recommended that the State “provide particular support to children in single-parent families, including through community structures, social security benefits and the creation of a National Fund for Child Support; amend or adopt legislation so that both parents have equal responsibilities in the fulfilment of their obligations towards their children; and take measures to ensure as far as possible the maintenance of children born out of wedlock by their parents, particularly their fathers.”
The CRC seemed especially concerned about children in the care of people and institutions other than their immediate families. It spoke about discrepancies in the levels of care provided “and its reportedly alarming conditions;” the absence of a comprehensive programme to regulate and monitor institutions providing alternative care for children; neglected, abused and abandoned children who are placed in industrial schools together with children in conflict with the law; and isolation that is used in institutions as a disciplinary measure, solely based on the decision of the direction of the institution, without any regulation.
The CRC looked at the rate of domestic violence and incest in T&T and noted that the institutions responsible for matters relating to violence against children, including the Domestic Violence Unit and the National Family Services, have not been allocated sufficient resources to effectively carry out their work and the lack of adequate and effective complaint mechanisms for child victims of abuse and neglect.
The CRC again recommended that T&T carrying out public education campaigns that raise awareness of consequences of ill-treatment of children, alternative measures of discipline for children and address socio-cultural barriers that inhibit victims from seeking assistance; introduce legislation making reporting obligations mandatory for suspected cases of abuse and neglect for all professionals working for and with children, and train them in the identification, reporting and management of ill-treatment cases (as it stands now, reporting is mandatory for only sexual abuse of children but not physical and other types of abuse); establish effective mechanisms to receive, monitor and investigate complaints in a child-sensitive manner and ensure proper prosecution of perpetrators of child abuse and neglect; provide services for the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration to victims of sexual and other forms of abuse, neglect, ill-treatment, violence or exploitation.
I have the point repeatedly and will continue to do so: protecting children is not as complicated and insurmountable as we are being made to believe. It can be done; all the Child Protection Task Force has to do is revisit the plan of action (one already exists) and schedule implementation of the various measures.
—To be continued