Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Of waifs and strays

Sheila Rampersad logo10

Mark Fraser

Report after report and rumour after rumour have raised alarms about the torture of children at the facilities in T&T in which they are housed. The most recent formal refe­rence to St Michael’s Home for Boys was in the Selwyn Ryan report, which described it as a recruitment area for both paedophiles and gang leaders and, according to Ryan, “the behaviour of the boys worsened over the years and many of them challenge, defy or disrespect the authorities”. Ryan wrote he was told some of the “lads” grew marijuana on the fringe of the Diego Martin facility.

Yesterday, a relative of Brandon Hart-Greaves, the now 14-year-old child who was rescued by police from a night spent naked in a dog kennel in Cascade two years ago, told the Guardian “he believed conditions at the home had played a part in the teen’s death. ‘That place not nice. It needs to be seriously addressed and revamped,’ the man said”.

The case of this child, brutalised for years, and now dead in the “care” of the State, demonstrates all the ways in which families and the various arms of the State fail the defenceless, how many systems for the care of children do not exist, and how deeply flawed the processes that exist are. 

Brandon at 12 was found by Belmont police; he was naked in a dog kennel, having spent the night there, during which he was repeatedly bitten by the dog and bawled through the night, “He biting me! He biting me!” When police removed him, he was bloody, there were puncture marks on his body from the dog bites, he had been devoured by mosquitoes, was suffering from malnutrition and exposure to the night’s low temperatures.

Brandon had been locked in the kennel because his guardian felt he was “not listening” and was being stubborn. So he sought the assistance of another and together, according to reports in July 2012, the two men held down the child, stripped him of his clothes, and stuffed him into the kennel.

A neighbour, speaking to the media at the time on condition of anonymity, said, “It is years now they were abusing this child. They always never feeding the child or beating the child. In fact, the boy used to get so frustrated that he used to jump over the fence and go next door and thief food from a neighbour. If you see him on the road, he was asking for food. He was always hungry. It was years of abuse he getting.”

While those in whose care he lived actively tortured him, neighbours tried to help. They phoned the police several times, they told reporters, but when the police arrived they did not see Brandon being hurt in the moment of their visit so they warned the guardians and left. Until...

So family members arrested, Brandon was taken to hospital, then to the court. Perhaps there was no relative who could have accommodated the child, or the magistrate did not explore all the options, or, most likely, maybe there was no place for the child to be housed because there are precious few facilities in the country, Brandon was sent to the St Michael’s Home for Boys.

That home is set up 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. Violence, drug use, alcohol consumption and sexual abuse are prevalent. A Ministry of National Security survey of Juvenile Offenders at the Youth Training Centre, St Michael’s Home for Boys and St Jude’s Home for Girls (part of the Drug Abuse Monitoring Project Among Inmates for the National Drug Council in collaboration with the Prison Service of Trinidad and Tobago and the National Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Programme (NADAPP)) found 22 per cent of boys at St Michael’s used alcohol; one quarter of them used marijuana; and 24 per cent said they used marijuana recently. The ave­rage age of first use of drugs across the three institutions was between ten and 12 years.

One third of the St Michael’s boys said they had a family member with a severe drug or alcohol problem, and 66 per cent of all the children said they experienced “family relation” problems involving fighting, screaming and yelling.

Researchers asked the boys and girls if they felt safe in the institutions in which they were housed. More than half of them said their respective institution was unsafe. Drugs, they said, were frequently available; seven out of ten of them said there was always violence at the institutions; 62 per cent said inmates carried weapons. Other reasons related to the home itself: lack of supervision (44 per cent); rules not clear (39 per cent); and a lack of security officers at the institution.

A ward of the State has died. Who will see the autopsy report? How many staff members were on duty on the night Brandon died? How many were awake or alert? When were rounds made to check on the boys? At what time were the police and the health services notified? Are children at the home being interviewed by police? What is the protocol for when a child in the care of the State is injured or dies? Why was Brandon sent to the St Michael’s Home? What was his treatment plan?

I am in no way reassured by the Gender Ministry’s tearful news release about this child’s death nor am I willing to buy wholesale the story of falling and hitting his head until a thorough, independent investigation is done. RIP, young one.