The time has come to put serious muscle behind a rescue mission for our children. It is not enough that we have many good soldiers to the cause. Too many of them are battling alone, doing what they can within their means, their power and the expansive chambers of their heart. But it is not enough.
As if we needed a reminder, last week's conference on violence against children provided empirical evidence of the conditions of terror under which far too many of our children live, their hopes of rescue dying with each day that we delay in finding our way to them.
Not even the din of debate over the Defence (Amendment) Bill could have drowned out the chorus of collective pain and shame over the horrendous incidence of incest in this country, committed not by criminals in the hills but by custodians of the family. And those were only the figures for cases reported in one area.
So, no. In this matter of criminal child abuse and neglect, soldiers to the cause are not enough. In the face of this crisis, the government needs to declare a state of emergency on behalf of our children, in which the only right to be curtailed must be the right to abuse them.
Because so much of the abuse is in secret, because its victims are the most easily silenced and cowed, because they often do not have the words, because their innocence blinds them to the distinction between love and abuse, we need to take the lead, speak up for our children and act to protect them. This situation calls for an intervention no less extraordinary or urgent than the efforts being made to stem the tide of crime.
With urgency, we need to pull the relevant interests and experts together under an inter-agency task force with a well-defined mandate designed to break the institutional paralysis that keeps our children trapped in living nightmares. The time is now for an action plan with clear deliverables and deadlines.
Far too many of the pieces required for care and justice for our children are simply out of sync and/or missing.
The problem is not new. Indeed, the recently established Children's Authority was born out of the recognition that a dedicated umbrella agency was needed to deal with the multiple aspects of our children's interest.
Now, despite the best efforts of its board and management, the Children's Authority, too, is struggling in the choke-hold of bureaucracy.
In frustration last week, rights advocate Diana Mahabir-Wyatt invoked the option of a revolution on behalf of children. Some might have thought it a joke, but she was clearly and correctly pointing to the need for an unconventional intervention.
In a land where facts and figures hardly ever seem to count except when convenient to political purpose, and where the priority agenda is most often determined by the decibel level of public protest, she suggested that popular forms of protest might be more productive than conventional ones.
But which community will block roads and burn tyres to demand the protection of children when it is so often the community itself that fails the child? Like the child who, according to the director of the Police Service Victim and Witness Support Unit, Margaret Sampson-Browne, was ostracised by family and community after reporting that she had been molested by a relative.
When those charged with the protection and care of children fail to do so, our institutions must step in and fill the breach. When they, too, fail, whether for reasons that are self-inflicted or not, our children fall through the cracks, sometimes never to be seen or heard from again.
We may disagree on many things, but chances are that the protection of our children may be the one thing on which we could all agree on long enough to reach across the aisles of division and craft solutions to the logjams that stymie and blunt the thrust of our child-protection initiatives.
There is an overflow of urgent things to be done, such as the construction of safe and healthy places to which rescued children could be taken to be healed; regulation of children's homes to modern standards of well-being; strengthening of counselling services at all schools; intervention and support services for families, and the establishment of a juvenile court.
But most of all, we need to precept our children and arm them with the power of knowledge. They need to know their rights and to know what to do when their rights are dismissed and trampled upon.
In the authoritarian culture of Trinidad and Tobago, with its deep sense of children as personal property and as little beings without rights, this could be the most difficult assignment of all.
As the bedrock on which our personal culture has been founded, the authoritarian culture is committed to the deprivation of the rights of others. Slowly but relentlessly, however, it has had to yield.
Among the things for which the 20th century will stand tall is the global emergence of human rights: workers' rights, women's rights, the rights of people of colour, sexual rights and the rights of children.
Unlike others, however, children are dependent in the assertion of their rights. They depend upon their parents and other adults to step up and represent them. When the adults let them down, they must depend on institutions, the very existence of which they may not even be aware of.
In this current state of emergency involving our children, we need to get radical. Like so many other crimes, the darkness of ignorance provides fertile ground for criminal abuse of our children.
We need to encircle them in spaces made safe by the light of knowledge, disseminated through a massive information campaign that empowers them and connects them to places of help and support.
At the other end, we need to bring the full weight of the State to the task of untangling the bureaucracy and filling in the various lacunae that handicap us in responding to their needs.
If we fail, our future, too, will be washed in blood and tears.