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Suffer the children...

By Michael Harris

 It is said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread and, knowing this, I had decided not to comment in this column on the national debate currently raging over the Internet video which captured, for all the world to see, a mother, Helen Bartlett, putting what in the vernacular would be described as “a sound cut-arse” on her 12-year-old daughter.

I had decided not to comment because so polarised were the positions being advanced in the debate that I considered that any attempt to explore the complexities and the difficulties of the issue, which go way beyond simplistic judgements about whether Ms Bartlett was right or wrong, would simply fall on deaf ears and be completely ignored.

I changed my mind for two reasons. The first reason was my shock and consternation to hear our Prime Minister in her response on the matter state unequivocally, without caveat or condition, that she was in support of legislation outlawing corporal punishment in the home.

She would later seek to clarify her position but even in her clarification revealed that she still did not quite grasp the very troubling nature of the position she had advanced. Her clarification stressed that any such legislation would not be “a unilateral decision by anyone...”

But the real problem with her statement was not the sense that she was prepared to unilaterally introduce such legislation but that she seemed to be utterly unaware of the implications of such legislation. Our Prime Minister seems to be totally unaware that any legislation which extends the right of the State to ignore and to put aside the citizens’ right to privacy in their own homes is legislation which, unless it is rigidly circumscribed, puts the country on the slippery slope to totalitarianism.

And the questions which arise about any legislation, even where the intention of such legislation is the laudable and legitimate one of protecting the children of the country, is how is it going to be enforced? Are the police and social services going to be given carte blanche to enter homes on the suspicion that a child is endangered? Are children going to be allowed to bring charges against parents and to “divorce” their parents? And what recourse are parents going to be given against their children and against the State?

Our Prime Minister reveals herself to possess the worst characteristics of Naipaul’s Mimic Men when the only justification she is content to give to support her approval of legislation outlawing corporal punishment in the home is that such legislation exists in some 30 countries worldwide. 

But I would seriously doubt that our Prime Minister has done, or caused to be done, any research on how such legislation in those 30 countries has impacted on the welfare of children, the integrity of the family unit and the sanctity of the privacy of the home. Until she is prepared to speak sensibly and sensitively about these implications, let her not be so quick to contemplate breaching the sanctity of our homes.

The truth however is that I could have said all these things without commenting directly on the matter of Ms Bartlett and her daughter. This brings me to the second and perhaps more important reason that I changed my mind about writing on the matter.

The second reason I changed my mind is that I came across three letters written to the editor of the Express, each of which succinctly and clearly raised and put into the debate one or more of the critical considerations which had been lacking.

 I know of one of the letter writers, Dr David Bratt. I presume that his training and career experience would have given him valuable insight into the issues surrounding the debate. I do not know the other two writers. But to my mind so important is the contribution of all three of them that I make no apologies for quoting each of them in some detail.

First, Dr Bratt, who wrote: “While being against the abusive thrashing received by the child in the Facebook controversy, I would like to point out that the mother has complained about her daughter being a problem child for some time and that she was unable to get the assistance she needed to solve the problem.  

“She is correct. It is almost impossible for parents to obtain help in these circumstances because the psycho-social support needed is not available in the public health or educational system...”

Next, a Mr (or Ms) O Graham who wrote: “Dear Ms Bartlett, I wish to apologise to you...We have failed you and your girls. The system has failed to provide readily available user-friendly resources to aid parents thrown into situations such as the one you have now found yourself.

“There are so many dimensions to this case highlighted in the video via Facebook, yet the main focus is on the so-called ‘abuse’.

“Clearly Ms Bartlett, you are prepared to fight the good fight and save your daughters at all cost. Until we as a system provide you with a better way of doing so...carry on, be strong and please do accept my apology.”

And finally, we have this from Jerome T Armstrong: “But seriously we have to understand that it is the culture of certain sectors of our society to deal with situations like these in this manner because we were taught to deal with it in that way. Behaviour is learned, and trust me, you can’t get rid of it as easy as a lot of people think...

“The woman did what she felt was best at the time. The very same people who are criticising her now will be the same people who would condemn her if the child chose a life of crime because when something happens we all ask, ‘where is the parent?’”

Enough said. I thank the letter writers for their contribution and I urge all of us to be a little more understanding of how hard it is to raise a child when the Village is no more.

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean

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