Saturday, February 24, 2018

The juvenile court

Dana Seetahal logo50

Mark Fraser

 Today we are honouring the work and memory of our late columnist, Dana Seetahal SC, by republishing the first of three of the many articles she wrote for the Express. The second article will appear on May 24 and the final article will appear on May 31.

Years ago, when I was a magistrate (for exactly one year), first in the Port of Spain and later in the San Fernando Magistrates’ Courts, the most difficult aspect of the job was sitting in the juvenile courts to which I was assigned in both districts. 

The juvenile court then and still is one where matters are heard in camera so that the cases that come before that court (unless a murder or other serious offence) are not reported. Further, the rules of evidence are relaxed so the court may ask questions of the child (victim or offender), the parent and other parties and factor these matters in arriving at a decision. The funny thing about it is that all too often the only parent that was before the court was the mother—whether in applying for an “out of control” order or to secure bail for the child or as an offender.

In T&T for one reason or another fathers appear not to be around when their child is in trouble—unless the child has middle class parents. This is a simple fact, whatever the reason. It is possible that the Single Fathers Association may blame this partially on the courts, contending that in awarding custody or access, they tend to ignore the rights of single fathers. That may be true but the fact also remains that very rarely do single fathers seek custody of their children. Further to that, in many instances mothers have a hard time even collecting the monthly maintenance for the child from their former partners. Some men who have spawned children appear to believe that once the sexual relationship is over they have no further contribution to make in respect of their child/children.

This was clearly the case in one instance of a woman who appeared before me to have five children (all under the age of 10) committed to an orphanage because she could not look after them. She was 25 years old. I could not understand her irresponsibility in first of all having so many children when she had no visible means of support and secondly in casually, it seemed to me, seeking to place them in a cold institution. The children all appeared both frightened and clung to each other. 

There was another matter involving two young girls, one seven years and another nine. The police had removed them from the mother because of a report by a social worker that they had been sexually abused. A subsequent medical report showed that both girls had been sexually active and one had contracted gonorrhoea. We sent for the man who was the reported last partner of the mother but it turned out that he was not the abuser, as the children testified. It was in fact the “stepfather” before him. 

Yet another case that stayed with me was one involving two boys, brothers of ten and 11. They had been arrested after being found sleeping near the Tunapuna market. It turned out that they were being sexually abused by a man who lived, it was said, “behind the Tunapuna market”. The man apparently lured them to his place by buying them “Kentucky”.  The boys were not helpful in locating the man.  An order was made in respect of both of them. 

Some weeks later the authorities at the orphanage returned seeking to have a different order made in respect of the older boy. It was said he was interfering with children at the institution.  I made the order. Some months afterwards a child approached me in the carpark of a St Augustine grocery hustling for money. I looked at him and asked, “Aaron, aren’t you supposed to be at ..... Boys Home?” He ran off. It turned out that he had run away from the home, as he had done before.

Sometime after, two boys were brought before me for running away from a boys’ home. While bullying may occur in regular schools it is particularly predominant in children’s homes, as this matter showed. The boys, 12 and 13, were asked why they had run away. One held back but the other, more assertive and perhaps hoping to have his complaint aired in public, said that the boys at the particular institution were making them drink their urine. Their parents were sent for and I recalled the order.

Apart from these and other poignant matters in the juvenile court, there have been many other reported matters where children have been abused by relatives and family friends. One that stands out is a case where a father had abused his daughter who had borne him two children, a boy and a girl. While they were still children he proceeded to rape the girl and bugger the boy. When he was finally arrested and charged (he is now in his sixties) for the latter offences, perhaps not surprising to psychologists but shocking to me was the fact that his main supporter was his daughter.

Abuse of children, physically and sexually, has been ongoing for decades in this country as in others. The establishment of a Children’s Authority does no more than demonstrate the intellectual desire to care for children. In the final analysis it is a societal problem and it is for members of the society as a whole to intervene in treating with the matter. For too long many have turned a blind eye to clear abuse in their midst. We need to be proactive and not reactive in these matters. 

One way the State can help is by providing properly staffed and funded State-run homes and half way houses for needy children. This is a matter that has been raised again and again but there has been a lot of talk and little action while our four main institutions for children are those that were set up by religious bodies. What are we waiting for? 

(This article was first published on July 12, 2013)