Will the Children Task Force help?

By Dana Seetahal

 In the wake of the last horrific killing of a child the Prime Minister has appointed what has been termed a Child Protection Task Force. Headed by well-known activist, Diana Mahabir, who is probably the most significant person behind the Domestic Violence legislation, the task force consists of 16 other persons. Two of them are ministers and many of the others appear to be heads of various groups or departments. There is neither a single (juvenile court) magistrate nor social worker, who one would think are the persons most knowledgeable about cases where children are involved.

What is of further concern is that the task force has not been mandated to deal with real and current problems that exist in relation to children who are victims of the Juvenile Court system. Foremost among these is the fact that in this country there are few recognised homes that children who have nowhere to turn to may be admitted or cared for. 

In T&T there exists two certified orphanages: St Dominic’s and St Mary’s homes to which children who have no parent or guardian willing to care for them and children who have committed certain crimes may be sent. In so far as “industrial schools” are concerned there also two: St Michaels for boys and St Jude’s for girls. To these institutions as well both persons out of control and young persons who have committed certain crimes may be sent.  The other “homes” in the country are not, as far as I am aware, treated as certified homes and a court may only send a child or young person (14-16) there if the home is deemed fictitiously “a fit person” by the court.

It is clear that there is a vacuum for housing and treating young persons who have nowhere to go. This is evidenced by the fact that in the Adult Women’s Prison in Golden Grove there are currently eight girls, children under 16, who have been sent to this prison by the court. The reason given is that there is nowhere else to send them as the only alternative, St Jude’s, is filled to capacity. 

The Task Force formed recently is said to be mandated to (1) work at getting the Children’s Authority up and running (2) work at the proclamation of various acts and how they affect each other; and (3) focus on the prevention of problems in existing social programmes and ensuring they get the support to be valid and effective. The Minister has indicated that the task force is also to carry out an analysis of factors which cause and increase risks of crime against children. The task force is to report in six weeks.

The entire focus of the task force appears to be getting the Children Authority up and running and seeing how the risks of crimes against children are reduced. While the first task is laudable my guess is that after trying unsuccessfully to get this done is the last few years, the Government will be unable to get it right in a few weeks. 

As far as the risks of crimes against children are concerned, my view is that the last few murders of very young children demonstrate that we have a societal problem. Some  step parents are either getting involved in an aberrant way in the disciplining of children, with little intervention of the biological parent, or paedophiles are searching out vulnerable single mothers  to have available  to themselves children on whom they can wreak their perversions. 

I am not sure what the Children Authority or the Government can do in respect of such latter situations. They may seek to ensure that the obviously at-risk children and young persons are kept safe and protected from criminal influence. As such can it be right that orphans are placed in the same homes/institutions as children who have committed crimes, who not only will be bad influences but need special intervention? This is what is happening currently in our certified homes. The Government or the Task Force must recognise this as an urgent matter that requires immediate attention. Orphans or destitute children should be placed separately from those who have displayed deviant behaviour.

Some years ago a boy who had been sexually abused was placed in an orphanage. The institution returned a few weeks later to ask that he be placed in a home for older children as he was making sexual advances to young boys in the orphanage. Obviously the boy was himself suffering from the psychological effects of his own sexual abuse and the regular orphanage was not the right place for him—but he was sent there because of his age.

A more traumatic experience occurred recently where a girl, 11, who had been sent to an orphanage, both parents having abandoned both her and her brother, was brought before the magistrate for breaking school rules (fighting and the like). The magistrate possibly at his wits’ end, since it appears that St Jude’s was filled to capacity, “deemed” her an adult and sent her to the Women’s Prison. At age 11, sent to prison for breaching rules?

In 2013 in T&T should this be happening? Yet this sort of thing has been going on for years and despite being made known by social workers, magistrates, police officers and even this columnist, not one Government in the last few decades has lifted a hand to build even one orphanage or industrial school. Yet we talk of being interested in treating with societal problems and curbing criminal behaviour.

A check with the prisons or the police might be instructive and useful in determining the background of persons charged with horrific crimes. See how many either went through the orphanage/industrial school system or were abandoned by their parents either physically or leaving them with relatives.

The revelations might be shocking.

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