The arrest of mothers Kala Ramcharan, Janelle Peters, Kezi Doughty and a 50-year-old unnamed mother, has again thrown the spotlight on child abuse. In this two part series, we look at the thin line between discipline and abuse and offer some possible solutions to this growing trend.
For years Jacqui B and her sisters lived with a monster—a single frustrated mother who dealt with her stress by beating on Jacqui and her sisters.
Punishment in that home was not as simple as taking a strap on the back. Rather, it often went along the lines of head butts and being tied to the bed naked for a beating with a whip.
"The slightest thing used to make mummy trip. She and daddy didn't make it and he went to live with a woman and raise her children," Jacqui said.
"Mummy used to take out her anger and frustration on us. She used to wrap her head a lot and one time, I would never forget it, she put a stone in the middle of her head wrap and head butt me and my sisters. "
Fed up of the emotional and physical pain, Jacqui ran away from home at 17 to live with relatives. Now 64, she admits that she only stopped fearing her mother with the woman died.
In the Caribbean, discipline usually equates to licks—and plenty of it if you don't want to seen by the community as spoiling your child.
Last month four mothers were arrested and three jailed for harsh punishment and abandonment of their children. Out of the arrested mothers, the case that sparked the most outrage was that of single mother Kamla Ramcharan who burnt the hand of her daughter on a heated tawah or skillet, as punishment for stealing five dollars from a classmate.
Magistrate Gillian David-Scotland, in sentencing Ramcharan, described the 29-year-old's women's choice of punishment as "a heinous act". Ramcharan was sentenced to three years in jail.
Clinical psychologist Dr Dianne Douglas believes that when it comes to punishment in this country, it is the societal norm that a parent could do whatever is necessary to discipline their own. Often, she said, they have the support of other parents.
"In Trinidad and Tobago we are facing a historical way of interacting with children that is now embedded into our culture. You have parents joking and boasting of their harsh disciplinary actions and they are sanctioned by the community as being good parents for doing so."
Over the years, the line between punishment and abuse has been blurred. The stories that make the headlines of the media are nothing compared to what psychologists are exposed to on a daily basis.
"One parent of a sexually active teenager found that the only way of dealing with that problem was to beat the child in the private parts in order to damage it and prevent the child from having sex again. Another parent pushed her hands up her daughter's vagina just to see if the young girl is sexually active; some even poison their children.
"All of these acts of abuse are ways parents try to manage the behaviour of a willful child."
The law of this country is clear on what constitutes child abuse as it relates to discipline. In the new Children's Act 2012 passed on May 22, Part II, Clause 4, provides for offence
of cruelty to children. It says "where a person who is sixteen years of age and over has responsibility for a child, and the person willfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes the child, or causes or procures the child to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned or exposed, in a manner likely to cause the child suffering or injury to his physical, mental or emotional health, that person commits the offence of cruelty to a child." Persons who commit such an offence will be fined $50,000 and imprisonment for ten years.Dr Douglas is hopeful that, once proclaimed, the Children's Act 2012 would send a message to parents that there is a boundary that must not be crossed when disciplining their children. "Right now parents don't know how much too much punishment is."While some people might question the mental stability of Ramcharan , Dr Douglas can't help but empathies with the young mother."There is no doubt in my mind that this woman loves her children. Even though the law was correct to call this parent on what she did, I feel a sense of empathy for her and her child. "This woman got married at 14, when she was a child herself, what could she have possibly learned about parenting? " Both Dr Douglas and Ms Mahabir-Wyatt believe that a closer look at Ramcharan's history may lead to some abuse in her past."People who have been abused go on to become abusers themselves,"Ms Mahabir-Wyatt said.Jacqui , the abused woman mentioned earlier, said she didn't realise how much of an impact her mother's licks had on her until she had children of her own and passed along the abuse to them."It was my husband who pointed out to me how senseless it was to be beating the children as often as I did. " She admitted that she beat her children all the way into their early twenties "because they were still under my roof.""Sometimes I would beat them so bad, their skin turned black and blue. Once, in a fit of rage, I slammed one of my daughters head into a wall for not folding clothes. I got so scared when I heard her bawling."Compared to how mother treated her, Jacqui thinks that her grandchildren are spoiled."They don't get licks at all. Their parents just talk to them a lot. Maybe that is a new way of parenting."Tomorrow – Part 2: Solutions