SENIOR COUNSEL: Dana Seetahal

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Seetahal: Facility needed for displaced children

‘Seven youngsters in prison’

By Michelle Loubon

Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal says she is hoping the newly appointed Child Protection Task Force will ensure children who have nowhere to go and those who have cases pending before the courts are placed in separate homes. 

Seetahal said she hoped the Task Force, which was appointed by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on November 30, will enlist the aid of a juvenile court magistrate, social workers and probation officers. She also said successive governments had failed to build a facility to accommodate these children. Persad-Bissessar’s decision to appoint a Task Force  stemmed from the brutal murder and sexual assault  of six-year-old Keyana Cumberbatch and the gruesome discovery of one-year-old Jacob Monroe whose body was found in a cesspit. 

The Task Force’s mandate is to review all existing policies, legislation and protocols in place to protect the nation’s children. 

 Seetahal was speaking to the Express in light of a court ruling in which an 11-year-old girl, who lived at St Dominic’s Children’s Home, Belmont, was transferred to the Women’s Prison at Golden Grove, Arouca, for breaching the rules of the Belmont-based orphanage. 

To date, after hearing submissions from Seetahal and Deputy Solicitor General Neil Byam, Justice Joan Charles in the Port of Spain High Court ordered that the child be placed in the custody of a family friend, whom the court deemed “fit” to take care of her. 

The next hearing is scheduled for January. Apart from the 11-year-old, Seetahal also said there were at least seven children under 16 who were in prison.   

Asked for an update yesterday, Seetahal said: “I would hope the Task Force will be dealing with getting the authorities to provide suitable placements for children who have nowhere to go and proper homes where children who are homeless can go. Children who have nowhere to go should be placed in separate homes from children who are before the courts for criminal offences. 

“They have a responsibility to separate those who are orphans and have no one to care for them. Right now, both sets of children are sent to the same institutions.”  

She also said the Task Force which is headed by Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, chairman of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, should enlist the aid of a juvenile court magistrate, social workers and probation officers.  

Seetahal said: “They are familiar and more ‘au courant’ with the issues.They will also need the help of social workers and probation workers.”

Referring to children being sent to adult prisons and kept in makeshift facilities away from the general prison population, Seetahal said: “The Children’s Act does not provide for  it. It is being done because there is nowhere else for them to go. That is where they are being sent. The situation is probably not much different in relation to boys and they (the Task Force) should widen the scope and investigate these matters. The mandate does not appear to include those matters. That is the fundamental in relations to caring for children. We have to deal with these situations day in and day out. These are some of the practical kinds of situations.”  

Meanwhile, Seetahal said “no government has built an orphanage or home” but she added that within the prison a space was created for safekeeping. 

She condemned this move as “illegal”.  

“A child should not be sent to an institution whose business is to keep and hold. They  should not be sent into a punishing situation. They are supposed to be cared for in terms of their psychological development. They are very young people evolving into the world,” said Seetahal. 

In the case of the 11-year-old girl, Seetahal said: “We were able to get the habeas corpus. It is not the  fault of the court. It is the fault of government after  government for not giving priority to these matters.”   

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