IT'S been more than two years since the Rape Crisis Society (RCS) held its regional conference, fittingly titled "Abuse—We are losing our children". Yet, the presentations made during that three-day seminar still resonate today, perhaps even more so. The names Daniel Guerra, Amy Annamanthudo, Tecia Henry and Akilah Johnson are not only painful reminders of young lives cut short, they're also a reminder that the fight against child abuse and child sexual abuse is nowhere near its conclusion.
The research findings, statistics, first hand accounts and presentations from those three days were all compiled into a must-read publication which reads like a modern day guidebook into ways in which we can all protect our children from dangers that lurk around them. Salorne MacDonald's observation that something is awry with the safety nets for the vulnerable still remains at the core of many societal problems. As he zeroed in on missing and street children, MacDonald said there was an aspect of our social safety net system that just didn't cater for the circumstances that allowed for these citizens to fall through the chasms.
"Every year more than 100 children end up in institutions for various reasons and will not be rehabilitated or otherwise positively reintegrated into society... children are left to deal with state therapeutic access which is still giving appointments four months from the time that the need for those services arises," noted MacDonald.
As recently as a few weeks ago in an interview with the Express, local government councillor for Sangre Grande North/West Dayne Francois expressed similar sentiments. Francois worked as a therapist for dispossessed youths in the United States for years and most recently spoke out in defence of 19-year-old Shauna Nagessar, who on Jouvert morning gave birth in the toilet of a KFC restaurant in Sangre Grande; five days later the newborn died at hospital. Nagessar was once a ward of the state. In the weeks after the story broke, Francois argued that social services failed Nagessar, adding that there are no safety nets for children like her after they are aged out of children's homes.
"These facilities do not care for persons in their 20s, so they go out on the streets, they're not employable, and before long men take advantage of them," lamented Francois.
Several of the street children MacDonald interviewed spoke of experiences at home which led them to resort to life on the streets. One such street kid recalled the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather and his mother's unwillingness to believe her own son. His story is not uncommon.
In the publication, Dr Gabrielle Hosein of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies explored child sexual abuse and incest and clues readers in to the prevalence of such abuse. Back in 2006, noted Hosein, more than 50 per cent of RCS clients were in the 12-17 and 18-26 age brackets. RCS also reported that children between the ages of 7-13 are at an increased risk of abuse. As Hosein and her team conducted research in urban north Trinidad, rural Trinidad and rural Tobago, it was found that in all three communities abusers, victims and stories of child sexual abuse were widely known to members. Yet people suspected of, or known to be involved in incestuous abuse often continue to enjoy freedom of movement, fatherhood status and friendships even if is known that they abused and may even have fathered a child with their daughter.
Hosein gives several recommendations which include:
• Suspected child abuse must be treated seriously and must be reported to the Ministry of Social Development.
• As physical and sexual abuse is a criminal act, abusers must be held accountable for their actions while treatment may assist in preventing further abuse. Most victims of child sexual abuse were "groomed" by the perpetrators, a process whereby the abuser attempts to gain the victim's trust with the aim of securing the child's cooperation into keeping the abuse a secret. Parents and guardians must be alert to such subtle advances, warns Dionne Guischard in her contribution "Sexual grooming in Trinidad and Tobago: How can we protect our children?". Knowing the people in your child's life is the first and perhaps best step towards protecting your child against sexual predators, noted Guischard.
"Know their teachers, their coaches, their friends' parents. Make unannounced visits, ask questions and stay involved. Perhaps most importantly, talk with your children. Teach them about inapproriate physical contact and continually show them that they can trust you to non-judgmentally listen to them if they want to talk about any incident that makes them uncomfotable. After all, the safest child is the one who knows that he/she does not have to keep secrets from parents or guardians for fear of disbelief or punishment," advised Guischard.
In a newspaper interview in mid-April, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Mervyn Richardson confirmed that the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) is working on a sexual offenders database. This confirmation came weeks after news broke of a 64-year-old man and four teens who were charged with buggering a five-year-old boy several times in a year, and days after this country's latest child killing — that of two-year-old Aliyah Johnson. The registry, Richardson said, would provide the police with information at all times on the whereabouts of sex offenders.
The pros and cons of such a registry were discussed by Mustaq Mohammed in the final section of the publication. While the registry has the potential to identify potential offenders and help police keep track of past offenders, Mohammed observed that a sexual offenders registry would not prevent sexual offences from occuring unless it is used properly and he added that a registry may incite witch-hunting through media reports.
While reports of child sexual abuse are significant, the underreporting of this criminal act masks the true extent of its prevalence. You can do your part to unmask this threat to our children's safety by supporting the RCS which is in dire need of funding to provide desperately needed services for victims of child sexual abuse and domestic violence. Or you can join the RCS and volunteer your time and resources. To find out how you can help stop abuse, call the Rape Crisis Society today at 622-7273.