File Photo: This photo provided by a whistleblower shows a child chained to a bed at a children’s home.

“I hate my mother. She is always angry. She does not understand me. Every day I hate her more and more.”

Rachel’s words cut Kavita deep, worse than the physical wounds that Rachel had been inflicting on herself since the start of this year. Kavita could not believe this was the same child whom she had once cuddled and protected.

What went wrong?

Kavita always envisioned herself as an ideal mother. It was true she was angry and sometimes bitter but it was because she was always so tired. She usually woke up at 4 am to prepare both breakfast and lunch for her family. Then after tidying up, she would begin her caseloads whilst juggling online classes for her younger son.

It was a mammoth job which she diligently performed single-handedly with little rest for herself.

Her husband was not of much help these days, spending more than eight hours at his construction job and a further three hours every day by his family.

They had drifted apart since the pandemic started but Kavita believed they were still better off, as a family. They were both working. Their children had food, clothing, devices for their education and a comfortable home. That was until she realised Rachel was so depressed she had started inflicting self-harm.

Kavita realised she had been neglecting her children emotionally. Her youngest son hardly ever spoke.

He seemed to be mortally afraid of her. Kavita’s family was in ruins. She felt an abject failure as a mother. She also needed help.

Children suffering even before the pandemic— 348 reports of child abuse for 2021

According to data gathered by the Children’s Authority (CA), between the period May 18, 2015, and August 31 2021, a total of 35.4 per cent of all abuse occurred at the hands of mothers.

Fathers committed 20.1 per cent of abuse.

The study also showed that neglect accounted for 33.5 per cent of abuse faced by children. This was followed by sexual abuse at 23.3 per cent, physical abuse at 15.5 per cent, emotional abuse at 11.2 per cent, unsupervised children at 5.9 per cent and moral danger at 3.6 per cent.

Speaking exclusively to Guardian Media, the CA’s Assessment Manager, Vandana Siew Sankar-Ali says parenting has become challenging during the pandemic.

She said based on reports investigated by the authority, there were several types of child neglect- physical, educational, emotional and medical.

Physical neglect is where a child’s basic needs, such as food, clothing or shelter, are not met or they aren’t properly supervised. Educational neglect occurs when a parent doesn’t ensure their child is given an education. Emotional neglect where a child is not validated or given affection and finally there is medical neglect where the child’s medical needs are not met.

“We see children with severe physical dental conditions and others not immunized,” Sankar-Ali explained.

She said some parents have their own trauma to deal with, adding that a child should never be made to bear the brunt of an adult’s suffering.

Sankar-Ali said the CA collaborates with non-governmental, faith-based as well as government agencies to lend support to struggling parents.

Referrals are often done but Sankar-Ali said demands were great.

“The demand for child protection services far surpasses what any single agency can provide. That is why we need a collaborative approach,” she said.

She also called on employers to understand the challenges being faced by parents.

“If a worker does not have a happy family life, this could affect productivity in the workplace,” she said.

She noted that with online learning, parents had a duty to protect their children from online predators.

“Teach your children about the dangers of online grooming. Both parents have a role to educate their children. They should have appropriate conversations about body awareness, boundaries, what is an OK touch and what is not. What aspects of their bodies are private,” Sankar-Ali said.

She noted that parents also have a role in keeping the lines of communication open so the children can depend on their parents for love and support.

“ You must also teach children respect and appropriate behaviour. Become aware of what can happen online. Parents must make sure that their children are supervised and can recognize the dangers of online grooming.

Getting help and where to go

Investigation and Intervention Manager at the Children’s Authority Sasha James says getting help should not be taboo. She said incidents of self-harm and suicide among children had been reported during the pandemic, noting that the National Family Services has been offering guidance to struggling parents.

“Some parents have their own history of trauma and violence and these are passed down to inter-generational cycles,” James said.

Acknowledging that the pandemic had upended families, James said it was important for families to band together to overcome challenges.

“Children model what they see. We encourage parents to show children what are healthy interactions and communication styles between parents and other relatives. Children learn how to be in relationships by looking at their parents. Show positive methods of interaction,” James said.

She noted that the Community Mediation Division and many NGO’s also provide assistance with parenting.

“Lots of these programmes are offered virtually. Parents need to know it’s OK to access these services and accept help. Parenting doesn’t come naturally. Parents need skills and support to navigate these challenges but we have to normalize seeking professional help. There is no harm in seeking help. If you want to be a better parent, seek help,” James urged.

Minister says Parenting programmes available

Meanwhile, the Minister of Social Development Donna Cox says the National Family Services recognizes the challenges that parents face particularly during the pandemic so multiple programmes have been rolled out to assist.

“We have taken into account the need for effective parenting which addresses values, guidance, building self-esteem and self-worth. It provides support to parents and grandparents as a means of building the fabric of the family and by extension the society,” she said.

“There is the inclusion of health and wellness issues such as mental health and coping with children with special needs, education and information dissemination from early childhood for both boys and girls,” she said.

Saying that effective parenting is a fundamental ingredient to healthy family functioning, Cox said her ministry has conducted a body of qualitative research on parenting over the past two years.

“The ministry is actively pursuing the revision of the National Parenting Policy (Green Paper) after extensive consultations with key stakeholder groups. In addition, the ministry is currently rolling its National Parenting and recently launched Grand-parenting Programme, all of which are designed to improve the parenting situation in T&T,” she added.

Resolve family conflict says UWI head of Gender

Lecturer and Head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at The University of the West Indies Dr Sue Ann Barratt also said parents must continue to support children despite the challenges of the pandemic.

“Even in the face of multiple pressures, continue to support your children, be patient with them and understand that they too live the pressures that are so very real,” Dr Barratt said.

She added, “ Parents should also save some space to attend to their own mental health so that they can be in the best place to support those they nurture.”

She also agreed that parents and children should not hesitate to seek professional help to resolve issues.

“Due to the conditions of the pandemic, it is very difficult to intervene in closed settings where information may not be revealed to members outside of the household,” she said.

She noted that resolved conflict could improve family life. “Communicating, sharing time, supporting each other as far as possible, creative togetherness. That’s specific to the family unit. Where larger social/cultural/economic/political factors are concerned, some people are grappling with very difficult life experiences, from making a living wage and providing for basic needs, to attempting to achieve life goals and ideals for younger and older members, to work/life balance and more,” she added.

This is why family together time was important. Maintaining peace in the home and holding on to external support was key to family stability.

How to achieve family stability

Make Family Time Special- Allocate a certain time during the week where the entire family can connect and share experiences. Do not use this time as an opportunity to reprimand or be negative. Use this time to be grateful for all your blessings.

Parents take a break- Parental self-care is important. Take care of each other. Share the responsibilities equally.

Make time for family worship- Engaging in faith-based activities together solidifies the unity of a family. Remember the old adage, the family that prays together stays together.

Do fun activities together- Choose an age-appropriate activity that you can enjoy doing with your children- exercising, football, painting, drawing, cooking a fun meal

Make individual time for each child- Our children love feeling special so allocate time for each of them. A few minutes of alone time with each child goes a long way in building relations. Tell children why they are important and special to you.

Plan and prepare- Make an outline of the chores and responsibilities and prioritize everything.

Share the chores- Don’t try to do everything on your own. Create a chores schedule and let children help. They need to be given responsibilities.

Simplify your life – Make a list of needs and wants and budget your spending to reduce financial stress.

Resolve Conflict early- Keep communication flowing by dealing with issues as they crop up.

Avenues for help

National Family Services Division – (623-2608 ext.’s 6701-6707)

Families in Action (628-6333)

Trinidad and Tobago Innovative Parenting Support (664-1520)

Family Life Commission- ( 299-1047 or 672-4280)