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Verna St Rose Greaves

Anna-Lisa Paul

The ten-member committee appointed to investigate allegations of abuse and situations that led to wards of the State running away from children’s homes, rehabilitation centres and other such institutions providing residential care, has completed its work.

The report was presented to Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy who has responsibility for Child Affairs, Office of the Prime Minister, in December 2021.

The committee, chaired by retired appeal court judge Judith Jones, began its work on July 5, 2021, and was completed in five months.

The investigation was initiated shortly after five boys escaped from a facility run by the Children’s Authority on March 20, 2021.

Antonio Francis and Semion Daniel–both 15–were later killed at a house in Laventille in an incident that was said to be gang-related. One of the boys claimed to have been abused at the facility, which had led to them running away.

This probe comes 24 years after the Robert Sabga Task Force Report of 1997, which was set up to review the operations of children’s homes and institutions in T&T. So far there has been no action on this report, the Sunday Guardian discovered.

As part of the 2021 investigation, the committee would have conducted interviews, reviewed documents and submissions, and made site visits to various facilities where the children are housed.

Contacted Wednesday on the findings and recommendations contained in the report, the minister said that it was currently being reviewed by ministry officials. Webster-Roy said it was yet to be taken to Cabinet, and, as such, it would be unethical to reveal the contents of the confidential document.

A committee member also declined to comment on the findings, except to say, “We are speaking about the lives of children and we need to be careful about how information is presented. We would not want to compromise the care given to children by providing information without the necessary context.”

The committee was waiting to see if and when the Government would make the document public as they believe it is important that the information in that report is acted on, “as it is something that matters greatly to the country.”

The official added that protecting children placed in the State’s care must always be the priority.

The Children’s Authority has 41 care/home facilities that cater to children under their purview. In March 2021, it was reported that an estimated 957 children were being cared for at safe homes, with some being placed in foster care and others at various institutions.

Announcing the start of the investigation back in July, Webster-Roy had assured, “The Government notes its responsibility associated with the care, protection and supervision of children as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and embodied in the Package of Children’s Legislation of 2015.”

The investigation followed on the heels of allegations of abuse at several children’s homes and a child support centre, even in the face of existing policies and procedures for the recording and monitoring of incidents of abuse.

At the time, Webster-Roy said concerted efforts had to be made to eliminate instances of abuse at these child care facilities.

She had vowed, “As Minister, it is my duty to seek the best interest of children and to do all that is possible to ensure that all boys and girls are happy, healthy and confident and that their rights are respected, protected and promoted to facilitate their holistic development towards achieving their fullest potential as active contributors to society as outlined in the National Child Policy.”

According to a committee member, the team put in place by the Government included a diverse group of people with a wide range of experiences, expertise, and skills working with children that allowed them to complete an in-depth independent investigation in the allotted time frame.

The committee included Lawrence Arjoon, Child/Youth NGO Representative; Lorenzo P Chariandy, (retired) Youth Programming; Aisha Corbie, Clinical Psychologist; Dr Mona Dillon, Social Worker; Aaron George, Youth Representative; Claire E. Gittens, (retired) Social Worker; Marcus Kissoon, Researcher, Gender and Development; Keshan Latchman, Clinical Psychologist; and Dr Stacy-Ann Phillip, Child Psychiatrist.

Former minister: I am tired

Former gender, youth and child development minister Verna St Rose Greaves has called for a national children’s registry to be established as part of the framework to better understand the needs of children who are to be assisted.

She has also suggested that a governing body be set up to supervise the Children’s Authority after allegations of abuse surfaced at the facility.

St Rose Greaves called for the appointment of an Ombudsman/Children’s Guardian to police those in authority who are supposed to be protecting these wards of the State.

The social and political activist said that the weight of knowing about the abuse of children over the years has become burdensome.

“Not only am I physically tired, but I feel a deep weariness in my soul. I am tired of investigations which go nowhere, mere decoys that allow people to walk free denying justice to our children,” she lamented.

“I have witnessed so much wrongdoing and known too many people falsely purporting to represent our children while representing their own interests, placating to their own fragile egos. For some, complacency in advancing the cause yielded monetary and other rewards. So many of them built their careers, wealth, and status on the pain of children.”

Calling for the authorities to be held accountable for the deaths of Francis and Daniel back in March last year, St Rose Greaves said, “I am troubled that the murders of these children may be yet another case of no one being held to account, and no one brought to justice.”

Adamant the investigations into the abuse of children in the care of the State can no longer be dealt with in hushed tones, St Rose Greaves said “Maybe the time has come for the family laundry to be scrutinised, if not washed in public. It cannot be dealt with in isolation or disconnected from society. There are ways that the public can participate while preserving the integrity of the process.

“Where possible, offenders must bear professional, financial, and legal consequences. If wrongdoers keep getting a free pass in the ill-treatment of children, nothing will change. For too long we have closed our eyes, have sought to justify heinous acts, and chose to see them as mistakes and unfortunate accidents.”

Children in care are devalued by society

Who are the children being abused? St Rose Greaves said they are the children of the underclass.

“They are the people who do not matter…poor, mainly African and Indian children from low-income families.”

Delving deeper to examine those that normally become wards of the State, St Rose Greaves stated, “It is no secret that children in care come from deprived circumstances and communities, easily ascribed labels such as crime hot spots.”

She said in a bid to rationalise their suffering, they are subsumed as part of the problem and as such, “we refuse to truly see them but easily recognise them for reprimand and punishment.”

Oftentimes, she said, they are victims of state neglect–coming from families that fall apart, unable to cope with the stresses of living hand-to-mouth and day-to-day.

“The playing field is never level, and the starting line is always uneven. Many have given up the fight against a system which has rendered them invisible, relegating them to the ranks of the neglected, the excluded, the addicted, the imprisoned and the rejected,” she said.

Noting that children in care usually face a plethora of social challenges, she said their lives are marked by substandard living conditions, poor housing, domestic abuse, drugs, mental illness, abandonment, neglect, unattended trauma, malnourishment, invisible disabilities, learning difficulties and behavioural problems. “Parents try their best, but the absence of suitable helping structures negates their efforts. In many homes parents are tired and overworked, if not unemployed,” she added.

St Rose Greaves said that children taken into care are devalued and seen as unwanted and unworthy in the eyes of the public and the social service system. “When children are taken into care, the nature of the abuse they suffered marks and follows them.”

Indicating that the criminal behaviour of the perpetrators hijacks part of their identity, she reasoned that girls who are the victims of incest and rape are arbitrarily viewed and upbraided as ‘big women’, while boys who have been raped by men are seen as ‘weak’ or deemed to be homosexuals.

Meanwhile, the rape of boys by women continues to be viewed as a rite of passage and boys are seen as soft and stupid to report.

St Rose Greaves firmly believes the national attitude towards children in T&T is generally unhealthy. “There are many institutional and cultural forces, which shape how we see children. We see them as property,” she added.

Where is the compassion?

Alarmed by what she described as the dearth of empathy in the population, St Rose Greaves said this was a cause for concern as it pointed to a larger mental health problem which was manifesting in the cold and cruel nature of comments and the public humiliation expressed on social media platforms.

She said, “It is present in the disrespect with which people in need are treated when seeking help. It is in short supply for children who offend and their parents.”

She said it seems that as a nation we are immune to embarrassment about the way we treat our children. “The culture of institutional care for children has been horrendous. For decades children have been subjected to cruelty at the hands of those entrusted with their safekeeping. When reports of wrongdoing are made, they are denied and dismissed. Managers are more interested in protecting the reputation of their institutions and avoiding paperwork rather than seeking justice for children.”

Referring to the Robert Sabga Task Force Report 1997, St Rose Greaves said they had found examples of abuse, and despite the overwhelming evidence of sexual and physical abuse, no one was ever prosecuted.

Renewing the call for this report to be brought to light and given life, she said, “We are locked not only into a cycle of abuse but into a cycle of investigations. It seems much easier to hold enquiries with little or no tangible results. With no real effort to disturb the underlying problems, the situation remains the same.

“Mere smoke and mirror exercises to appease the public, who from experience we know would soon lose interest. The public is not privy to the reports, and what they reveal or conceal. They remain unaware of what structures of redress are put in place and how they are executed.”