When the Robert Sabga-led Task Force embarked on its mandate to assess the administration and evaluate the operations and healthcare of children’s homes in 1997—they discovered the National Family Services was only aware of 29 such facilities operating in Trinidad, while there were many more yet to be identified and visited.
Eager to uncover the truth about the reports emerging about some of the facilities at the time, the six-member committee, led by Sabga, which included Diana Mahabir-Wyatt; Halycon Yorke-Young; Basdai Gayadeen-Catchpole; Valerie Alleyne Rawlins; and Sita Beharry—held its inaugural meeting on February 4, 1997.
Having decided to visit the four statutory industrial schools/institutions including St Michael’s Home for Boys’, St Jude’s Home for Girls’, St Mary’s Children’s Home and St Dominic’s—all other facilities were deemed to be private institutions where “the management of these homes and institutions would legally be within their rights to restrict such access,” to records despite the significant amount of State funding being provided to them.
A check by this committee found the post of Inspector of Industrial Homes and Orphanages had been vacant for at least 15 years prior to their investigations, which they said “speaks volumes on the issue of accountability and monitoring.”
The Sabga committee learned the previous file on the Inspector of Homes was found missing from the Ministry of Social Development, while the copy of the completed report by the task force was also stolen after vandals broke into the office of former Social Development minister Verna St Rose Greaves, days after it was handed to her.
The report contained detailed findings of visits to ten children’s homes/institutions, and revealed tales of horror faced by the wards at these facilities..
St Jude’s…beyond worst in all aspects
Of all the homes and institutions visited by the task force, they stated, “St Jude was beyond question, the worst in all aspects.”
As the subject of some very alarming media reports at that time, the Sabga committee declared: “The Task Force found that many of the allegations contained in these articles were factual and horrifyingly so, and were corroborated by both the girls and by two supervisors (names called) who refused to remain silent or to be cowed by (name called), manager of St Jude’s.”
During their inspection of St Jude’s, they found, “roaches, rats and mice are rampant in the dorms. Live roaches and mice were actually seen by the Task Force in the Carmel House dormitory despite the fact that pink rat bait had been put out the night before by one of the night supervisors, contrary to procedure.”
Identifying the managing nun at the time as refusing to “put out rat poison because she claims that the girls might use it to attempt suicide,” they continued: “Roaches were visible in other dorms. The vermin attack all foodstuff,” and mouse and roach droppings could be seen on the clothing and personal toiletries kept in the girls’ lockers.
Prior to an article in the Mirror in December 1996, breakfast at the home consisted of sugared water (sugar tea) and stale bread. Following the publication, the meal moved to being milk tea on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday, along with a single bread/bun slice with butter.
“They may get hot dog or cheese one day per week. Juice is served once per week. There is no cereal (hot or cold). Food is still a major problem for the girls, both in terms of quality/variety, and also especially quantity. Ice cream is served once per year although individual girls may get a “treat” from time to time for spying on other girls and bringing news to the Sister (name called).”
Fooling the court
In addition to the days listed above when milk was served, the committee learned the girls would have been given milk on the Fridays they were due to appear in court so that when questioned by magistrate as to whether they had a wholesome breakfast, they could reply in the affirmative.
“Vegetables when served were mostly carrots and spinach. Pumpkin, tomatoes and cucumbers were served very occasionally and chicken consisted of wings, feet and necks as the remainder of the chicken was allegedly kept for the Sisters, boiled with white rice.”
The committee was horrified after they found, “worms, rubber-bands, nails, stones, weevils, bits of blue soap and even bits of plastic bags in the cooked food.”
The girls complained of the portion servings being too little and that they were always hungry.
“Lunch is never more than one pot spoon of rice with some meat, often half cooked. Vegetarians are forced to eat plain rice with peas or beans. Food allergies are ignored and due to the iron deficiencies in their diet, many of the girls are chronically anemic and suffer erratic menstrual cycles. Many others have chronic skin rashes due to a combination of poor nutrition and compounded health risks and sanitation problems.”
Food used as punishment
Children stated and supervisors corroborated that, “regardless of their personal religion, all of them were forced to say Catholic prayers or else food is withheld by Sister (name called) or they half of a breakfast meal. Food is therefore related to prayers and is used as a means of punishment.”
Awakened between 2 and 3 am daily to shower due to an insufficient number of showers for the girls, the task force found, “the water is unheated. The bathrooms are open and without curtains so there is no privacy and there are no lights.”
The bathrooms were described as “generally smelling rank” while the toilets had no toilet seats. PineSol and Vim were said to be “rare”.
Sprayed for lice
Six girls had their hair sprayed with BOP insecticide for lice the day before the task forced visited on March 5, 1997.
They wrote: “This is the common method of treating for lice at St Jude’s and it is hopelessly ineffective since the eggs are unaffected and the bedding and linen are untreated. The dangers of the insecticide being absorbed through the scalp and into the bloodstream of the girls are so treated and ignored.”
With no doctor on call, a nurse’s aide that visited daily handed out vitamins, cough syrup and Panadol for every ailment. The committee expressed concerns that, “the indiscriminate use of cough syrups, many of which contain antihistamines, is very worrisome since several of the girls interviewed suffered from asthmas and allergies, and antihistamines aggravate, rather than help especially asthma attacks.”
They added: “The girls report than when they do complain of feeling unwell, Sister (name called) accuses them of faking and withholds medical intervention. Sister gets supervisors to pour cold water on those who complain of feeling unwell.”
“One girl (name called) was accused of faking illness and had water thrown on her. She had to be rushed to hospital the next day with raging fever.”
Other instances of compromised healthcare included one girl who had an injured foot and who had been forced to bandage it herself—leading to it being swollen and possibly infected.
Another case of neglect in one girl who had been constipated for three days and was made to eat bananas and drink water—so much so that by 5 pm on the day of the task force’s visit, “The child was really quite distressed.”
Advising the Sister to give the girl a laxative and told they would apply it later, the committee was informed by the Sister that the reason, “for the constipation was that this girl had been sexually abused.”
Rampant and brutal
Reporting that corporal punishment was both rampant and brutal, the task force was shown a corridor leading to the music room where whipping is done.
“The L-shaped corridor is sealed at both ends by locked wrought iron gates. Children are reportedly whipped with curtain wires , belts, slippers, and even aluminium strips from suspended ceiling assemblies.”
One girl (name called) was reportedly stripped and beaten some 65 times in the corridor and then had her head shoved in a bucket of water by one supervisor (name called).
Another report involved a 13-year-old girl (name called) who was whipped mercilessly with curtain wire even though she claimed to have a heart condition. Another girl was reportedly kept locked in the area for two weeks as punishment.
Yet another girl was hit in the face with a big paintbrush by Sister during a heated argument—which the committee found was “a common occurrence.”
Indicating that verbal and psychological abuse was also rampant—they heard of girls allegedly “going to meet man” and engaging in lesbianism. For non-Christian girls who refused to attend Sunday mass: “They were denied the opportunity to see their parents when they visit.”
With no special admission policy in place at St Jude’s as girls were placed through the court and also through a request by parents unable to control their child—a request the Sister claimed she could not refuse, “The Task Force was advised that Sister encourages parents to let their children remain at St Jude until they turn 18. This is her way supposedly of getting more money.”
And with no nutritionist on staff as the Sister decides on the menu, “The staple lunch diet is white dog rice boiled with chicken feet, wings and neck with lots of salt. Beds were found to be jam-packed together with most having rotten foam for mattresses and no pillows.
Actions and recommendations
The Task Force said, “It is the opinion of every single member of the Task Force without exception, that Sister (name called) presents a clear and present danger to the children of St Jude, and that she must be removed immediately.”
“She is beyond question, guilty in the extreme of reckless and criminal endangerment often resulting in bodily harm; physical and psychological abuse and torture; abuse of power; and professional incompetence with criminal implications.”
Former minister responds
Former Social Development minister Manohar Ramsaran said while the committee had managed to expose many of the managers at some of these children’s homes, the government at the time had also taken action by firing “one or two of them.”
He said although the 1997 Robert Sabga report was taken to Cabinet and was approved, no one was ever arrested or charged with wrongdoing or fraud.
Instead, he said they went to the religious organisations that operated some of these facilities, in a bid to use suasion and goodwill to get the operators to alter their management styles.
Admitting there was a lot of work to be done, Ramsaran was critical of the usual processes employed by incoming administrations that often discard working documents and ignore or change existing policies.
He defended the work of the 1997 task force which he claimed had produced a “very thorough report.”
Adding that it was, “unfortunate to see just how the children were treated.” He said this report was the fore-runner that had led to the establishment of the Children’s Authority.