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Robert Sabga

“When we were done with this report none of us was the same ever again, this changed us,” says Robert Sabga, 25 years after he led a six-member committee on a ground-breaking investigation into children’s homes in T&T.

The Cabinet-appointed Sabga-led task force included Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, Halycon Yorke-Young, Basdai Gayadeen-Catchpole, Valerie Alleyne Rawlins, and Sita Beharry.

Tasked with reporting on what they unearthed at ten institutions a decade ago, Sabga and his team discovered layers of corruption and intrigue. Information gleaned from victims of sexual abuse revealed they had been specially chosen and groomed for the pleasure of politicians, businessmen and staff members. The team also uncovered evidence of physical abuse, fraud and misappropriation of government funding at several homes.

“There are stories that can never be told, not that they shouldn’t, but just that they cannot be told,” Sabga added.

The former T&T High commissioner to Canada who spoke out publicly for the first time since submitting his report in 1997 to former social development minister Manohar Ramsaran, last week admitted, “There is so much that didn’t make it into the final report.”

Speaking with the Sunday Guardian from his home in Canada, and citing the often incredibly sensitive nature of what had been uncovered at some of these homes, he said some of the task force members were government employees and were understandably fearful for their jobs.

Others were reluctant to sign off on parts of the initial draft of the report as they had not been present during some of the visits to the various homes. The final draft, therefore, was a heavily edited version of the one Sabga originally compiled but was one all members were comfortable signing.

However, he assured, “Overall, our recommendations from the original draft were covered in the final draft.”

Now, even the sanitised report has disappeared from the government files.

“You would not believe the level of intrigue we ran into, up to and even when we handed the report in. I literally met Manohar Ramsaran in a parking lot at night and transferred it from car trunk to car trunk, it was that sensitive and we were all being watched.” Commending Ramsaran for his support and encouragement along the way, Sabga described him as a “decent and caring human being, someone we all enjoyed working for.”

It ultimately became a very ‘cloak-and-dagger’ operation, Sabga said as he recalled standing in front of a children’s home in Diego Martin, frustrated and angry after being denied entry into the facility. When he had a call in with then prime minister Basdeo Panday he was urged not to give up or give in to the efforts of a few to thwart the investigation. “’Robert, what you are doing is too important. Please persevere. Don’t let any public servant get in your way,’” was what Panday told him.

That was the turning point. Sabga said it was this call by Panday that renewed the committee’s resolve.

After the task force uncovered evidence of sexual and physical abuse, as well as fraud and misappropriation of government funding at several homes, recommendations were made for the incarceration of some managers and for charges of criminal negligence to be laid against others. However, no one has ever been held responsible for the abuse, torture and fraud that were discovered.

Sabga is saddened to know that very little has changed in the system up to this day, but he is not surprised.

‘High-ranking government official was working against the task force’

To counter the risk of homes that they were going to inspect being tipped off, the committee resorted to placing the names of the homes in a box and randomly selecting one on the day they met, Sabga explained. “That way, nobody could call ahead and say the Task Force is coming. That is how we managed to finally begin to see what was actually going on.”

Sabga said one particular high-ranking government official had been “actively trying to torpedo us from the time we started. “She was the one that was tipping off the homes that we were coming to whenever we planned a visit.”

Naming the post of the government employee who was responsible for “rubber stamping and approving who gets what,” he said, “she basically approved the cheques and what was issued to who.”

He said government employees were receiving kickbacks from some of these homes and turned a blind eye to the unethical and immoral practices there.

“What we uncovered was a kick-back system at the highest level of the ministry. This is why we couldn’t put certain things in the report, because of where the threads led. Manohar himself said to me after he read the report that it was “dynamite”, and he had to be very careful who had access to it beyond Cabinet.”

Sabga said he and his team were strengthened by Ramsaran’s unflinching support–for example, as a way to have legal locus standi when investigating the homes, Sabga suggested that Ramsaran appoint each member as an Inspector of Homes, a position that had been unfilled for many years. Ramsaran did so immediately and without question. Even with this, however, Sabga said the only way to prove financial wrong-doing was via a paper trail which was just impossible to get a hold of.

“We couldn’t prove it, but we knew what was going on. Up to this day, you still can’t prove it. We were told quietly by staff and residents a lot of things we could never prove.”

Lionized and vilified

Recalling how he had been both lionized and vilified by colleagues and others in his years of advocating for victims of violence, ultimately leading to him being tasked to head the investigation, he said although he has been vindicated for some of the things he was originally accused of sensationalising, the bitter-sweet victory rings hollow as the generational damage has already been done while morality and decency, fairness and justice having been cast aside.

And with babies now having babies of their own and a new generation is created every two years or so (he measured the social cycles in T&T, estimated in 1995 that it was around every eight years, and predicted that when social cycles dropped below five years there would be incremental societal meltdown), he lamented, “They have no coping mechanisms. They have nothing to teach and nothing to pass on. They are so focused on day by day, that they have no thought for tomorrow.”

Admitting his soul is tired but he isn’t quite ready to give up on trying to fix the country–Sabga is credited with developing a blueprint for a social services delivery system that was never implemented, and that like his report it has disappeared from official government files, he ended with a quote from the 1970s progressive rock band Garfield as he said, “Close your eyes, Oh close your eyes. You’ve seen so much, you should be blind by now.”