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What’s holding up the Children’s Authority?
I do not know how many times in the last 30 years I have been asked by people, “Doc, I think there is a child being abused in my neighbourhood. What can I do?” It has become more frequent in the last ten years as people are made aware of the problem. The answer is always the same. There is little you can do unless you want to make a report to the police or to the social worker at the local health centre.
Most people are not willing to do this because it means getting involved. Getting involved is not something Trinidadians readily do, and it does raise the possibility of reporting someone for something based, most of the time, on limited information and who wants to do that? Yet, because child abuse is so prevalent and because the damage done to a child lasts for a lifetime, there has been a movement towards setting up a system that would enable the average citizen to make a report and have it professionally checked out and that is where the Children’s Authority (http://ttchildren.org) comes into play.
Among other things, it will have the duty of investigating such complaints. This sounds simple but might involve removing a child from its parents’ care. No one wants this to happen unless there are clearly defined criteria for doing so. The process must be properly structured. The difficulty of setting up such an organisation is perhaps best illustrated by going through the general process through which it might function.
First of all: the contact. Assume most people will want to report anonymously through the telephone. Telephone operators will have to be available 24 hours a day. They have to be trained in the correct way to answer the phone and ask the necessary questions without turning off callers. They then report the call to a social worker who also has to be available 24 hours a day. At least three social workers will be needed—one for north Trinidad, south, and Tobago.
That social worker has to make a rapid assessment of the report and decide whether she or he needs to make an immediate home visit. That decision may have to be made at 2 in the morning or 4 pm on Divali. Because of the intrinsic features of the case itself, these visits are not without risk. If the report is made by the police, as may happen, there will be a police presence but if not, the social worker, who is trained to try to establish rapport with the accused, will have to decide whether to go it alone.
If the home visit suggests that a child is being abused, then the Children’s Authority Act demands that the child be removed from the care of the parents, a difficult situation where knowledge of the law becomes necessary. So there have to be lawyers working at the authority. More staff needed. Decision made, the child is then removed from the home. And then? What do you do with the child? Obviously the authority has to have a safe place where the child can be kept and cherished.
That opens Pandora’s Box. It means the Children’s Authority has to have its own places or places of refuge where children from the age of one or two days to 18 years can be placed.
We are not talking one or two children a year but 30 to 40. That means setting up an entire home establishment or establishments, complete with caretakers, some trained to care for aggressive, beaten-up, raped 15-year-olds, some pregnant, some with baby or some simply hurting three-year-olds who do not understand why they have been removed from Mammy, to the entire sorry gamut of childhood emotional, behavioural and developmental disorders.
These children have to be fed, clothed, washed, stimulated, educated and exercised while their cases are being investigated. They have to be medically examined, including for physical sexual abuse, by a paediatrician specially trained in this procedure. They will need extensive psychological assessments and therapy. And their legal rights and those of their parents will have to be respected while their case is being processed in the three months that the Children’s Authority Act states it should.
At the end of three months, if a decision has not been made, the child has to be returned to its caretakers. If abuse is proved and the court decides to remove the child permanently from the parents, it is now the obligation of the authority to find a home for the child. It can do this either by using a foster home system or an adoption system. Both these systems do not function well in T&T today and have to be established. This means setting standards, licensing homes, monitoring homes, monitoring the children’s outcome etc. This means more dedicated staff.
By the nature of the process, all of these varied components have to be in place as soon as the first child is reported. The system has to be up and functioning before that child can be accepted. This takes money. Seed money for setting up this complex system under the act initially has to come from Government. The question then must be asked: why has this Government consistently refused to commit the funds needed to establish the Children’s Authority?
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