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Protecting our children

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The death of Josiah Governor set a benchmark of change in the way citizens of Trinidad and Tobago look out for the children of this country, both personally, within our communities and institutionally, as managed by the State. Police first learned of the boy’s death on Friday afternoon when officers held a relative allegedly walking with the boy’s lifeless body in his arms, metres away from the Besson Street Police Station. Governor was declared dead on arrival at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital. The child’s death was characterised by residents as being part of a well-known pattern of abusive behaviour.


According to residents who claim to have seen the incident at East Dry River, the child was thrown through a window of his home to plummet several feet down to rocky slope below. Police officers who saw the boy’s body said that it bore marks of violence and that the child appeared malnourished. In an irony of circumstance, Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development, Verna St Rose-Greaves was lamenting the high incidence of child abuse and the many forms it takes in Trinidad and Tobago in Parliament, while young Governor died. Unaware of the portent of her words, Minister St Rose-Greaves warned Parliament that: “Some of us understand that the atrocities being visited upon us in our crime situation today are linked to the failure to protect our children.” The point is now robustly reinforced, but it remains to be put into practice at every level in society.


The Children’s Bill remains an outstanding item in the House of Representatives. In October 2008, Amery Browne, then the Minister of Social Development introduced the Children’s Bill, 2008 to Parliament, a legislative document intended to put teeth into a range of child protection acts. In 2000, those acts, The Children’s Authority Act, the Children’s Community Residence, Foster Homes and Nurseries Act, the Miscellaneous Provisions (Children) Act, the Adoption of Children Act and the Children (Amendment) Act were passed in Parliament and the Children’s Bill outlined robust penalties for those found guilty of abusing and mistreating children. Minister St Rose-Greaves was introducing, with suitable gravitas, the seriousness of the 2011 edition of the Children’s Bill and the need to implement it post-haste.


St Rose-Greaves was mercifully unaware that her cause and concerns were being mortally underlined in Belmont for her with yet another avoidable truncation of a child’s future. Along with accelerating debate and discussion of the Children’s Bill, it’s useful to consider the other worrying elements that this story raises. By their own admission, residents were fully aware that the child was being beaten in his home but no one could point to a report made to the police or Social Services. Trinidad and Tobago still labours under a wrongheaded and too often fatal rule of politeness that holds that brutality in another person’s house is entirely and solely their own business and responsibility. The details of too many abuse cases reveal situations in which abused persons are ashamed of their situation and unable to bring themselves to ask neighbours or friends for help. Such interventions, then, must come from communities who choose to be unwilling to countenance identifiable and continuing patterns of violence and abuse.


In far too many police stations, there is no clear order of engagement for such reports and potentially fatal and damaging situations get logged as items in the pages of voluminous report books. “As a nation, we not only have a moral obligation to protect our children but a legal obligation as well,” Minister St Rose-Greaves said on Friday. The State, and more specifically the Ministry of National Security and the Ministry of the People and Social Development, must engage the problem by collaborating to provide clear paths and processes for the public to report such cases of suspected domestic abuse, for the police to briskly investigate them and for social services officers to mount effective interventions. The alternative, the polite community silences and indifference by officers to domestic disputes is ruining lives and on Friday, appears to have ended one.


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