Sharifa Ali-Abdullah shared some startling statistics at the launch of the new Assessment Centre of the Children's Authority at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex last Wednesday. Ms Ali-Abdullah explained that according to the statistics the authority was working with, 61 per cent of the people identified as being responsible for the neglect and physical abuse of children are their mothers. The director of the authority called for more support for women in these cases. In the first two weeks of the operation of the centre, the authority has fielded 524 calls identifying possible cases of child abuse. Of the 248 cases that have been opened, 127 of them, just over half, have got the attention of the child protection agency.
This early experience led Ms Ali-Abdullah to declare the problem "very acute," with more than half of the cases identified as "high risk." Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who officially opened the centre, quite sensibly called for more data about the status of childcare in Trinidad and Tobago and expressed great interest in seeing the detailed results of a comprehensive assessment of the growing pool of information that's flowing into the authority. There was need to discover, for instance, whether a mother was being blamed reflexively for the state of a child or was, truly, the originator of sustained mistreatment and neglect. Judy Wilson, director of Rainbow Rescue, a project that offers a caregiver's home for at-risk boys, added more disturbing information to that mix in an interview in the Sunday Guardian.
Ms Wilson has fired several caregivers over the 17-year existence of the home for verbally abusing and ill-treating the vulnerable boys in their care. Caregivers, she warned, are also guilty of abusive behaviour and taking advantage of children in homes that should keep them from harm. The project's director also warned about caregivers, both male and female, who target homes for children, especially those in the confusing grip of teen hormones. While police statistics show that 96.9 per cent of sexual offences were committed against girls, Ms Wilson believes the figure for boys is higher.
"I think it's more in the region of 30 per cent," she said.
These figures are disturbingly high. In 2014, 976 children were victims of serious crimes of which 705 were sexual offences and the numbers have been steadily rising. Part of the reason for this steady increase is likely to be the growing awareness that the traditional shame and secrecy surrounding such charges is fading in favour of a growing willingness to report the perpetrators of sex crimes, and so the absolute numbers and their steady increase remain troubling. Clearly these early indicators of the scope of the problems with childcare in T&T, a matter long understood to be in need of serious engagement, are worrying and demand serious investigation.
Such research may lie outside the direct responsibility of the Children's Authority, but as the agency enabled to take the lead in representing the laws on child rearing, it is likely to find the scope of its work evolving to meet the realities that its responsibilities will uncover. The authority now faces the significant challenge of enforcing the long overdue Children's Authority Act, first passed in Parliament in 2000.
To do so, it must hasten the process of encouraging the reporting of sex offences against children and enforce the new laws designed to protect our most vulnerable citizens.