Cheryl Miller, the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Affairs employee who shot into the public limelight after she was dragged from her office and forcibly committed to the St Ann’s Psychiatric H
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Girls in jail need urgent action
In yesterday’s story about girls and young women in jail, AJ Theolade spoke with Magistrate Gail Gonzales and Justice Betsy Ann Lambert-Peterson who explained that the greater problem of young women under the age of 18 in prison lies in the 16-18 age group for whom there is no youth corrective facility. Today, the justices explain why they are forced to send young women to prison and they say what they believe can be done to correct the problem.
If a girl under the age of 16 who has been placed in St Jude’s in Port-of-Spain, or one of the orphanage for girls—St Dominic’s in Belmont or St Mary’s Home in Tacarigua—breaches the rules of any of these institutions, current legislation allows that the institution can refuse to house her and it is here that the problem arises. Expulsion from the institution, however, isn’t automatic. The complaint brought by the school or children’s home must be proven. “When you investigate and look at the evidence, and the probation officer’s report, sometimes if you are satisfied that the child is not guilty, that’s the end of it. “The child goes back to the home regardless of whether the institution wants to receive them or not.”
Gonzales explains that the courts also have to consider whether the girl will continue to misbehave if left in that environment, be a danger to other children, or if they will be disruptive. “You may find that even though the child has breached the school rules, it was a one-off thing and the court may very well rule to send her back to the institution with a stern warning. In some cases however that is not so.” When according to legislation penned in 1925, a child is so unruly as to be considered of “depraved character,” judges have few options. There are only four certified institutions which were once private but are now 100 per cent funded and mostly staffed by public servants—the ones already mentioned for girls and St Michael’s School for Boys in Diego Martin.
There are also about 50 uncertified children’s homes that the judges say “grew out of a need because the homes that are registered now are severely overpopulated and under-funded.” These homes, however, are currently not covered by legislation or subject to inspection. Lambert-Peterson and Gonzales agree that nobody wants to send a young girl to the women’s prison and at times, they are forced to “get creative.” In the event that a young girl cannot be returned to an institution, Gonzales says, “magistrates would call for relatives—an aunt, an elder sister, the granny—and sometimes those very said homes that are not certified. “We do send children to homes on the [uncertified list] because we have to,” says Lambert-Peterson, “but remember when we do that we are really sticking out our necks…and our necks can be chopped off at any time.”
She says that when this process of finding alternative accommodation for the young girl proves to be a lengthy one, there is no other option but to send her to Golden Grove. “A young person is only there for a limited time until the very creative magistrates find somewhere else for them to go,” assures Lambert-Peterson. The maximum is usually seven to 14 days but it may stretch for longer if they can't find a place. “What makes it hard,” says Gonzales, “is that the majority of young women who find themselves in a detention centre, it’s really because of breakdown of family structures. “They react by breaching the school rules whether it be by running away, misbehaving or threatening managers of the school and when you send them to prison—as a judicial officer you know that it’s not prison in terms of a sentence, you know this is all you can do, when they really need some form of social rehabilitation.”
Lambert-Peterson added, “What makes it hard, is that some of the times and some of the people that you send have not committed a crime and you can’t send an adult to prison unless they have been convicted of a crime, so I do not see why we as judicial officers have been painted into a corner where we have been left with no other option but to place a young woman into a prison for her own safety.” She says the Prison Service, in an effort to comfort and assure the judges, has created an isolated dormitory for the minors and mostly ensure that they do not come into contact with the adult prison population. “Because we have been satisfied that it is a place of safety for them,” she says, “we have in the most dire circumstances, then felt able to send young women there but it is not something that we wish to do.”
Despite efforts by the Prison Service to keep girls separate from the general adult population and the increased sense of security by magistrates as a result of these efforts, the magistrates get mixed reports, about the effects on the girls. “I have had children coming back who said the few older women they interacted with really mothered them and they appreciated that.” Gonzales said some have come back traumatised by the fact that they were in jail and they haven’t done anything wrong. “As the judicial officer it is breaking your heart because you are trying to tell them ‘look I am doing this for you, for your protection, for your safety’ but they don't see it,” Gonzales says. “Regardless of what you say about it being an institution, about being about education, they see it as jail for little people. A lot of them they see the fault in their parents, they know it’s the parents and they feel that they are paying for their parent's mistakes.”
Returning to her point about a breakdown in family structure, Gonzales says she believes people are wrongly using the application for a child being beyond control. “When I speak of a child being beyond control,” says Gonzales, “I think of a parent who has done everything or most things that any reasonable parent would have done in the circumstances and for some reason this child cannot, will not submit to correction.” “But what we see coming before the court is parents who have who basically abdicated their roles as parent and they come and throw up their hands and say that the child is beyond control. “There is no supervision, there is no structure, there is no accountability. For example, I recently had a mother who was sending a child to buy marijuana and cocaine for her and he decided that if he was buying for her, why couldn’t he buy for himself.”
Both Lambert-Peterson and Gonzales agree that if the situation is to be resolved, a facility specifically for young women must be built, and young women must also be afforded the same access to education, counselling and other services that young men are YTC have access to. They are also looking to the introduction of the Children's Community Residences, Foster Homes and Nurseries Bill which will register the other children’s homes and place their supervision and monitoring with the Children Authority. This is an act to amend the Children's Community Residences, Foster Homes and Nurseries Act, 2000. The amendments were made in the House of Representatives in June 2008, including an amendment that caused the Bill to require a special majority.
“I think that we are on the right track with the legislation but what I think is happening is that we are waiting to have all of our ducks in a row,” says Lambert-Peterson. “I don't think we can't afford to wait - if there is one thing you can run with, I think you could at least try to pilot it like we piloted the family court and see what we can do.”