Mickela Panday is one of the most recognisable figures in our national community. Despite our mutual affiliation with the T&T Guardian newspaper, she and I have never met.
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‘Children’s rights must come first’
It’s not more roads or skyscrapers that former Gender, Youth and Child Development minister Verna St Rose-Greaves wants from the next administration to take up office. The stalwart feminist and political activist wants the next government of T&T to put the children first.
Speaking recently on a radio programme, St Rose-Greaves expressed her grave concern about the needs of children in this country continuously being placed on the back burner or outrightly ignored. She noted she had reason to believe it is simply a matter of those in authority not caring about this very fragile group in society. She was speaking in light of the recent accidental shooting death of 11-year-old Reuben Reed Thomas, who was shot by one of his friends after they found a gun in Rich Plain, Diego Martin.
St Rose-Greaves said from the perspective of political campaigns, she would like to hear the leaders say that within the first three months of winning the election, the Children’s Legislation will be brought back before the house. And that they will take a bipartisan approach to crafting legislation for the nation’s children, because as it stands currently they are operating on flawed legislation.
“Let us look at all laws regarding children and the support systems for them and let us come up with what we believe in this point and time, will be the best fit. So that the age of criminal responsibility which is now eight will change,” St Rose-Greaves advised.
She added, “We simply cannot hold an eight-year-old criminally responsible. The different ages that we have set for accountability when it comes to children in terms of different laws must be revised.
She said the marriage laws must also be revisited.
“I want to see a bipartisan approach, when dealing with these issues because as long as we continue to create laws in contention, we are going are going to create these big holes where children are going to be the victims all the time.”
Children are being trained
to accept mediocrity
When asked why she thought the issue of children’s needs seemed not to be a prime focus of the Government, St Rose-Greaves said because children do not vote and they are not a constituency.
She said by the time children get to be voting age the education system which in itself has so many flaws would have conditioned them to accept anything or nothing.
“Our education system has been successful you know. In the sense that it is turning out the citizens that we’re having who do not want to stand up or challenge or question authority. The reality is we have taken away from our children the power to think, to reason, to discern. The whole issue of a country loving its children and ensuring their best does not have a market value as far as our leaders are concerned. There is a not a price that can be put on love and generosity, so it is not important to them. But those are the things that’s going to save us. Those are things therefore, we have to focus on,” St Rose-Greaves lamented.
“When you have an early childhood centre, with children from three-to five years old and you have teachers who are underpaid and not trained as they should be, you do not have a school nurse, or a childcare provider. In cases of bathroom accidents, there is this written or unwritten policy is that teachers must not touch those children in the intimate places so therefore a three-year-old with an accident is forced to clean him or herself. All those little things that we don’t see as important, they’re extremely important.
“So I am saying in this campaign I want to hear about our children and young people.”
St Rose-Greaves said prime ministers have the power to say that for the next budget, for the first quarter, our children are going to be a priority. Therefore we are going to pull out all the stops to make things happen for them.
Make them keep
St Rose-Greaves said if politicians promise to help our nation’s children in their manifesto then it is the citizenry who must ensure that these politicians do what they promise. She said the question is though, are we as a people even interested?
“We sit back and we complain and don’t do anything about it. We must hold governments to their promises,” she said.
“And that is why in our constituencies we have to be able to say this is what we need. We do an assessment and this is what we need for our constituency. Tell us how we are going to get them. I was very happy to hear about local government reform and I am hoping that in the reform of local Government it will treat with some of those issues.”
Where are the
“We are talking about the young boys who were involved in the accident with the gun where a little 11-year-old was killed. It is a tragic horror story and what happened? You saw on the newspaper they were taken in by the police, held in custody and then sent to YTC in the first instance without any type of assessment or counseling. Then this was coupled with the prison officer who was shot by his stepdaughter and then both her and her mother were sent home again without counseling. The mother later commits suicide and all the children are traumatised. I mean what is really going on?” asked St Rose-Greaves
She said to make matters worse, all of the response centers including the Children’s Authority, the Police Victim and Witness Support Unit, social and family services all saying they received mixed up information so none acted.
"So in other words the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. No communication whatsoever! And you see that is part of the problem.
“They may have the head but they do not have the heart and we have to find a balance. Because the Children's Authority for instance was reported as saying said it was not within their jurisdiction with regards to the two little boys sent to YTC, they said they could have only stepped in if they were notified by the court.
"I am saying if there are four agencies, that are supposed to be looking after children. Something like this happened. Don't I pick up the phone and say, ‘girl this thing has happened, but when I look at our legislation we cannot step in just like that…but nonetheless what can we do, because these children cannot be spending the night at YTC.' But nothing of the sort transpired. Just excuses."
The need for appropriate institutions
St Rose-Greaves highlighted a case she experienced during her time spent with the National Family Services as a social worker, where three children she counselled were traumatised after being sent to YTC.
“I had a case of three young boys, their ages were ten and under. And we had these complaints about these children that they were so bad and misbehaved a lot. I specifically remember one of the complaints being about the children eating all the food at their house, no matter how much food the stepmother cooked. “The children’s biological mother was in a domestic situation and she left and went abroad and promised these children she would send for them, but never did,” explained St Rose-Greaves.
The activist said when she finally visited the home of the children it was discovered the pots in which the stepmother cooked for the children were extremely tiny pots.
“When you are an experienced social worker you realise when an issue is greater than what is seen on the surface,” said St Rose-Greaves.
However, during the counselling of this family, she fell ill and had to pass on the case to another social officer. She recommended to the officer that the children needed further evaluation and that sending them off to an institution would not work to their benefit at that point in time. But this recommendation was ignored. The boys were sent to YTC and according to St Rose-Greaves, the very first night the boys spent at the facility, the youngest of the three was raped by a gang of older boys.
“I am saying this because I want people to understand what can happen when you send these young children into place that is supposed to protect them and then you discover it does more damage than good.
“When I eventually got the children out of YTC, those same children that I could have hugged before, I couldn't hug them anymore, they were as hard as steel. And it did not matter to anybody that this had happened. The blame was that it was the system, and I am saying that the system is run by people and yet we continue to put our children into those malfunctioning institutions with no accountability of what is really happening at these places.”
She continued, “I don't care what happens in the politics in the way I care about what is happening to children. Because I understand at a deep level that if we do not treat with the situation with our children, we're doomed. And things will not get better. So I am asking the political parties in your campaigns put our children front and center. The budget is coming up, ensure that the ministries that have to deal with children and I’m not just talking about education here, where we just spending money building, buildings. The buildings are not important. What is important is how we train the teachers, how we select them, how we place them. Playing attention to the extra-curricular activities and programmes in our schools. We have to treat with those things. So in your budget ensure that funds for the Ministry of Gender to put places of safety in place, is adequate. And that our healing centers which are critical are equipped with the experienced staff who can administer appropriate remedial treatment.
“We are not hearing anybody talk about our children. We are just hearing everybody cursing one another and saying this and saying that. Even when we have policies developed, it is not the policies that have the heart, and it is not the policies that speak to our philosophy of childcare. It is not the policy that speaks to development. Development cannot be about buildings and roads and bridges only. Development has to be about your people…beginning with the children,” St Rose-Greaves concluded.
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