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Little space gives magistrates no choice
The case of an 11-year-old girl being sent to an adult prison by a magistrate is not an isolated incident, says chairman of the Child Protection Task Force Diana Mahabir-Wyatt. Magistrates, she said in an interview yesterday, have very little choice as space was rare. Last Thursday, Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal represented the girl, who lived at the St Dominic’s Children Home but was transferred to the Women’s Prison, Golden Grove, Arouca, for breaching the rules of the Belmont-based home.
In a telephone interview with the T&T Guardian on Sunday Seetahal said the transfer was ordered by a magistrate during a court appearance on December 5. She said under the Children Act, which governs the process, children at the two official orphanages—St Dominic’s and St Mary’s Children’s Home, Tacarigua—who were accused of indiscipline were sent to the country’s only two industrial schools, St Jude’s School for Girls, also in Belmont, or to St Michael’s Home for Boys, Diego Martin.
Some magistrates, however, have begun sending children to the adult prison because of space constraints at both industrial schools with prison authorities being forced to establish makeshift facilities so the children would be isolated from the rest of the prison population. But Mahabir-Wyatt said owing to the problem of space, magistrates were left with no choice but to send children to the adult prison.
She added: “The St Jude Home is overcrowded and so too is the Tacarigua Orphanage and because of this they (the magistrates) just do not know where to send the 11-year-old girl. “That child is facing enormous stress, including psychological stress, and she has nowhere to go. It really rips me apart because I really don’t know what else the magistrate could do, given the overcrowded situation.”
She agreed with Seetahal that the situation deserved urgent attention, adding that the task force was expected to meet on Thursday after which recommendations were expected to be put forward. “The task force has only had one meeting so far but when we meet on December 19 we will definitely address this situation. After we have made our recommendation it would then be up to the political will to implement them,” Mahabir-Wyatt said. She hoped the Children’s Authority would be up and running by the middle of next year.
Saying there were several suggestions Mahabir-Wyatt said one was the foster care system.
Minister agrees: It’s wrong
Last month, speaking at a stakeholders’ consultation on the draft foster care standards at Capital Plaza, Port-of-Spain, Gender and Child Affairs Minister Clifton De Coteau said 59 boys and 65 girls had been “successfully placed” in the foster care system between 2008 and March 2013. “Currently, short, medium and long-term foster care is provided for children who have been abused, or at risk of abuse, who have been put up for adoption and are awaiting placement, or children who are in need of emergency care,” he said.
However, De Coteau noted, various issues needed to be addressed to improve the system. Those included, he said, the small pool of foster parents, adequate training for foster providers in childcare and records management and cases where children who were placed in homes became victims of abuse. Contacted yesterday, De Coteau agreed a major issue was space, adding that Government intended to build two assessment centres in Ste Madeleine and Chaguanas.
Saying the problem of overcrowding was being addressed, the minister said he would give detailed statements at Thursday’s post-Cabinet briefing. “It is simply wrong to send children to an adult prison, and this is something we are working on,” De Coteau added.
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