Anna-Lisa Paul and Bobie-Lee Dixon
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“We have to hold some of these doctors and start jailing them.” This was the advice head of the police Victims and Witness Support Unit, Margaret Sampson-Browne, gave yesterday as one of the possible ways to curb the alarming rate of teenage pregnancy in the country. Her comment came in the wake of statements by Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh that there were some 2,500 pregnancies among schoolgirls each year.
Gopeesingh made the statement in the Senate on Tuesday as he responded to a question filed by Independent senator Dr Victor Wheeler. The minister said based on his 27 years as a gynaecologist working in the public sector, of every 15 new patients in the antenatal clinic, ten are teenagers. Urging the country to get a handle on statutory rape, the Education Minister added: “If people (fathers) are apprehended, there might be fear among the perpetrators,” and therefore it could serve as a deterrent to statutory rape.
Sampson-Browne, who admitted yesterday this was the first time she was made aware of such statistics, said it was a pity the Education Ministry did not pass this information to the police in the first instance. Apart from doctors, she said everyone, including the police, teachers, principals, neighbours and parents, must be held accountable. The doctors, she said, could be the last line of defence in such cases, however, as they would also be aware that the underage children are pregnant.
“I am just tired of people abusing children,” Sampson-Browne, also a former member of the police’s community unit, said. “Children are going into the hospitals and the health centres and having children, and the doctors are not informing the police, and this cannot continue. “They must be held accountable. Let us start to hold some of these doctors and nurses who fail to report this to the police and who turn a blind eye, and let some of them make a jail.”
She said Gopeesingh’s statistics reflected the numbers of statutory rape which had been reported, but this might not paint a true picture of the problem, as there might be many more pregnancies which went undetected. “What about the children who have been taken out from school and never return after getting pregnant? What about the ones who have gone to backstreet abortionists? “What Dr Gopeesingh has done is he has opened a can of worms,” Sampson-Browne added.
Doctors’ hands tied
In an immediate response yesterday, Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan said because of the concept of “doctor-patient confidentiality,” doctors had no obligation to alert the police regarding teenage pregnancies. “This puts the doctors in a ‘catch-22’ situation...between a rock and a hard place, because the doctors are obligated to protect their patients,” Khan told the T&T Guardian.
“To go against this is a breach of the privacy law and therefore paves the way for the doctor and the medical institution for medical litigation whether private or public.” He admitted, however, that this posed a serious problem to catching the perpetrators of these acts, adding because of the current problem it was time to implement new legislation. “I am going to consult the medical board to find out if the confidentiality of a patient in a medical setting needs to be examined, because the privacy law protects the patients,” Khan said.
“In this regard we need to look at legislation and properly decide what is best for both sides without there being any repercussion, because the issue of teenage pregnancies is a big problem and one that must be addressed.” He said what would also need further examination was whether the pregnancy was a result of rape, indiscriminate sex or otherwise. But dealing with the problem properly would also raise the other sensitive issue of abortion, the health minister added.
“There are signs and symptoms of a pregnancy. What are the reasons that the child would only come to deliver? Is it because of shame associated with pregnancy. “We also have to look at some discussion on whether or not we have to look at laws and reasons which may be put forward for termination,” Khan said.
Child protection task force
National Security Minister Gary Griffith, who agreed Gopeesingh had indeed opened a can of worms, said yesterday that one initiative being explored was the implementation of a Child Protection Task Force within the Police Service.
Saying the proposal still had to be discussed with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams, Griffith said the task force was expected to comprise specially trained police officers to deal with offences against children.
Asked why there was no proper enforcement of the law on statutory rape, Griffith directed the question to Williams. Several calls to Williams’ cellphone yesterday went unanswered.
Contacted yesterday on the matter, assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of anti-crime operations, Glenn Hackett, insisted the police have been prosecuting cases of statutory rape. He said the issue was one which needed a holistic approach. “This is a matter not only for the police but for social workers, parents, guardians, principals...everyone. “If the police find out a case through their knowledge they will arrest,” Hackett said. He admitted there was always room for improvement.
TTUTA: Incidents being reported
President of the T&T Unified Teacher’s Association (TTUTA) Davanand Sinanan said yesterday he was “very satisfied” that teachers and principals were properly looking after the well-being of children, including reporting sexual offences against them to the police. “By law we are required to report to the police any incident of a teenager being pregnant, or of if we suspect an under aged child, whether male or female, is sexually active,” Sinanan said.
He said teachers and principals were also “well aware” of the stipulation in the Sexual Offences Act which states that failure to report such an incident would result in a fine of $12,000 or six months in jail.