My son Kyle is not a normal boy. This week he took up a teddy bear and hugged it, then brought it to me and ordered, “Hug.”
Child abuse has many faces. A few weeks ago, a video went viral of a Point Fortin mother beating her 12 year old. The mother, Helen Bartlett, herself posted it on the social media site Facebook and has since defended her actions in the face of widespread public criticism. She said the child had posted photos online of herself showing her underwear. Some people took Bartlett’s side, arguing that her reaction showed how anxious she was to set her child straight, and that the beating was not abusive.
Meanwhile, there are parents who encourage or use their children sexually or otherwise to bring in money. Some neglect or abuse them to the point where the children have to beg for money for food, or take to living on the streets—where they feel safer than they do at home. In these snapshots of life on the streets, reporter CAMILLE CLARKE talked to young people and adults, onlookers and experts, about these child casualties. This is the first of a four-part series.
The late-morning sun was hot. A mother of three and her daughter sat at the corner of Independence Square and Richmond Street, Port-of-Spain, asking pedestrians for help. The mother said money was her main concern. Her daughter, who seemed unconcerned, scratched her legs. The Santa Cruz mother (name withheld) claimed her daughter was 22. She said she takes care of her other children, 12 and 13, by coming on the street.
At no time during the interview did she wish to speak about the whereabouts of the children’s father. “I could buy an ointment for her,” said her mother. “I will buy it when I get some money.” Do you come out here often? “Yes, we out here all the time.” Do you get a lot of money coming out here? “No, but when we walking home I would take it and go by (a fast food restaurant) and buy something to eat. “I could get Cepep work you know,” she added, “but…” She shrugged and tied a wrap around her head.
So why do you bring them out here? “I does only get money for her,” referring to the daughter sitting with her. “The other two in school now. I only bring them out when it is holidays or a weekend. I don’t like to leave her at home...you know how things is now.” Her daughter added: “No neighbour.”
So why do you bring her out? “She used to go to school.”
Question to the daughter: Are you a good girl?
Why do you come out here?
The boys by the corner
A teenage boy was sitting in front of an abandoned parlour at lower Henry Street, near South Quay, around midnight. The boy, who looked about 16, wore a T-shirt, shorts and slippers. He said he was from Laventille.
“Miss, help me, nah…I want some money.”
What are you doing here?
“I come to get money to help my family.”
Are you hungry?
“I will eat anything you give me…I eating it.”
Where are your parents?
“I have to come out. My mother is not working, so I have to get money to get something for me and my brothers to eat. I does mind them.”
Where is your mother?
“She at home. She don’t work, so I have to come out and get money for us. If you give me anything I taking it. “I can’t get no work otherwise. You want to give me something? I taking anything you give me. If you give me anything to eat, I eating it.”
Why do you have to do that?
“I have to get something for us. I have to get thing for us to eat.”
Another youth, who said he was from the Beetham community, stood at the corner of Charlotte Street and Independence Square. He looked about 17, but claimed he was over 25. What are you doing here?
“I just come for money, so I just here waiting.”
Where are your parents?
“I live with my father, but I have to take care of myself. My mother not around. You know how it is.”
Are you still in school?
“No, I leave school. I don’t go to school any more.”
During the interview, he fidgeted and looked around. “I look good, eh? I just want to get some money…”
Do you come out here all the time for money? Do you have other forms of employment?
“I does do other little work like welding and a little electrical….Do you have a phone number where I can call you, or Whatsapp? I can call you.”
This reporter made an excuse.
“Where you going? I living in Beetham. Where you living? I can come there,” he said.
Adrian Alexander, president of the Caribbean Umbrella Body for Restorative Behaviour, said prostitution of street children has been going on in T&T for years. “This has been taking place a long time and is what we term as survival sex: runaway children who are on the streets and engaging in sexual activity for money to buy clothes and food itself. It is either cash or kind being offered to them in exchange for sexual services,” he said.
Alexander said many of the children were brought before the court. “Some are children who are beyond control. They dance in clubs, private parties, and places in neighbourhoods and gated communities.” He said perpetrators prey on the children, take them during school hours and return them. Alexander said sometimes the child may feel obligated or fearful of the adult and lured by money.
“Under the law a child can’t consent,” he pointed out. “Men come during the day and they have these places...(afterwards) they could go back at school and with their peers.” Gated communities, streets in Woodbrook, micro or “roving” brothels are used, Alexander said.
“It moves regularly. They move them from apartment to apartment and then they rent another apartment. There is more money to be made selling sex with a child than an adult. There are issues of teens being sexualised. They are being abused and police reports show. “We created a culture where money is king and because of the videos on TV, we have corrupted our children minds and we have created a hole for child prostitution.”
He says his organisation has focused its efforts on raising the issues, prevention, and training people to deal with these issues. But little is known about the true extent of the problem. “We are calling on the Government to research this, because we need to know the statistics. We hear about foreigners but we don’t focus on our own boys and girls as it relates to trafficking.” He said child pornography also covers many areas such as taking photographs of naked children and distributing them to other people.
How do the police deal with these children?
“The police just pick them up and charge them with loitering, and they may get sent to a children’s home. When they hit 18 and they leave, they are still homeless and have nothing.” Alexander said after they leave the institutions, the same people who were using them before may want to continue to capitalise on them.
what the law says:
The Children Act
5. (1) If any person causes or procures any child or young person, or, having the custody, charge, or care of a child or young person, allows that child or young person, to be in any street, premises, or place for the purpose of begging or receiving alms, or of inducing the giving of alms, whether or not there is any pretence of singing, playing, dancing, performing, offering anything for sale, or otherwise, that person is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of $1,000 or alternatively, or in addition thereto, to imprisonment for three months.
7. (1) If any person having the custody, charge, or care of a child or young person between the ages of four and 16 allows that child or young person to reside in or to frequent a brothel, he is liable, on conviction on indictment or summarily, to a fine of $1,000, or alternatively, or in default of payment of such fine, or in addition thereto, to imprisonment for six months.
8. (1) If any person having the custody, charge, or care of a child or young person under the age of 16 years causes or encourages the seduction or prostitution or unlawful carnal knowledge of that child or young person, he is liable, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for five years.
(2) For the purpose of this section, a person is deemed to have caused or encouraged the seduction or prostitution or unlawful carnal knowledge (as the case may be) of a child or young person who has been seduced or has become a prostitute or has been unlawfully carnally known, if he knowingly allowed the child or young person to consort with, or to enter or continue in the employment of, any prostitute or person of known immoral character.
9. (1) Where it is shown to the satisfaction of a magistrate, on the complaint of any person, that a child or young person under the age of 16 years is, with the knowledge of her parent or guardian, exposed to the risk of seduction or prostitution or of being unlawfully carnally known or living a life or living a life of prostitution, the magistrate may adjudge her parent or guardian to enter into a recognisance to exercise due care and supervision in respect of the child or young person.