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Still no real options for street children
In this final installment of snapshots of life on the streets, CAMILLE CLARKE talked to children and adults, onlookers and experts, about child casualties of parental neglect and abuse.
Runaway girls are taken off the streets more often than boys, says Judy Wilson, founder of Rainbow Rescue, a home for boys who used to live on the streets. That doesn’t mean the girls are better off, though. “You would see all boys out—but the girls are picked up to work in bars and brothels. You hardly ever saw the girls. Many ran away from home.” Wilson said the reports made to the police about child abuse have recently increased. “You see what is happening in the world and I am not seeing it stopping any time soon,” she said.
But there are some reasons to be hopeful. “Now people have an avenue, and somewhere they can go. They can get help. “Before it was just swept under the carpet. Now measures will be taken...more people will come out and that is great,” she said. “There were children in the past who these things happened to and now they are adults. There was a time when nobody did anything and it was kept a secret. These adults are messed up but the children now can get help.”
Wilson said the police or family court sometimes ask Rainbow Rescue to take runaway children who are found by the authorities. Rainbow Rescue, now based in Maraval, houses 14 boys at a time until they turn 18. She said some boys were misplaced and sent to a correctional facility like St Michael’s Home or the Youth Training Camp (YTC) when they did not need to be disciplined.
“They even putting children in a correctional facility when they don’t belong there. You can’t put some of them in the same facility. They might rape them in the first night,” she said, refusing to discuss that subject any further. That’s a risk out on the streets too, of course. “The boys are picked up by men. One of the boys (who was 13 years old at the time) told me a story about how he was picked up by a man. The man said he needed directions and was lost. The man took him to his house and sexually assaulted him.”
She said the victim was unable to make a report to the police because his attacker could mount a defence against him that the boy was there to rob him. Wilson said a lot more should be done to assist street children. “No, I don’t think enough is being done for them. They need shelters where they could go to, and a safe place at night. Some run away but are not used to street life. I don’t know any place where they can go, and they end up on the street.
“The authorities should not even talk and I don’t care to listen to them, because I don’t think they really care about the children. They could do more. They weren’t interested when I sourced a building in town for them which was ideal,” she said.
Children’s Authority mum
When contacted on the issue, the Children’s Authority referred all questions to an undated presentation done by Alicia Martin at the Centre for Health Economics, University of the West Indies. Officials at the authority said the Children’s Authority Act was partially proclaimed and only certain sections were in force, but once the authority becomes operational it would be in a position to provide current data on street children.
The authority’s temporary Web site said the organisation was still in its embryonic stage but had made significant progress in establishing the basic infrastructure required. In her presentation, Martin said that there were approximately 300 homeless young people in the vicinity of Port-of-Spain in 2003, and approximately 154 street children in Port-of-Spain and about 54 in institutions in the same area in 2004. She said the average age of the Trinidadian street child is between ten and 16 and most are male.
At that time there were two non-governmental organisations and six faith-based organisations which supported street children with shelter, clothing or food, Martin noted.
“The establishment of the Children’s Authority in 2010 is to provide care and safeguard vulnerable children using both preventative and curative measures. Specifically, the authority operates on the basis of legislative frameworks such as the Children Act. The act was devised to protect children from abuse and the worst forms of child labour. The government has not yet detailed a specific set of measures to treat with street children,” she said.
Martin recommended targeted programmes to address fissures in the family by using counselling and parenting classes. Among the problems, Martin said, were poverty, abuse, violence, parental substance abuse, abandonment and neglect. “There is also a need for the speedy removal of children from abusive situations into safe institutions for care and rehabilitation. There is a need for an increase in tailored, formal care institutions. There is a need for an increase in the number of the relevant trained personnel.
“There is need for targeted research so as to direct effective policy. One child on the street is one too many.”
Browne: More needed
Dr Amery Browne, a former Social Development Minister, said while he served in the Cabinet, Parliament had amended child-protection bills to recognise emerging trends such as sexual grooming directed against children, as well as specific legal recognition of violations perpetrated by people in positions of trust such as teachers, relatives, caretakers, sport coaches (those who abuse such positions of trust face even harsher penalties).
But we still see problems with lack of reporting, official and family cover-ups and under-resourcing of important coordination and response agencies such as Childline and the Children’s Authority, Browne said.
“I have seen numerous schoolchildren presenting themselves at clinics seeking testing and treatment for STIs, while the education system continues to fail them by providing little relevant information, skills and support to help reduce this trend. Some of these children have been engaged in sex for rewards that include money, lunches, fete tickets and ‘popularity.’
“The disbanding of the National Aids Co-ordinating Committee has ushered in a period of reduced awareness and relevant prevention programming, including reduced funding of communication programmes, fading HIV messages on public transport buses, and less engagement of civil society and the non-health sector,” Browne said.
He said important information was not being properly conveyed to the population, such as the reality that HIV infection can be prevented even after a rape if proper follow-up and medical prophylaxis is carried out.
“This negative landscape has been further complicated by persons like the Minister of Health sending confused and mixed signals to health care providers and other key persons about the important responsibility of making reports to the police when one becomes aware of likely sexual abuse of a child in accordance with the Sexual Offences Act,” he said.
New units to assist victims
National Security Minister Gary Griffith said he attended several meetings of the Children’s Task Force and plans to set up a unit to address any type of abuse against children. He said this unit will be different from the TTPS Victims Support Unit and its officers will be spread throughout stations across the country. “We are setting up an elite unit for the victims of crime which will be working alongside task force officers trained in dealing with children’s matters,” he said.
Griffith said because of the sensitive nature of the incidents, police will be given specific training to extract information to source evidence for possible arrests. “It is critical for officers to muster the information as quick as possible and deal with investigations and bring them to justice. This action task force will deal with children who are abused and those who use children for financial purposes and involved in criminal activity.
“Some people will be traumatised and the officers will know what questions to ask and how to deal with their problems,” he said.
‘We need to save our children’
Head of the Victims and Witness Support Unit Margaret Sampson-Browne says the organisation is there to guide children in schools. “We have deviant behaviour and children are affected by their homes or circumstances and with student truant behaviour. Sometimes the children vent in schools. I am concerned, from interviewing the children after the anti-bullying campaign, and they were emotional,” she said.
“We have been going to several schools. The children vent and we will detect behaviour in the children. There is also bullying in the homes.” Sampson-Browne felt the children involved must be given avenues to express or act out their feelings. “We can’t say we fighting child abuse when they are not made to vent their feelings and helped through the process. “We must discontinue this behaviour and we have to have to set up sting operations and save our children. We can’t throw a blanket over their heads. I am concerned about that.”