Within the 12 months since its inception, the Child Protection Unit (CPU) of the Police Service has brought 500 cases before the court, involving sexual and physical abuse of children as young as 16 months old.
These cases represent almost 20 per cent of the 2,474 reports investigated by the unit in just one year.
Out of these 500 cases, there have been three convictions so far for the offence of sexual touching.
In an interview with the Sunday Guardian on Thursday, head of the unit, Superintendent Odette Lewis, and Child Protection Unit Inspector Beverley Paul spoke of the challenges, successes and the need for more public involvement.
The Child Protection Unit was established in May 2015 to strengthen the Children's Act of 2012, which established the Children's Authority and created a number of laws regarding the protection and care of children.
Last month, the Children's Authority released statistics saying that it had received over 4,000 reports in the past year.
When the authority receives these reports, all reports of criminal offences are forwarded to the Child Protection Unit.
Similarly, all cases reported to the unit are brought to the attention of the authority.
Lewis, who has been a police officer for over 34 years, said the disparity between the reports investigated by the CPU and the figures reported to the authority was due to the fact that the CPU only investigates criminal offences.
She added that since the establishment of both the authority and the unit, police have been receiving more reports about crimes against children.
"The Children's Authority also deals with social and psychological aspects. They deal with more, they might deal with custody battles and other things like that," Lewis said.
She said the police figure included some of the reports referred by the Children's Authority "but the majority of the reports we are investigating would be what we received independently."
'Parents need to ensure children are properly supervised'
A heavy case load has provided numerous challenges for the unit, which has three officers in each of the nine police divisions.
Each police division has multiple police stations.
While Cabinet has approved additional staff to strengthen the unit, the numbers are not yet deployed, leaving approximately 100 people to deal with cases, when the required staff for the unit is 216.
Cabinet approved additional numbers to join the unit, including a legal professional to assist in case management.
Asked about the challenges, Paul said the unit currently had manpower and infrastructural shortages, including lack of suitable accommodation for children.
"There are some challenges there. The overwhelming number of reports that we get is a challenge, because we have nine units in the nine police divisions, including Tobago, and at any given time you would have two to three officers working there and in each police division you have station districts. In Eastern you have nine police stations and these investigators must investigate these reports," Paul said.
Lewis said reports of the past year indicated that the majority of perpetrators of crimes against children were parents and blood relatives.
In addition to manpower and infrastructure issues, the unit also deals with a culture where perpetrators are protected by family members and victims of abuse themselves.
According to Paul, parents need to also have their children properly supervised.
"When you have a stepfather or relatives involved, the investigation does not flow freely. Some people tend to hold back because relatives try to protect the perpetrator for various reasons, maybe because he is the head of the household, but people can know that there are external agencies that they can go to to get financial help. The Children's Authority gives this advice to families. They can get help," Paul said.
She said parents also needed to know who their children's friends were.
"They should supervise their children on social media, because a lot of things, sexual grooming, exchange of personal information and inappropriate photos happen first on social media. People incite children to engage in all kinds of sexual activity and have it recorded to send to them,"
In addition to the high numbers of abuse by parents are the allegations of abuse during custody battles. Both Lewis and Paul said that in many cases during custody battles, police received reports that one parent after having custody of the child may have been abusive. "We always investigate but we found that in many cases after investigations the child admits to being told to lie by their parent," Paul said.
"We have charged people for wasteful employment of police time but we investigate all matters because that affects children psychologically too, because they are being taught to tell lies. Parents should not involve the child.
"We can't turn a blind to it, because you never know."
The public must help
The officers said reports come from various sources including doctors, nurses, teachers, family members who suspect, parents and also anonymous calls.
"We want to let members of the public know that anything they see, we need them to come forward, it can be an anonymous call. You don't necessarily have to come to the CPU to make a report, you can go to any police station," Lewis said.
She said this would assist the unit greatly.
"We need to know. We are here to protect the children in our country. Get the info to us by any means. Whatever it is will be kept confidential.
Paul said that parents also needed to be proactive in the protection of their children.
"Recently, a man came and reported that he was home late at night and answered a call on his daughter's phone. A man asked to speak to her and he gave her the phone to speak, then came to the police and said he wants the police to deal with that. You are the adult and you gave her the phone. You must enquire who it is and find out why you call my daughter this late at night. "We have parents who come and say they are not able with their eight-year-old child and they don't want the responsibility of disciplining them."
She also said it was a crime for parents to withhold information about pregnant teenagers from the police.
According to Paul, many people committed offences against children without knowing they can be charged.
Asked to name these charges, she listed the following:
�2 sexual abuse
�2 physical abuse
�2 neglect and abandonment
�2 Leaving children home with another minor to go out and lime. That can lead to charges of abandonment or exposing your child to unnecessary harm.
�2 Not reporting that your under-age daughter is pregnant.
�2 Sexual grooming, which is gaining the trust of a child and communicating sexual interest in a child. Once someone communicates sexual interest to a child on more than one occasion, they can be charged.
�2 Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.
�2 Arranging or facilitating child prostitution. Paying for sexual service from a child through goods or services.
Children's Authority may be reached at 627-0748
The numbers for the Child Protection Unit:
North Eastern Division–626-3158