Hopefully, the heartbreak felt by Ayanna Webster-Roy, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for Gender and Child Affairs, translates into strong action on behalf of the thousands of youngsters who have been brutalised and traumatised in this country’s dysfunctional children’s homes. Otherwise, she will earn the unflattering distinction of presiding over a massive exercise in futility—or worse.
It will be a travesty if accountability is not demanded from the professionals who presided over the decades of abuse and neglect highlighted in the report by the Judith Jones Task Force. Even worse if no criminal charges are laid against the perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse against minors who had the misfortune of being assigned to these institutions.
There must be consequences, very severe consequences, for the rapists, paedophiles and other types of criminals who were allowed free rein in the children’s homes and child support centres highlighted in the report.
Although not a full Cabinet minister, Mrs Webster-Roy is in her second term handling an all-important portfolio, with the welfare of some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens under her remit. That gives her oversight of the facilities where wards of the state suffered alarming levels of mistreatment.
It is also under her watch that 18 unlicensed homes, where some of the worst cases of abuse occurred, continued to operate at the expense of taxpayers as beneficiaries of government funding.
As heartbroken as she might be at the disturbing details contained in the report, Minister Webster-Roy should not have been taken completely by surprise at what was exposed. It is not the first time that a major investigation has been done into children’s homes. Many of the findings in the latest report, titled Safeguarding Children in Community Residences and Child Support Centres in Trinidad and Tobago, were also revealed in a similar exercise 25 years ago.
As reported by Guardian Media last February, there was a ground-breaking investigation by a six-member team headed by Robert Sabga and including Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, Halcyon Yorke-Young, Basdai Gayadeen-Catchpole, Valerie Alleyne Rawlins and Sita Beharry.
That team’s probe unearthed layers of corruption and intrigue. Young victims shared accounts of being groomed for the sexual gratification of politicians, business people and staff members and there was evidence of physical abuse, fraud and misappropriation of government funds.
Although the report was handed in to former social development minister Manohar Ramsaran in 1997 and got approval from the then Basdeo Panday Cabinet for further action, to this day there have been no arrests and no one has been held accountable.
Little has changed. If anything, conditions are worse. The death, in March 2021, of a teenager who was murdered after he and four other boys absconded from a child support centre operated by the Children’s Authority, was a recent tragic example.
Minister Webster-Roy’s responsibilities in this matter go well beyond the commissioning of an investigation and release of findings. That was just the beginning. She must now ensure that steps are taken to bring healing and justice for all these abused wards of the state and that systems are put in place to prevent a recurrence of this nightmare.
Her heartbreak should, therefore, inspire her to transform T&T’s broken child protection regime.