The recently tabled report, Safeguarding Children in Community Residences and Child Support Centres in Trinidad and Tobago, is required reading for anyone who wants an insight into the abysmal state of T&T’s children’s homes.
With its alarming revelations of widespread physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and neglect of children, this report is not for the faint of heart. It exposes decades of failure by state agencies and other entities to comply with this country’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to promote and to respect the rights of children.
But as distressing as the contents of the 307-page Judith Jones Task Force report are, they provide only a snapshot of the suffering endured by hundreds of wards of the state. The reality is likely to be much worse than what was gathered during the few weeks of investigations and interviews carried out by Task Force members.
There is mounting public pressure to act on the report’s findings, in the hope that justice will be delivered for the crimes committed against residents of children’s homes and child support centres.
However, what little comfort there is to be gained from the assurance by Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, Ayanna Webster-Roy, of consequences for perpetrators of these heinous acts, is outweighed by the repercussions if there is no swift and decisive action to fix the numerous problems identified.
That is why there must be a critical examination of the specialised agency at the centre of this crisis, the Children’s Authority of T&T.
That agency’s failure to ensure the “care and protection of children, especially those who are at risk or have been victims of abuse or neglect,” is extensively documented in the report. These include significant shortcomings in its monitoring of children’s homes and child support centres, investigations of breaches and enforcement of penalties and other actions as prescribed under the Children’s Community Residences, Foster Care and Nurseries Act.
Therefore, tough questions need to be asked about the capacity of the agency and the ability of its staff to carry out its most important mandate — preventing children from suffering ill-treatment or neglect.
This is not about apportioning blame but identifying the gaps and inefficiencies that contributed to the Children’s Authority’s failure to protect the well-being of children under the care of the state.
The report reveals that the country’s “system of childcare and protection is fraught with challenges which expose already vulnerable children who come into contact with the Authority, the child support centres and the community residences to the risk of harm and abuse.”
Also highlighted is that under the agency’s watch, at-risk children have been placed in residential care institutions that are unsuitable and "fail to take into consideration the needs and best interests of the child."
When the Children’s Authority was established seven years ago, there were lofty expectations for changes and improvements in the country’s child protection regime. Those ideals have still not been achieved.
That is why a critical review of the agency needs to be undertaken and solutions sought for all its failures. It must be done for the sake of the children.