‘Children have died!’ – Ex-Children’s Authority chair says government plans to stem abuse too late for some

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Hanif Benjamin –

Former chairman of the Children’s Authority Hanif Benjamin says plans put forward by Government yesterday to address sexual and physical abuse in child-support centres were suggested and rejected during his time with the authority. He says lives could have been saved if those recommendations were adopted sooner.

Benjamin made the remarks in response to a report which highlighted allegations of abuse at various children’s homes in Trinidad and Tobago. The report was laid in Parliament on Friday.

The report was the result of a five-month investigation from a Cabinet-appointed team led by retired Appeal Court judge Justice Judith Jones and highlighted the inability of the Children’s Authority to protect some children from abuse.

Describing child abuse and absconding as a “severe problem,” the report referred to instances where security guards physically and sexually abused children at facilities where they were assigned.

In one incident contained in the report, it was noted that a security guard with prior allegations of sexual abuse was hired at the Margaret Kistow children’s home.

A media release from the Office of the Prime Minister Gender and Child Affairs Division on Sunday announced that several recommendations to improve the structure, efficiency and staffing would be implemented to tackle the allegations.

The recommendations included a redesign of the Children’s Authority, the development of clear standards for people interacting with children, the standardisation of critical reports at community residences, the maintenance of a caregiver-to-child ratio at these residences, training for security staff in dealing with children and the establishment of a children’s commissioner.

Contacted for comment on Sunday, Benjamin said he while he was still reading the  report, he was confused over the recommendations suggested as he had made the same suggestions during his time in the organisation.

Benjamin said despite repeated consultations, the recommendations were rejected at all levels, and blamed the deaths of children on poor management.

“We recognised it but we were fought, we were turned down and told there was no funding and all these different kinds of things.

“Why is it (the recommendations) being portrayed as being so new?

“It’s unfortunate, because children died. Children died and they died in the hands of the Children’s Authority of TT. And they should never have been, because I made those issues known. Those children would not have been dead today. I am saying that without fear and or favour.

“It’s a combination of a lack of resources, bad management, no supervision and everybody’s trying to turn this into a resource issue. It’s not a resource issue. While I know we do need money to do certain things, it is poor management, and nobody is being held accountable for that.”

Benjamin served as chairman of the authority from 2017-2020.

The media release reported that $126,081,715 was being allocated to expedite the projects required.

It also said a joint task force consisting of officials from the Division of Gender and Child Affairs, the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Legal Affairs, the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services, the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service, the Children’s Authority, the Tobago House of Assembly and two members of the investigation team would be included.

Asked if he felt the task force and allocation would be enough to properly address these concerns, Benjamin said he was doubtful, unless office holders were held accountable for mismanagement.

“I am not sure about ‘task force’ because I am fed up of ‘task force’ in this country. Everything is a task force. And then, three months from now, we don’t hear anything about any task force and then we go back as old.

“Until we start to hold people accountable and remove people from office who are not working.

“And no matter what task force you put and how much money you spend you will still be doing our children an injustice.”

Benjamin also praised Jones and the team for its report.

Newsday tried to contact Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy but was unsuccessful.

Contacted for comment, opposition MP and shadow Minister of Education Anita Haynes said the report’s findings only confirmed the concerns raised by the opposition over the past six years.

She said the issues raised in the report should be addressed by filling key vacancies in various institutions, and was sceptical that the formation of a new task force would achieve the objectives.

“The question isn’t necessarily money, it’s priority, because money has been spent, but it hasn’t been spent on filling vacancies and filling positions and meeting the recommendations brought before us.

“When we did the Children’s Home and Residence Bill and the regulations therein, we did a number of things to deal with the regulations of these children’s homes and we raised the issue again of the Children’s Authority not being properly resourced. Now we’re spending another $126 million.

“The question now that we have is not necessarily the creation of another body or an amalgamation of more bodies, but literal warm bodies in these places so we can try that and see if that gets the job done. Because if we add another task force and then you see the same issues of vacancies and positions not being filled or positions remaining vacant for years, it’s not going to solve the problem.”

On March 19, 2021, Semion Daniel, 15 and Antony Francois, 16, escaped from a Children’s Authority centre. They were shot dead on March 28, while liming at an abandoned house on Desperlie Crescent, Laventille.

During a virtual press conference after the incident, director of the Children’s Authority Nichola Harvey-Mitchell said a security lapse at one of its safe houses in north Trinidad led to the escape.

At the time, the authority had 957 children under its care – some in safe homes, some in foster care and others at different institutions.

Responding to the allegations described in the report, police public information officer ASP Sheridon Hill said police were at various stages with respect to investigations. He said while some enquiries had led to people being arrested, there were situations where enquiries were still ongoing.

“In some matters people were charged. We also have matters where there are ongoing investigations and, in others, nothing has reached the Child Protection Unit (CPU) or where we are not aware.

“Obviously if we haven’t received a report (of a crime) there’s nothing we can do. Once we get reports of this nature, we take a very serious position on it and we will provide updates on these matters.”

The task force is expected to hold its inaugural meeting on May 4 and will be expected to submit a completed work plan to the Cabinet within six weeks. This work plan will outline its plans on implementing the recommendations.