The head office of the Children’s Authority on Wrightson Road in Port of Spain. –
THE Children’s Authority was set up to help 1,200 vulnerable children yearly, but the demand turned out to be 5,522 children, the authority told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chaired by Davendranath Tancoo on Wednesday in a sitting at Cabildo Chambers, Port of Spain.
Authority acting director Sharon Morris-Cummings said the authority now had 236 employees, compared to a planned level of 942 in a restructured organisation of whom 452 employees should be in place this year. Noting 40 resignations last year and blaming low salaries, she said, “The turnover is a challenge.”
PAC member Charrise Seepersad feared a loss of institutional memory due to such resignations, saying their job deals with “a life-and-death type of environment.”
Authority finance manager Steve Mulrain noted subventions of 47-61 per cent of requested budgets in recent years, saying in fiscal 2023 it should be 97 per cent.
Morris-Cummings said more staff due over the next two years would translate into more oversight of children’s homes. She boasted that the authority was creating a position of child advocate who would receive complaints from children, preferably by enhanced means such as digitally.
PAC member Jearlean John noted the authority’s workload, saying, “I’d seen where you’d projected in the earlier projection 1,200 vulnerable children but it ended up being 5,522.” These figures were for 2015-2017, she said.
“What I saw was a case load of 10,211, with a throughput per month of about 600 (new) children. “These are vulnerable children, who are affected by sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse, there is some loss, a number of issues.” John also warned under reporting of cases. She lamented late releases to children’s homes, alleging some unpaid since last October.
Office of Prime Minister acting permanent secretary Vijay Gangapersad said, “Based on my checking all of the homes were paid up to December.”
John said most children did not want to be in these homes, whose managers have agreed that it was not good for them to be there for long periods, and asked if the authority has any role in reducing this population of residents by encouraging their families to be kinder to them. She asked the authority’s position on the fact girls must leave homes by age 18, saying 60 per cent get pregnant within two years, even as half had older relatives who had also been in care.
“This is dismal. This is a cycle, a cycle of abuse. We really have to do more to help these children.”
The authority’s deputy director of care services Rhonda Gregoire-Roopchan, said the authority works with many agencies such as the National Family Services Division (Ministry of Social Development), Student Support Services (Ministry of Education) and the Ministry of Health.
PAC member Roger Monroe said a children’s home in Sangre Grande had sought his help to be paid for September 2022-January 2023. Gangapersad replied this process could be speeded up by using technology and by using a children’s registry to supply each resident’s details.
Gangapersad questioned why funding was put in a system which “expects a worse outcome,” urging more focus on preventative work.
He noted annual allocations rising from $57 million to $65 million. Tancoo said despite underfunding, staff had given “yeoman service under hard conditions.”
He accused the OPM of sabotaging the authority since its inception to present, and said all agencies supporting children must be properly funded.
On John’s call for steps to encourage families to love their children, Morris-Cummings said the authority conducted advocacy and education, but Seepersad could not recall seeing any such campaigns. Tancoo lamented staff burnout.
Morris-Cummings said some staff had a case-load of 100 children each, so the most critical issue was get more workers. Replying to Seepersad, Gregoire-Roopchan said a bilingual officer and a Spanish interpretor had a case-load of 50, saying this was a bit worse than international best practice although the duo were doing their best.