Ex-Children’s Authority head wants state intervention: Give parents more help

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Clinical traumatologist Hanif Benjamin –

CLINICAL traumatologist Hanif Benjamin says the State needs to do more to help parents struggling with mental-health challenges.

In an interview with Newsday on April 8, Benjamin, former head of the Children’s Authority, said recent videos on social media showing children being abused speaks to the state of society.

He was commenting on charges against a San Juan woman for abusing her daughters, aged nine and three. The woman appeared in court on April 8 charged with two counts of cruelty to a child.

Benjamin said more must be done to prevent children from falling victim to the hands of perpetrators.

“Protecting our children should be our main priority, and we need to question whether the nation’s mental health capacity is there to fix whatever is going on with parents before children become punching bags.

“Parents go through stress all the time and one of the challenges we face is not understanding our limitations when it comes to mental stress.”

He said parents need to be given the tools to be able to recognise when they need to call in the troops to prevent the violent stress reactions that have gone viral across social media in the last week.

He said officials are not good at preventative measures, but rather follow-up measures that are often punitive.

“For too long in Trinidad, people are at the end of the spectrum before any kind of help is given, so people must be arrested or the child needs to be abused before people get any help.”

He added, “All health centres should have psychologists, social workers and mental-health practitioners so in the first instance when a parent is feeling overburdened, they can go there to seek help without feeling stigmatised.”

He said while he knows those in authority will say there are social workers at health centres, he was not speaking about the internal referral system.

“I am talking about when a person is feeling stressed, they are able to walk in and get the help they need.”

He stressed that the lack of these preventative measures could be the reason parents react in extreme ways when their mental health is not taken care of.

“This is why we still see children ending up in plastic bags and in dumps and all these 19th-century foolishness, as opposed to a situation where we could have legislation saying you could give up your child without being arrested, and people feeling comfortable to do that.”

He said that all of this is part of helping with mental well-being and helping with stress so that people can come forward for help when they need to.

Benjamin also recommended that communities pay more attention to parents’ struggles.

He said there is a need for wider social networks to support parents and to pay attention when they are becoming overwhelmed by their personal lives, economic circumstances and poor mental health.

“Raising a child is difficult, and so parents must be able to raise their hands and say ‘I need help,’ society must also be able to step up and say, ‘Dad is not okay,’ or, ‘Mom is not okay.’ We need the system around the family to support the parents.”

He said people may not want to step up or involve the authorities in circumstances where they believe children might become victims of abuse because they are afraid children will be removed from their homes. He called for greater education of the public on how to seek help and what would be the result of asking for help.

He commended the police service and the Children’s Authority for acting quickly to arrest the woman and remove the children from her care.

“We are seeing quick responses by the relevant authorities, and that is commendable. However, it is important to ask ourselves as a society why we are seeing these vicious attacks on children and how can addressing our mental health fix this.”

In a phone interview with Newsday on April 5, head of the police Special Victims Unit Supt Claire Guy-Alleyne said the children were doing well and were receiving psychosocial assistance.

When Newsday visited the family’s home on April 5, several neighbours said they hopes the woman gets the support she needs so that she canbe reunited with her children.

Several weeks ago, a Cunupia woman was also arrested after she was seen in a video kicking a small boy. On March 27, police confirmed the child had received medical attention and was resting comfortably. Newsday has not received word from them on whether the woman was charged.

After the incidents, the Children’s Authority released a statement appealing to families to seek support if they are experiencing challenges.

Agencies that can offer help are:

Ministry of Social Development and Family Services 800-1673
National Family Services Division 623-2608 ext 6701-6711,
TT Association of Psychologists 717-8827
Student Support Services Division of the Education Ministry 724-101
Childline 131