Experts recommend specialised court for abuse cases at children’s homes

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Hanif Benjamin. –

A dedicated court to deal with instances of abuse at children’s homes, counselling for children placed in homes, and increased training for residential staff were some of the recommendations from a collaborative webinar hosted by the US Embassy Port of Spain and the International Women’s Resource Network (IWRN) on Thursday.

US Embassy representative Rose Rodgers said it was important for the public to have access to the knowledge of how to build a violence-free environment. She said it was important to break the circle of violence early.

The webinar came in the wake of the release of the 2022 Justice Judith Jones report and the revelation of the 1997 Sagba report, which revealed decades of abuse at children’s homes in TT.

TT Association of Social Workers president and former Children’s Authority chairman Hanif Benjamin said the children who had been in the homes investigated in 1997 experienced and are living with strong complex trauma that would have changed the direction of their lives.

“The premise in discussing these two reports has moved from how to save children and reduce the trauma to who, what, why, and where. I’ve been having this conversation for a long time and I’m fed up with it, because no-one was listening. I hope we’ll be able to put our collective skills and expertise together to find a way forward, but forgive me if I’m cynical about anything happening past today.”

He said training was often the first item cut by state agencies because it was not seen as a priority but it was an essential part of any movement forward.

“If child protection is a system, we need to be serious about building the system and ensuring it works. We need to put children first, and understand they are the most vulnerable in society.”

IWRN youth advisor Pearl Yatali-Gonzalves said she grew up in St Dominic’s Orphanage and experienced some of the trauma that residents went through.

“I was fortunate enough to get support that helped me with the trauma and to get me where I am today. The reports showed the ugly side of our society in terms of our treatment of children in care. If knowledge is power, how long will we continue to get the knowledge before we take action? Nothing has changed.”

She said as a nation, people disrespect and abuse each other at every level. She said any way forward needs to start with the recognition that people need to respect each other.

“We need many more social workers. Social work is seen to be free through the government, so people are not accustomed to paying for it and think the government is helping them, but as we have seen they are not able to do everything needed. My recommendation is that we have legislation around social workers so we can understand their place in child protection and let them do the work they are trained to do in the way that it is needed.”

IWRN director Gail Merhair said those who knew about the 1997 report and said nothing were a bunch of “spineless cowards who have only chosen to come out of the darkness 40 years later. (sic) It is heart-breaking and horrifying to have to come to terms with this. We have damaged adults, damaged children, and a broken society. Every single child that was hurt might have hurt other children and adults.

“I would like to see a dedicated court to deal with some of the abuse cases that have been brought before. We need to start from the level of the judiciary. We need to begin the healing process of those who were hurt and damaged, the survivors need justice and healing and we have healing to do as a society. Although we look at government to set policy, each one has a part to play.”

Counselling psychotherapist Gregory Isaacs said there needs to be institutionalised culture change so children in homes can receive the real care they need.

“If we are serious about change, we can combine the resources of all agencies involved, the Children’s Authority, Student Support Services, the Ministry of Education and the ministries in charge of social welfare, etc, and also include NGOs, include religious institutions that have captive audiences of thousands.

“We can tap into the skill sets of these people and begin to map TT and gather data on the points and locations that are treating children and adults so at the end of day we can begin to roll out plans specific to locations and issues. Right now we need to strengthen the advocacy and mobilise whatever resources we have to meet the needs of children in particular communities that are disenfranchised.”

Social worker Meldrina Bernard said children should not be taken from their homes to be placed in institutions where they will be further damaged.

“We have to look at future placement, what training is taking place, who is administering the programmes, what are the laws protecting children. We can talk all we want but until we get together and start advocating and implement what we’re doing, there will be no change. I would like to see development of an ongoing training schedule for residential staff, to ensure they are doing the right thing and to enhance the work of the Children’s Authority.”

Social worker Aretha Clarke said based on her experience with having a child in an institution, cases are not dealt with adequately.

“There is no synergy between stakeholders in state agencies, there is a total disconnect, and if these children are going into these institutions and there is no connection, we are not helping our future. From the judiciary to the child protection unit to the Children’s Authority and when the children are placed in the homes, no one follows up. Counselling needs to start from the moment a child is removed from their home, whether they are put in a children’s home or placed with relatives.”

Facilitator Adriana Sandrine said the recommendations made by the panel would be sent to the Prime Minister’s office for review.