Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy, speaks at the official launch of the National Children’s Registry of Trinidad & Tobago, at The Brix Hotel, Port of Spain on Friday. – Photo by Angelo Marcelle
UNCERTAINTY surrounds the future housing of some 230 children now living in unlicensed children’s residences, heard the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Human Rights, Equality and Diversity chaired by Keith Scotland on Friday. The JSC grilled a team from the Gender and Child Affairs Unit of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) headed by Minister in the OPM, Ayanna Webster-Roy.
The hearing learnt that by month-end any unlicensed home would face a penalty when section 17 of the Children’s Community Residences, Foster Homes and Nurseries Act, 2000, takes effect, imposing a $10,000 fine and a $500 penalty for each day of continued operation without a licence.
Webster-Roy said the Children’s Authority was working to try to get homes to a level to be licensed by the end of March.
She gave a list of homes and how close they were to getting licensed.
Their state of readiness was Chickland Children’s Home (91 per cent), Joshua Home for Boys (92 per cent), St Dominic’s (92 per cent), St Mary’s (89 per cent), Jairah (82 per cent), Lady Hochoy (79 per cent), Marion House (85 per cent), Mary Care Centre South (88 per cent), Casa de Corazon (91 per cent), Ferndean’s Place (76 per cent), Cyril Ross Nursery (79 per cent), St Jude’s (70 per cent). She said Operation Smile was marked for closure, while Margaret Kistow Home has no children who are wards of State. Webster-Roy said the Transitional Home for Migrant Girls was recently opened and needed a fire and a public health certificate, but did not say how near it was to compliance towards getting licensed.
The minister said that out of 230 children now in unlicensed homes, some 60 could be transferred into available spots in licensed homes, 100-110 children reside in homes that are likely to become upgraded to licensed status by month-end, while some focus would be given to the situation of the 60 remaining children.
She expressed optimism about compliance by the Chickland Home, Joshua Home, St Dominic’s and St Mary’s by month-end. She said Lady Hochoy, Marion House and Mary Care Centre South could become licensed by May, and Cyril Ross Nursery by September.
She vowed to work with St Jude’s. Most of the homes were in need of public health and fire certificates, the minister said.
Webster-Roy said the Children’s Authority has a draft kinship policy for children to stay with relatives who get food cards and financial assistance. She wanted the general public to consider foster care or adoption. Further, she said prevention was key, ahead of children’s lives ending up in abuse.
JSC member Anita Haynes warned that any assistance under the kinship programme was reliant upon inefficient systems, as she related her own problems in seeking food cards for needy constituents.
Webster-Roy remarked, “I strongly believe what we are doing now can work.”
JSC member Jearlean John said more youngsters might enter the care system, lamenting, “We have some cruel parents in TT. How do you do prevention?”
Speaking later to Newsday, Haynes predicted that homes not licensed by March 31 would shut, rather than face the $10,000 penalty plus $500 per day.
She said it was hard to pin one’s hopes on unlicensed homes becoming licensed by month-end, as she reckoned that the findings of the Justice Judith Jones report would now make the Children’s Authority quite cautious in rushing to license them, in case anything then went wrong in those homes.
On the issue of children being mandated to leave children’s homes at age 18 but then facing challenges of employment and housing, Webster-Roy said homes such as St Jude’s St Dominic’s and St Mary’s had transitioning services run by the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service. She said through the national children’s registry, such children would be tracked until age 21.
Urging people to be unafraid to note happenings by their neighbours, she urged, “Child abuse, child care and child protection is everybody’s business.”
Haynes said all young people in TT now face unemployment across the board, so that youngsters transitioning out of care homes would “still exist in regular TT.”
She warned of an implementation gap between good intentions and the receipt of benefits. Time lines could help implementation, she said, rather than everything just circulating around discussions.
JSC member Mohammed Yunus Ibrahim asked about cases of child abuse cited in the Jones report. Webster-Roy urged anyone knowing of abuse to report it to the Children’s Authority or to the police. Ibrahim said despite good intentions, much work remains to be done, which required a constant and consistent effort, as he hoped the committee’s findings would be laid in Parliament in due course.