Webster-Roy: Running of children’s homes a long-term struggle

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Ayanna Webster-Roy

Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) Ayanna Webster-Roy has said the Government can’t close all children’s homes which are not properly licensed, because it will only worsen the current situation, where there are more children needing care than homes to take them ib.Speaking on a radio morning show on Tuesday, Webster-Roy explained the precarious situation the Government finds itself in after a Cabinet-appointed committee reported some homes were operating without licences, and there was rampant abuse at others.

She said, “For some facilities, the lack of a licence may be for something infrastructural, instead of it not having the right staff-to-resident ratio or anything like that. For some of the facilities, it’s a matter of us trying to address certain infrastructural needs to meet certain codes and guidelines. We are working towards that.

“But the reality is, we have more children in need of placement than we have places.”

Webster-Roy said the Government has been trying to bring some unlicensed homes up to code.

For example, she said it is well known that St Jude’s Home for Girls in Belmont is running without a licence because of infrastructural shortcomings. Efforts are ongoing to relocate the home and Webster-Roy said a committee was set up earlier this year to work with the home’s management on this.

“If there are other institutions operating without licences for other reasons, the Children’s Authority would act. So if it means we have to close those facilities, by all means they will close.”

She said the St Michael’s Home for Boys in Diego Martin is one home that was closed because of its infrastructural and management issues.

But even as the Government tries to bring homes up to standard, Webster-Roy said it was still trying to find ways to reduce the gap between children needing care and homes to do so.

Saying there was a need to improve the foster care system, Webster-Roy is also calling on more people to adopt if they are able to do so as there is a greater need to care for tchildren.

While she said there was a robust vetting process when hiring staff at homes, Webster-Roy lamented that “you could never truly 100 per cent pick up on somebody who is intent on harming a child.”

“So somebody might pass through a lie detector test, and psychometric testing with flying colours, and then when they’re in a place of authority and trust, then they go ahead and violate.”

Still she was disappointed but not entirely surprised by the committee’s findings of abuse.

She recalled being moved to seek Cabinet’s approval for the investigation after people privately shared their concerns with her and the emergence of accusations in the public domain, in recent years, about events takin place at such homes.

“Between 2020 and 2021, we saw a number of those (allegations about homes) emerging in the public domain.

“Even though you may be receiving a report from an institution, it’ll be coming from a senior person – a senior authority – so it may not necessarily capture the child’s view properly. I wanted to get to the root of what was happening at our institutions so we can improve the care and protection system for the nation’s children.”

While she found all instances of abuse at the homes unsettling, Webster-Roy considered reports of gang rape the most horrific accusation. She said she was shocked and couldn’t comprehend gang rapes occurring at a children’s home.

“I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we are supposed to have people supervising (these children), and that to me was shocking.

“Some of the other reports I would have had an inclination, because of the information I had coming, but when I saw some instances of gang rape, that really hurt me to the core.

“As a mother, as the minister with the responsibility for gender and child affairs, it really caused me to question what is happening in terms of supervision and where are the people who we entrust these children to.”

Webster-Roy said the Government’s newly created task force to look at abuse at homes will help the Government implement the report’s recommendations to improve the operations at homes.

The task force is expected to start meeting on May 4 and submit a completed plan to the Cabinet within six weeks.