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Saving the children

Friday, May 22 2015

ON Monday, President Anthony Carmona proclaimed a package of legislation designed to protect children. A simple press release from the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development stated His Excellency, on that day, proclaimed sections of the Children’s Authority Act; the Adoption of Children Act; the Children’s Community Residences, Foster Care and Nurseries Act; and the Children’s Act. Though the proclamation came without bombast, it was historic.

For decades, there have been calls for and attempts to get a proper system for child protection off the ground. The tragic case of Sean Luke and the report done by Justice Monica Barnes into the failings of the piecemeal system run by the State were just two things that greatly fuelled calls for reform. Yet, as more tragic cases continued to occur, and despite the passage of legislation, all citizens got were more excuses. For years we have become familiar with all the reasons why a proper system was never a reality: first not enough laws, then flaws in laws, then not enough staff, then not enough resources.

But at a press conference held on Wednesday, Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development, Clifton De Coteau, said under the new legislative framework, the Children’s Authority will now be able to be both responsive and proactive to the needs of children.

Indeed, a survey of the laws proclaimed reveals that a dizzying array of important legal provisions will now have legal force. In relation to the Children’s Act alone, among the sections proclaimed by the President were offences criminalising cruelty to children and young persons, and various offences such as exposing children to risk. The Children’s Community Residences, Foster Care and Nurseries Act imposes licencing requirements on children’s homes, a move which could bolster standards and ensure better oversight. The Adoption of Children Act makes provision for the regulation of procedures governing the adoption of children and gives effect to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1990. Other sections of the laws remain pending, though the bulk of the laws have now been made active.

De Coteau on Wednesday said the package of the children’s legislation will be managed by the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago under the chairmanship of Stephanie Daly SC. The Minister noted the adoption procedure will now fall under the Authority.

The proclamation comes at a time when crimes against children are on the rise. According to director of the Children’s Authority, Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, there has been a trend of an increase in crimes against children in this country over the last year.

“We would have seen in 2014 massive reports,” she said. However, she said the figures — at 541 — were still relatively small, representing about one percent of the 330,100 children in the country.

“Therefore, our problems are not as big sometimes as they seem,” Ali-Abdullah said, somewhat optimistically. We do not share the same view in light of the fact that most offences against children, by their very nature, are left unreported. A child often does not even know that a wrong is being perpetrated against them and therefore is not likely to access whatever resources may be available to him or her in terms of making a complaint. This is where reality hits home.

While laws are needed; what is required is a combination of effective implementation by law enforcement authorities and State agencies, but also a return to greater social vigilance among the members of our communities. We need to embrace, once more, the idea that it takes a village to raise a child and to encourage a culture of awareness.

Welcome as the proclamation is, we know it is not a panacea and hope it will be a first step. What the Authority will need are enough resources to fulfil its mandate, in conjunction with the cooperation of an able body of police and social workers. Proper oversight and evaluation to fine-tune the system will also be key given the giant task ahead.

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