On Tuesday, a husband and wife appeared in San Fernando Magistrates' Court to face charges related to the rape of a 13-year-old girl. The details of the charge are as horrible as they are commonplace. Implied in the charges is a familial relationship between the accused and the victim and the wife faces a charge of failing to report an offence that she should have been aware of.
Assistant Superintendent Claire Guy-Alleyne warned the public in April that failure to report observed or suspected abuse carries a fine of $15,000 or seven years imprisonment and preventing a child from making a statement drew a fine of $20,000 or ten years imprisonment.
“You can be both fined and imprisoned,” Guy-Alleyne warned.
Such cases are not well represented in the court, faltering on issues of family responsibility, shame and the potential for social damage to families. But such concerns rarely consider the damage done to the victim. When these cases aren't reported or investigated, they leave the perpetrators free to continue their brutality while heaping additional punishment on the victim, who, even today, is often cast as the villain of the incident for 'causing trouble.’
The status quo of silence is slowly changing. The Children’s Authority reported that in its first two years of existence it had received 11,787 reports of alleged child abuse, an average of 353 complaints a month. There were 3,400 reports of child abuse made to the authority last year, of which 24 per cent were incidents of sexual assault against girls.
“This is a violent society,” Roberta Clarke, president of the TT Coalition against Domestic Violence, said on Friday. “Before the violence gets outside in the community, it’s experienced in the home.” Clarke lamented that corporal punishment continues to have the highest approval rate by adults in the Caribbean. More than 60 per cent of adults support beatings as a disciplinary method in Trinidad.
Among the challenges that the Children’s Authority faces in addressing these reports is the inadequacy of the social services in place to support abused children. There is limited space available to place children from troubled homes and specific difficulty in finding placements for teenagers, special-needs children and in keeping siblings together.The authority is also financially unable to deploy the kind of outreach it needs to implement in communities. As a result, the response rate hovers at less than 25 per cent, a clearly unacceptable situation in the face of the acknowledged child-abuse statistics.
There is a clear need for fundamental change in our national perception of abuse and its impact in the home and in our institutional ability to effectively respond to children in danger.
The abused are among us. And they are hoping for justice.