With the treatment of children in the State’s care under scrutiny after a Cabinet-appointed committee reported there was rampant abuse at some children’s homes, relevant authorities are being called upon to redefine the purpose of these homes as a starting point.
As the recently established Child Abuse Inter-Agency Task Force create a work plan to implement the recommendations of the committee’s report, children’s rights activist Akousa Dardaine-Edwards said the task force’s mission must reimagine state care at all levels.
“We need to be fully intentional of the rationale behind these homes…it can’t only be for food, clothing, and shelter.
“Many a time these young girls come out of the homes, and they are not prepared. They don’t have subjects, they don’t have skills…so what are we saying to them? It’s really like you’re out in the world with the wolves.
“We have to ask ourselves if we’re rehabilitating these young ladies. So that’s the first thing, what are these homes intended for. We have to be very clear of their vision.”
A chartered accountant by profession, Dardaine-Edwards' passion for helping those in need led her to do work with several international organisations across Europe and Africa to help women who were rebuilding themselves after maybe civil wars, natural disasters, and violence.
After returning to TT in 2011, Dardaine-Edwards founded the NiNa Young Women's Leadership Programme which does work with young women at St Jude's Home for Girls and St Mary’s Children's Home.
The initiative has been recognised by the UN Foundation in Washington and received a grant from the UN’s WithHer Fund grant fund.
Over time, Dardaine-Edwards said she has realised young women leaving the State’s care at age 18 are often unprepared for the real world.
“Sometimes they have no place to live, and they have no skills that can be transferred into a livelihood. Some also have no social or coping skills apart from how they dealt with conflict in a harmful way.
“This may see them fall into relationships which lead to gender-based violence, some of them end up homeless and some of them end up doing sex work.”
For this reason, Dardaine-Edwards has created a programme to help young women with their transition using mentorship and entrepreneurship.
Aiming to “build young women into leaders of themselves first before anything else,” Dardaine-Edwards said the state must do more to ensure children in their care are self-aware.
Former St Jude's ward:
I came out a better person
A former St Jude’s resident, 21-year-old law clerk Samara Pantin said an individual’s experience at a children’s home can be fulfilling with the right management and self-development projects.
During her time at St Jude’s, Pantin said staff and management guided her to make the right decisions and constantly reminded her that she had a greater purpose and pushed her to improve.
While the committee’s report was shocking even to Pantin, she told Sunday Newsday her experience at St Jude’s was much different.
“When I saw the reports, it literally made my heart sink. I am hearing of abuse, people being locked in the stairs, and some of the girls’ heads being shaved off and stuff but I didn’t see anything like that.”
“I didn’t have a bad experience in St Jude’s, and I always tell people that St Jude’s changed my life for the better.
“Honestly, if it is you do what you have to do…they at St Jude’s will push you along because they did that with me and a few others.”
A then 16-year-old Pantin became a resident at the home in 2017 when a judge placed her there until a family dispute was resolved.
Unsure of what to expect, Pantin said the home administrators were kind and gave her a rundown of the home’s rules and operations on her first day.
Pantin never had arguments with any of the home’s staff or any other resident because she mostly kept to herself.
“In St Jude’s, you just really have to follow the rules and do what was expected of you.
“The staff there was really nice though it may have those that you may not agree with.
“They try to treat all the girls the same but there are girls that would be very rowdy, unruly, and you can’t really tell them what to do because they always had a problem with the rules.”
Still, Pantin doesn’t want to entirely idealise the home’s experience and admits there are shortcomings, especially in the availability of psychologists and social workers.
“Just having one psychologist and a few social workers in St Jude’s is not enough for the number of girls that are there. At any point in time, there can be more than 50 girls at St Jude’s.”
“Sometimes you’ll be going through some stuff and then you want to talk to somebody but the social workers always busy with someone else.”
Because of these shortcomings, Pantin admits there can be lapses like the time she escaped the home in October 2017, just seven months after she was admitted. At that moment, Pantin admits it would have been helpful to have someone to speak to.
“There was one instance where I jumped over the wall and left St Jude’s. But that was because I was going through my own little situation with my family, and I didn’t know what I was really doing.”
Pantin was found and returned to the home in November 2017 with her only punishment being not being allowed to go on some field trips.
When she left St Jude’s in November 2018 – a year and a half after being admitted and two weeks before turning 18 – she did so with four CSEC passes and certificates from other programmes.
NGOs, authorities must work together
Dardaine-Edwards believes some of the staff's shortcomings highlighted by Pantin are key areas which the task force needs to address.
“The staff needs to be properly resourced and trained. The security cannot just be ad hoc security…they must be trained; they must be tested, and they must be certified, and they must be held accountable.”
At many homes, Dardaine-Edwards said the State needs to go one step further than just having one social worker, especially those with the qualifications to counsel victims of sexual abuse.
Dardaine-Edwards said it was difficult to comprehend abuse happening at these homes and she was often left to comfort victims who felt hopeless.
She assured cases of abuse were reported to the home’s management and she never felt intimidated to do so.
“What I focused on, in those situations, was letting the young ladies know that they have a safe space and that they didn’t do anything wrong.
“They were also reassured that when they were in my programme, my team would have done whatever it took to make them feel as loved and safe as possible.”
Dardaine-Edwards' organisation has started a programme to help victims of abuse with a focus on self-awareness through art therapy, movement therapy, yoga, meditation, and interactions with nature.
“By doing these things, we want to reassure these young ladies that they own their bodies because a lot of times when you are sexually abused, you feel as though you’ve given your body away.
“As a young person being sexually abused by people in authority, you feel let down and you feel as if it's your fault and there’s nowhere you can turn to.”
Even though the Division of Gender and Child Affairs recently allocated over $126 million to the improvement of state care at children’s homes, Dardaine-Edwards said it cannot be a solo effort and she is calling on the authorities to partner with different NGOs and organisations which can offer different perspective and skills.