Hasine Shaikh, chief public defender, Public Defenders’ Department (PDD) of the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority says many people who commit criminal acts as adults had records of criminal behaviour in their youth.
So the employees of her department chose what could be called a hotspot area to see if they could actively reach the youth and hopefully reduce those chances.
Shaikh told Sunday Newsday the employees of the PDD, which was established in March 2020, adopted La Horquetta South Primary School in 2020.
“Based on what we do, we are exposed to a lot more than the average person in terms of understanding what happens in different locations and the needs that generally impacts upon the communities.
“We have seen a trend of persons before the courts now who would have been before the courts usually in the age category of 16 to 23. Our jobs are to represent these persons in the criminal courts and to advance any possible defence within the merits of the law.
“So we thought, ‘What can we actively do to assist in that process in terms of trying to reach the younger generation at an earlier stage in their lives?’ We decided a primary school would be a good place to start so that we can have some degree of positive influence.”
They chose La Horquetta because it was one of the areas in Trinidad that crime seemed to be “more generally centred.” Also, several members of the department grew up in La Horquetta or lived in La Horquetta.
They believed it was important children saw that people who came from their area could be accomplished so they could relate to them and realise they could accomplish positive things as well.
In 2020, the employees put their own money to provide Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) students with tablets. She said as many schools started to teach online, they were seeing many reports of children being “left by the wayside.”
She said if children in SEA classes did not have devices to properly prepare for or do their exam, they would not have been placed in a secondary school or a productive programme, which would make it easier for them to be encouraged into bad company.
“These things generally have tangible effects on the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, a lot of the persons we represent come from those types of situations where they have socioeconomic problems.”
In 2021, the PDD employees engaged the services of a psychologist to provide group sessions for parents and children, and provided food hampers for needy families in the school. They also donated a television set to the Youth Transformation and Rehabilitation Centre in 2022.
Having adopted the school when they found out it had submitted a proposal to United Way Trinidad and Tobago’s volunteer event, National Day of Caring 2023, they got involved.
The event will take place on May 21 with the theme Show You Care Everywhere. United Way TT would get proposals from schools, NGOs, and community residences asking for help on infrastructure projects and it would link them to companies who would then buy the necessary materials and get the projects done.
Shaikh said as La Horquetta South was important to her employees, they wanted to help make the school warm and inviting to the children. Today (May 21) they plan to beautify the school by painting the doors, stairs, and repurposed tyres as well as adding plants, tic tac toe, hop scotch and chess games in the school yard.
“Ultimately I think your environment is very important in shaping who you are, and a happy and healthy childhood where you feel supported is important. We believe this is a small way we could assist.”
They also invited some partners in the criminal justice system to help the “young, vibrant, energetic and passionate” PDD team. Paint was provided by Penta Paints, and brushes by L’s General Supply Store in Arima.
She said the department will continue to work with the school since everything the school asked for and everything the PDD wanted to do for the school could not be accomplished in one day. It also intended to continue to participate in the annual Day of Caring.
“People think all we (criminal defence attorneys) care about is getting criminals out but that’s not our mandate or anything about who we are or what we do. I think people fail to recognise that we too live in this society so we too are just as invested in everything that goes on in society. We do a job but we’re also people and, more importantly, citizens of the country.”
She said people should recognise where their talents lie and decide how best to use that to help others.