An average of 1,395 reports of child sexual abuse are made to the Children’s Authority each year, and almost all of the perpetrators are known to the victims.
Rhonda Gregoire-Roopchan, general manager of the Child Welfare Services division of the Children’s Authority, told Sunday Newsday from May 18, 2015-September 30, 2023, members of the public as well as stakeholders made 10,811 reports of child sexual abuse.
Those 10,811 reports of suspicions formed 29.9 per cent of the cases the authority got over the period. She added that the greatest number of reports were made in 2020 – 1,452 – and the lowest in 2018 – 1,180. And 45 per cent of the perpetrators were the children’s primary caregivers.
She said in over 80 per cent of sexual abuse cases, the victims were female. The authority had received reports about children less than one year old being abused, but the most frequent age group was ten-13.
The reports were received from all over the country, but the authority received the most from the San Juan/Laventille areas (12.7 per cent), and Tunapuna/Piarco (10.9 per cent).
“The fewest reports came to us from rural areas, including Mayaro/Rio Claro at 2.4 per cent and Point Fortin at 3.3 per cent.
“What we suspect, and we've been working on, is that there is a group of persons who may not know how to report. There is a group of persons who may not know what abuse is and that it should be reported, as we have seen in some of the reports that actually came to us.”
To address this, the authority was working on community outreach in Tobago, which accounted for about five per cent of its cases, as well as rural areas of Trinidad.
She said to make a report, a person was not required to know all the details or even be absolutely sure the allegation was true. But the name of the child, the name of the family, an address or any information that would help them find the child would be appreciated.
“What we ask is that the report comes to us and give us the opportunity to do our due diligence, because we will then investigate.”
She said reports could be made anonymously or contact information could be given so the team could contact you – but not share your identity with the subjects of the report. She added that the Authority introduced a National Inter-agency Protocol for Child Abuse Prevention and Management document a few months ago to show stakeholders and the public what they could do to help.
She also stressed that the authority did not deal with the criminal aspects of the case but worked closely with the Child Protection Unit of the police, which laid charges and dealt with any further legal activities.
Instead, the authority focused on the child’s experiences, needs, and how to help the child return to functioning optimally. With the help of several stakeholders the authority sees to the child's medical, mental and emotional needs, and works with the whole family to recover. Stakeholders include the Ministry of Education’s Student Support Services, National Family Services and the Ministry of Social Development, the police, and others.
Gregoire-Roopchan said the first step of the authority’s investigative process was to assess the level of risk on the basis of the report and determine whether the child was in imminent danger as defined by the law.
If that was the case, its Emergency Response Team would act within 24 hours. If not, the case was sent to the Investigation and Intervention Team, which would do a series of interviews
If the allegation was true, the team would then find a space for the child within their immediate or extended family, foster care, a community residence or list them for adoption if they meet the criteria, and deal with the child’s basic needs.
“The authority’s first step is to see how that child remains with his or her family once it's in the best interest of the child and if it's available. If the immediate family is not an option, then we look at extended-family members.”
She said a child could be placed in temporary accommodation with approved foster carers while the authority investigates how to assist the family so the child can be reintegrated into it, or while the criminal matter is proceeding.
A new aspect to the foster care system was kinship foster care, where a family member wanted to care for a child but might not have the finances to do so. The authority would first do checks on the person, the household and the community to ensure it is a safe space for the child. The child could then stay with the relatives and the authority would give the relative a payment to take care of the child.
Gregoire-Roopchan told Sunday Newsday she had seen children who had terrible things happen to them at home, but, after being moved to a safe environment, they just wanted to return home, as it was all they knew. Others did not react well to having to go to school, having adults follow up on homework and generally having more structure in their lives.
She said children who did not understand they could not consent to sexual activities and had no problem with the acts might not be happy with the absence of the relationship, while others were eager to be away from the danger.
How to handle suspected abuse
Gregoire-Roopchan advised parents and guardians only to leave a child with a trusted adult whom they know well. Since a parent could never know a person with 100 per cent accuracy, they should monitor their children. In that case, parents needed to know their children and know the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse.
“Any time a child changes from his or her usual behaviour, what I call the baseline behaviour, then there's something to be concerned about.
"And you ask the question. You don’t have to interrogate your child, but you have to ask why.
“Depending on the age, a child may not always be able to articulate but they can say to you that something is wrong.”
She added that parents had to be receptive to whatever the child says in a non-judgmental way, then act on it, making a report if necessary.
Supt Claire Guy-Alleyne, head of the police Special Victims Department, agreed that it was almost always a person in a position of trust who perpetrated these types of crimes, so parents and guardians needed to have a talk with children, letting them know what is appropriate and what is not, from an early age.
“We have to move away from ‘Good Touch, Bad Touch,’ because some bad touches may make them feel good, and it’s confusing to the child.”
She said if parents did not have that conversation with the child, other people would teach them the wrong things.
Since the conversation must be had, parents who felt afraid or ill-equipped to do so could seek advice about sexuality as well as appropriate or inappropriate behaviour from a member of the police Victim and Witness Support Unit, or a social worker, psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist.
She said people with responsibility for children must believe the children and respect their wishes if they were uncomfortable around a person and did not want to be around them.
“Do not force the child to be in that person’s company. Sit with the child and find out why. Sometimes the child is being abused.”
She said the child may like what was happening to them or be afraid to tell someone and so deny it ever happened, but sometimes all the police needed to do was interview the child for all to be revealed.
“As a society, we need to create an atmosphere where children feel comfortable to come forward to report these heinous crimes.”
Guy-Alleyne added that a report could be made anonymously, but certain people were mandated by law to report sexual offences once they had reasonable cause to believe one had occurred.
Clinical and counselling psychologist Nidhi Kirpalani said, in her experience, income, socio-economic status, age, gender and location could all be dismissed as factors in child sexual abuse.
“Trends would include that children ages ten-17 are reporting these allegations of abuse more. This may be because they have access to phones, some independence, some understanding that the negative effects of sexual abuse are high.
“They more often primarily report something else is happening, such as suicidal ideation, depression or behavioural problems, and when speaking with them it's then revealed to be sexual abuse/incest/assault.
“Younger ones would more commonly replay their sexual abuse on others in school or home or playtime, if they reveal anything. It's what they were taught, in a sense. Then it's usually an adult who makes a report.”
She said girls were more likely to report sexual abuse, but boys would refrain out of shame, fear of being labelled gay if its a male perpetrator, or shamed if it's a female because they believed they should like it.
She said some of the reasons many children did not tell anyone about their sexual abuse was because of shame, physical or emotional abuse, threats, and neglect. Some did not even realise what was happening to them was wrong and did not happen to everyone.
Kirpalani said most reported perpetrators were males. Females were less often active sexual perpetrators, but those who acted of their own desires were mostly older women who sexually molested young boys.
Then there were females who were reluctant abusers.
“Female perpetrators often appear as coerced by a male so they aren't acting with ‘adult brain.’ They are acting out of ‘trauma brain’ and may be engaging in sexual activity with the child and adult male, or they are dependent on the male for financial support and believe that they are trying to survive. Its not very straight-cut. A lot of trauma affects the brain and it's not rational, logical thinking.”
She said mothers sexually abusing their children was rarer, as they were more likely to inflict emotional, verbal or physical abuse than sexual abuse on their own children. But some do nothing to protect their children if it happens to them.
“Due to trauma, mothers who are involved often blank it out, avoid it, disregard it and don't assist the child, also out of fear and shame. These women, if you speak to them, often were victims in their childhood too, and the trauma was unresolved, so they are triggered into ‘freeze mode,’ hence not even acknowledging it happened. Some are in total disbelief and blame the child.”
Contact the Children's Authority
To make a report, call the Children's Authority.
Hotline Number: 996 or 800-2014 (free 24/7)
Walk in: Corner Dere Street and Queen’s Park West, Port of Spain.
All can be done anonymously.
Sex crimes against children:
Sexual Offences Act Chapter 11:28
31. (1) Any person who—
(a) is the parent or guardian of a minor;
(b) has the actual custody, charge or control of a minor;
(c) has the temporary custody, care, charge or control of a minor for a special purpose, as his attendant, employer or teacher, or in any other capacity; or
(d) is a medical practitioner, or a registered nurse or midwife, and has performed a medical examination in respect of a minor, and who has reasonable grounds for believing that a sexual offence has been committed in respect of that minor, under this act or section 9, 10, 18 or 19 of the Children Act, shall report the grounds for his belief to a police officer as soon as reasonably practicable.
(2) Any person who without reasonable excuse fails to comply with the requirements of subsection (1), is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $15,000 or to imprisonment for a term of seven years or to both such fine and imprisonment.
(3) No report made to a police officer under the provisions of subsection (1) shall, if such report was made in good faith for the purpose of complying with those provisions, subject the person who made the report to any action, liability, claim or demand whatsoever.
Children Act Chapter 46:01
Act 12 of 2012
Other Sexual Offences:
18. Subject to section 20, a person who sexually penetrates a child commits an offence and is liable on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for life.
19. (1) Subject to section 20, where a person touches a child and—
(a) the touching is sexual; and
(b) the child is under sixteen years of age, the person commits an offence.
(2) A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable—
(a) on summary conviction, to a fine of $50,000 and to imprisonment for ten years;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for 20 years.
(3) Where a person commits an offence under subsection (1), and the touching involves the placing of any body part or of an object onto the penis or bodily orifice of a child, that person is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life.
– “bodily orifice” means anus, vagina, urethra, mouth, ear or nostril;
– “touching”, in relation to a child, includes—
(a) bringing a part of a person’s body or an object into contact with a part of the child’s body; or (b) causing a part of a child’s body to come into contact with a part of a person’s body, whether or not through clothing or any other material