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Suffer the children: How the empowered Children’s Authority is failing T&T

Operationalised in May 2015, the Children’s Authority marks its second anniversary this month. SHEILA RAMPERSAD has been looking at what impact it had in confronting the bogey of child abuse and whether returns match expenditure.

This is the first installment of a three-part series. Parts Two and Three will be carried on Tuesday 30 May and Thursday 1 June respectively:

Photo: A child at a children's home in Cambodia.
Photo: A child at a children’s home in Cambodia.

Two six-week-old babies are removed from their mother’s care by the Children’s Authority. They are taken to a residential home where they are left with eight bottles of baby formula. The Authority staffers leave—and no one returns for eight months.

A 30-year-old mother raises eight children in a windowless, wooden one-room house. She admits she led “a reckless life” and the house was “really in a very bad way.” A relative calls the Child Protection Unit. Police remove all the children and channel them into the ambit of the Children’s Authority. Those of school age do not return to the classroom for a year, one misses his SEA exam, the six-year-old boy is being bullied and wets his bed and the three-year-old and two-year-old were at one time placed with a relative who, the mother says, “doesn’t believe in drinking milk, immunization and school.” Although they have been in the system since September 2015, the mother says there is still no care plan for her children.

These are just some of the many stories whispered by caregivers, parents, social workers and officials who question whether the Authority is fulfilling its mandate to help endangered children. It has, it appears, managed to alienate most of its major stakeholders.

Created under the Children’s Authority Act—drafted since 2000 but hastily enacted only in May 2015—the Authority was given sweeping legal powers over children, autonomy, an accompanying police unit and compensation packages customised by the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO).

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (centre) assists St Joseph TML and St Joseph Government Primary School students in cutting the ribbon to open officially the Children’s Authority Assessment Centre at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Mt Hope. Also in photo (from left) are Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan, Children’s Authority board chairperson Stephanie Daly SC, Children’s Authority director Sharifa Ali-Abdullah and then Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development Clifton De Coteau. (Copyright Andre Alexander/Trinidad Guardian)
Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (centre) assists St Joseph TML and St Joseph Government Primary School students in cutting the ribbon to open officially the Children’s Authority Assessment Centre at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Mt Hope.
Also in photo (from left) are Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan, Children’s Authority board chairperson Stephanie Daly SC, Children’s Authority director Sharifa Ali-Abdullah and then Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development Clifton De Coteau.
(Copyright Andre Alexander/Trinidad Guardian)

Politically, it was to be the antidote to headlines about brutish acts of child abuse; legally, it was to represent a quantum leap from the predecessor Children’s Act, of 1925 vintage. Experienced social workers and child care managers viewed the Authority’s legal reach and inexpert personnel with some scepticism but young social work and psychology professionals saw it as an exciting beginning to modern child protection.

Staff from the Student Support Services Division and elsewhere in the Ministry of Education, from Family Services Division at the Ministry of Gender, and UWI graduates, further encouraged by better remuneration, enlisted in the cause.

It didn’t take long for the exodus to start.

The Authority had estimated it needed a staff of 242; it currently operates with 140. Staff turnover over the last two years is estimated at 30 per cent. This reporter obtained an incomplete list of 59 employees who left the organisation—one left after one day and several after one week. A few have taken their grievances to court.

“The Authority has experienced a high level of staff turnover since it began its operations,” Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister (Gender and Child Affairs) Ayanna Webster-Roy told Parliament on 1 July 2016. “This high turnover of human resource has to be examined and addressed by the Authority. The Authority is to review some of its approaches to achieving its mandate and this review should be undertaken before a firm decision can be made regarding the existence of a possible staff shortage.”

Photo: Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister (Gender and Child Affairs) Ayanna Webster-Roy (left). (Courtesy Tobago Today)
Photo: Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister (Gender and Child Affairs) Ayanna Webster-Roy (left).
(Courtesy Tobago Today)

It is uncertain whether the review was ever done.

Employees say many staffing problems derive from the absence of social work/child psychology backgrounds in the résumés of key senior managers. Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, the Authority’s first director, is, according to a November 2015 newspaper interview, an economic policy professional with work experience in the ministries of finance and planning and stints at the World Bank and International Monetary fund. She was succeeded by current director Safiya Noel, a consultant chartered accountant who once served as the Authority’s Finance Manager.

In a wide-ranging interview in the 20 February Sunday Express, Noel admitted that ideally those key positions, including hers, should be filled by people with clinical backgrounds and management experience.

“We have found that a lot of the psychologists and social workers who are strong may not have the management skills,” she said, “so one of the strategies of the Children’s Authority is to have them home-grown because ideally that is what you want; you want a hybrid with blended clinical and management experience. Ideally, we want a hybrid so maybe five to ten years from now, you will see that.”

But employees say the problems are deeper. They describe themselves as working in “an atmosphere of fear and intimidation” and one which is “extremely toxic.” They cannot, they say, speak freely and are isolated when they challenge decisions made by differently qualified seniors.

Photo: The silhouette of a neglected child.
Photo: The silhouette of a neglected child.

Asked to respond to those allegations, Noel admitted it was a reality being faced by the Authority.

“It’s not an easy question but it’s a reality we are facing. The Children’s Authority admittedly has had a rocky 20 months. The feedback you got from staff is also what we would have received. I don’t want to seek to explain how we got to that […]”

“Having the opportunity to lead the organisation,” she went on, “one of my key roles is to create a work environment where staff is happy to work because happy staff produce and then are able to take care of their clients.”

She said she started a Wellness and Culture Committee last November/December “because I heard that same feedback. And, having been part of the staff since January 2014, some things I understood and some things I don’t. But regardless of how it got to be that, it is my responsibility to change that.”

She said staff is becoming more engaged with more opportunities to express opinions. “2017 is a year of us dealing with our staffing,” she added. “We have to. We cannot afford to lose staff in such a young institution in such a specialized area. They are hard to come by and, after you train them, you cannot afford to lose them.”

But is it too late?

Photo: Children at an orphanage in India.
Photo: Children at an orphanage in India.

Effects of that “atmosphere of fear and intimidation” and high staff turnover are felt by children’s homes which house at-risk children. Prior to the existence of the Authority, numerous children’s homes sprung up, some decidedly inadequate, some run informally by compassionate individuals, some by religious organisations and prominent NGOs. All were gathered under the ambit of the Children’s Authority, which has responsibility for licensing them as community residences and monitoring their operations. The Authority is also responsible for licensing and monitoring rehabilitation centres for child offenders.

The Authority met 50 children’s homes; nine closed because of the guidelines set out in the Act and, in two years, only seven have been licensed by the Authority: Couva Children’s Home and Crisis Nursery, Haven of Hope, SWAHA Children’s Home, Christ Child Convalescent Home, Sophia House, Rainbow Rescue and Mother’s Union Children’s Home.

Credo Foundation for Justice, a 24-year-old organisation run by the Holy Faith Sisters, operates Sophia House and a Drop-in Centre for boys on Nelson Street. While Sophia House has been licensed, the Drop-in Centre has been denied approval because a ceiling fan has been assessed as hanging too low.

While Noel insists that the Authority is following the letter of the law in refusing to license the Centre, a senior public official said this is one example of the “rigidity, inflexibility and absence of compromise and understanding plaguing the Children’s Authority in their relationships with the homes.”

The existing fans are only three years old; raising them will cost Credo $100,000. Having already had to close two of their homes because of inadequate funds, the Foundation does not have money to invest in fans. When it made a request for funds to the Gender Ministry, the response was that the Ministry is also strapped for funds.

Photo: Children at an orphanage in Africa. (Copyright Foreignpolicy)
Photo: Children at an orphanage in Africa.
(Copyright Foreignpolicy)

Another example cited is the controversial St Michael’s School for Boys, which houses 34 young men in space designed for 12. A fully outfitted three-dormitory rehabilitation facility set up at the Youth Training Centre (YTC) to accommodate 22 boys from St Michael’s is yet to be utilised by the Authority.

An attorney associated with one home said she assessed the Act to be in need of amendments but “I got the impression I was not supposed to complain or comment.”

This reporter had conversations with spokespersons for several children’s homes, all of whom requested anonymity. One complained that the Authority was “badgering” them to accept children whom they could not accommodate.

Editor’s Note: Wired868 will carry Part Two of Sheila Rampersad’s three-part series reviewing the operations of the Trinidad and Tobago Children’s Authority on Tuesday 30 May.

About Sheila Rampersad

Sheila Rampersad
Dr Sheila Rampersad is a member of the current MATT executive and the Women Working for Social Progress. She is a veteran columnist.

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38 comments

  1. Yes so because of that you will make children like it going out of style although it have protect just saying

  2. So why have a gov’t or state bodies at all then? I don’t understand your point. If we are using tax dollars to run certain agencies, isn’t it responsible for us to be sure that we get what we paid for?
    That is the main issue here.

  3. No not blaming all some these mothers spread there legs wide like the ocean and not even bothering to think

  4. Some of these kids parents are dead , so you cant blame all parents

  5. They are a failure , they really dont care about the children , and i know what I’m talking about

  6. It is time to start promoting voluntary work on a much wider scale. Have it included in schools and other places of learning and make it compulsory for which credits will be given. There is no way that any government can fully fund these institutions. The country will reap untold benefits in the short to long term.

  7. Are they any positives in T&T.? Just a thought.

  8. I hope people remember this article anytime “young people” and the removal of corporal punishment is given as the reason for our woes.

  9. There is really an agency known as the Children’s Authority in T & T? Fuh true! I never would have guessed. So now that we have established this, what does their job description entails? Not so fast! I am not attacking the officers per se, since I have no idea what are their constraints. And, it may very well be that the problem does not rest with them, but with that of their superiors, since I am sure they are not working without supervision. Who is charged with monitoring case files? Or are they opened and simply remain as an unfinished project?Too many children are slipping through the net. You don’t have to look that hard or that far to see this. Children are so vulnerable, so if they can be captured before they are completely lost/destroyed, that would be a wonderful accomplishment. Where are those people who work for the benefit of humanity?

  10. Can someone spare me the click bait and tell me why people left? “Day, week, exodus, court cases”?

    • You want somebody to summarize a 1500 word story for you in a paragraph to save you some reading?

    • Why people left what they went to — takes up the whole 1500 word article? Lasana? Thais what you stating?

      But no, I was really making a high brow point that most of these articles are trash and farce.

      Why and how can the children’s authority be real, effective, not a failure when so many children are murdered, unresolved, in various forms of crisis, and in dysfunction??

      We keep adding 2+462 and expecting four.

      But who is capable of processing those incongruities? Thus, “click bait”

      The misplaced outrage, the unnecessary push back. What we choose to do or not. Also illustrated.

      Cheers

    • I don’t get how you can call an article thrash or click bait without reading it. The sad thing is the research that went into it to provide information on what is going on, so that readers don’t even have to leave their chairs to get an education in the Children’s Authority. Not who-say or speculation. Proper feedback from involved officials.
      Say what. Cheers.

    • I stated plainly how and why I do that. Above.

      Oh. You trust and value said officials. Still. After how many years?
      OK. Got it.

      “Research”
      As an official researcher statistician, you making me want to read to critique.

      But thus is better.
      Your whole long attention, engagement writing to challenge, rather than answer is hilarious.

      Unless you were also telling me no one was capable in giving a synopsis.

      Lasana, it raining by me.
      Going to enjoy it

    • I’m not going to give a synopsis. There are publications that compile issues into 200 or 300 words. That isn’t what we do at Wired868.
      This isn’t fast food. I know sometimes time can be scarce. But the link will always be there if ever you are curious.

  11. Sickening, rigidity for the wrong things

  12. Jesus.
    All while children suffer daily.
    Rhondall, you may want to read this…

  13. What injustice! These children were taken from the frying pan and placed in the fire. Somebody must be held accountable.

  14. The former head of this organization Sharifa Ali-Abdullah is alleged to be a “beast” to work with, it’s alleged she spoke down to staff and is very unapproachable
    So says a very credible source that was an employee there

  15. Operating in the environment myself in programmes I work on, some institutions indicate policy framework decisions are negative impacting existing progressive programmes.

  16. square pegs in round holes?

  17. Breach of clearly defined rules open up the agency to claIms of corruption

  18. Sounds like par for the course in administration in T&T.

  19. I am saddened but not surprised. Lasana, you know what the system is like in the UK. I don’t mean to harp on about it, it’s not perfect, but most times it works. I once applied to become a carer for children who were taken from their home. The interview was rigorous, the social worker visited my home and although it was comfortable, I was the only adult living there and was working 12 hour shifts (days/nights). If I had a 9-5 job, there would be no problem. I advocated for this in the early days and realised there was no system in place for placement and follow up and dropped it. There are so many good people out there willing to adopt as well, but the bureaucracy is mind boggling. Nobody uses common sense, just rigid rules.

    • In England, my girlfriend – who I lived with- applied to be a private child minder. Not only did she have to do a full background check and a 3 day course, do did I. Just in case I came into contact with any of the children! Was actually quite interesting!

  20. Been hearing from Social Work friends about them for a while now and it’s even worse than I thought.

  21. Earl Best

    Does anyone have an email address for KPB? We have to make sure she reads this. Blasted hypocrite who only knows how to play politics with everything.