At the end of two turbulent years of existence, the Children’s Authority was shaken by the launch of an investigation into the questionable decision taken by Director Safiya Noel to “adopt” without observing the normal protocols a teenage boy who had been assigned to the Authority’s care.
SHEILA RAMPERSAD continues her look at what the Authority has so far been able to achieve.
Part 1 was published on Sunday 28 May and Part Three will be published on Thursday 1 June.
The frequency of staff changes at the Children’s Authority is frustrating children’s homes.
“The people at the Authority we interface with change often and there are always lots of new people,” said one children’s home manager. “We are never sure of their social work qualifications.”
“People keep calling for information that we have already submitted,” she continued. “We are asked to submit care plans and other documents. We do that and a year later someone else calls asking for the same documents. When I submit care plans, I expect someone would read them, assess them, identify the children who need further assessment, psychological care, etc., and assign case workers to them.”
“That is not what happens,” she concluded. “Something has to be wrong.”
A prominent children’s home shared with this reporter the following list of challenges they face with the Authority: frequent changes of staff, social workers often do not conduct the required follow-up on clients they place in the home, appointments are often cancelled at short notice, other appointments are demanded today for today, lengthy delays in completing assessments, lack of critical documentation on children, difficulty contacting social officers, failure to carry out some services such as school transfers, and homes having to arrange transportation for children when appointments are made for sessions at the Authority’s Wrightson Road office.
A ministry official said the Authority sometimes refuses to transport children because they “have no Bus Route pass.”
Asked about these complaints, Director Safiya Noel said in a 20 February interview: “The issue of turnover is one of the contributing factors. Others are insufficient staff. We have 1500 cases and eight team members to do follow-ups; there is no way they can do it. Staff doesn’t increase; as we lose, we replace. We don’t have enough staff on the ground.”
Most of the Authority’s staff is concentrated in administrative areas such as Registry, Legal Department, Foster Care and Adoption, Accounting and Finance and IT. Seventeen people are in the Investigation Unit, seven in Emergency Response, eight in Child and Family Unit and nine in Licensing and Monitoring.
In addition to discontent among staff and at children’s homes, the Authority has had a steamy relationship with its line ministry across two administrations, first the People’s Partnership and now the People’s National Movement (PNM).
Former minister Clifton de Coteau let out an exasperated sigh at the mention of the Authority when contacted for an interview late last year. Asked for his assessment of the Authority given that it was operationalised during his tenure, he said: “They were living up in the clouds; they don’t want to face reality about doing things and they want everything in perfect condition before they do anything.”
He added that, while the Authority was “killing us with statistics,” he was doubtful about their level of execution.
Current minister Ayanna Webster-Roy, whose ministry initiated an independent investigation into the decision of the Authority’s director to relocate a teenage ward of the state from the Authority’s child support centre to her home, declined to be interviewed for the purposes of this report. But sources say Webster-Roy has a turbulent relationship with the Authority, which continuously resists her oversight role.
“The CATT and the former minister did not have a cordial relationship,” said a well-placed source. “That has continued. The antagonism must end. There still seems to be this perception that it is the Ministry vs them and they (the Authority) are not realising that everyone has to work together. They are working against governments and key stakeholders.”
The antagonistic relationship is believed to have moved the Ministry to invoke Section 21 of the Children’s Authority Act to issue reporting guidelines to the Children’s Authority. Responding to questions from Independent Senator Paul Richards on 26 April, Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister Stuart Young revealed that a document entitled, “General guidelines to oversee the relationship between the Office of the Prime Minister (Gender and Child Affairs) and the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago” had been sent to the Authority in May 2016.
Those guidelines, he said, outlined the reporting relationship between both entities and specified that the Authority must provide to the OPM monthly board minutes, monthly reports on financial disbursements, a register showing the names and ages of children who qualify for monthly upkeep, and financial contributions received from external bodies or institutions.
He said that, for community residences, the Authority is required each quarter to submit a list of licensed community residences, a list of community residences awaiting licensing or renewal of licence, a list of community residences whose licences have been cancelled and the reasons for this, and documents supporting the payment of financial support to the children under care at the community residences.
He said the Authority is also required to provide the Minister with a copy of its annual report detailing its activities over the financial year and inform him/her of its plan for public campaigns and proposed public statements.
Furthermore, Young said, from time to time, the Minister may also request special reports from the board on specific matters and can convene meetings with the board as required.
Given the generally problematic relationship with its stakeholders, this reporter asked Noel whether the Authority has any mechanism for evaluating its relationships with stakeholders.
‘“We do not have a system that is fully built,” she admitted. “That framework never came off the ground. This is something we have to treat with. We have had a number of stakeholder meetings and always this feeling of the Authority being rigid—I have heard that. But when you hear the examples they give, some we can treat with and some not.
“But to hear that, after 20 months of operation, the Children’s Authority is still perceived as being rigid, it is something we have to look at; we definitely have to look at it.”
A request for an interview, emailed to Senior Counsel Stephanie Daly, longest serving chairman of the Authority, on 9 May, has not so far provoked a response.
While it is true that numerous conflicts between the Authority and its line ministry have developed over time, sources say the relationship did not get off to the smoothest start in 2015. As part of the compensation package for then director Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, the Authority requested the motor vehicle allowance given to public officials as well as a luxury Audi vehicle.
Then Minister de Coteau refused to grant the request, suggesting instead a four-wheel drive vehicle on the basis that that would better accord with the needs of someone who he thought needed to drive all over the country. After negotiation, however, the Authority received the Audi.
This reporter has confirmed that the Audi remains in the Authority’s fleet and was up to last Thursday being utilised by the current director.
The term of the Board of Management of the Children’s Authority, which was led by Stephanie Daly, SC, expired on April 1 and replacements have since been named. Hazel Thompson-Ahye is the only member who has been retained on the new board while Noel is an ex-officio member. The other members were Reaaz Dabiedeen, Dr Joanne Paul, Vidya Rampersad, Angela Iloo, Anna-Maria Mora, Dhanesh Maraj, Shannen Marie Russell and Derek Forrester.
Members of previous boards complained that matters that were supposed to come before them often did not. One former board member complained of feeling like an intruder; another said they did not see relevant information and correspondence.
“We were supposed to be aware of policy and help in shaping policy but that was not the case,” said one former board member. “Reports were laid in Parliament that some of us never saw. Information was privileged.”
Another echoed de Coteau’s criticism that the Authority’s role is not only to provide statistics.
“The Children’s Authority’s claim to fame should not be statistics alone. They are there to protect children and advocate for the rights of children generally, regardless of who they upset; they shouldn’t be tiptoeing around issues they consider sensitive.”
Among the “sensitive” issues in which the Authority refused to intervene was publication of photographs of Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi’s children posing with high-powered firearms.
Former board members note also that memoranda of agreement between the Authority and other agencies to establish roles, protocols and who does what are still outstanding. To date the Authority has signed no MOU with any of its partner agencies.
“I have to re-engage each stakeholder to find out why we have no MOUs,” said Noel. “My understanding is the bureaucracy in other agencies (is responsible for the delay).”
The major partner agency with which the Authority has failed to sign an MOU is the Police Service, which is where the Child Protection Unit (CPU) is lodged.
Editor’s Note: Wired868 will carry the third and final part of Sheila Rampersad’s series reviewing the operations of the Trinidad and Tobago Children’s Authority on Thursday 1 June.
Click HERE to read Part One.