Will the recently announced Board of Management of the Children’s Authority be able to rise to the challenge of resolving the many problems that have plagued the organisation over its two years of operation?
SHEILA RAMPERSAD concludes her investigation into whether the Authority is fulfilling its promise.
Among the Authority’s main stakeholders is the Child Protection Unit of the Police Service. As is the case with other stakeholders, the Authority also has a sometimes contentious relationship with this unit. The absence of an MOU obstructs some operations of the CPU. While acknowledging the unit worked well with the Authority on some cases, retired Deputy Commissioner of Police Ann-Marie Alleyne noted several areas of contention.
Alleyne, whose history in dealing with women and children dates back to the days of the Women’s Police Branch, was instrumental in the introduction of the CPU. She established the unit in each of the nine divisions of the Police Service and a secretariat at the Belmont Police Station. Then she set about establishing relationships with Interpol and the Counter Trafficking Unit while fighting to sell the CPU to resistant senior officers.
One early area of contention with the Authority that still lingers is the issue of who should interview children.
“There were differences in how to approach the investigation,” Alleyne said. “I found that the Authority wanted to get involved in some of the stuff police had to do. The Authority took the view that police were poor interviewers and therefore could not do the interviewing. They wanted the police to look on while a psychologist conducted the interviews with child victims.
“We resisted that. There were several meetings about this, the Director of Public Prosecutions was also brought into the discussion and the Authority went to the Chief Justice.”
She said the Authority argued children would be intimidated by police officers but that officers assigned to the CPU were trained and they conducted interviews with children in plainclothes to put the children at ease.
The Authority has no forensic psychologists.
Although the police eventually won the debate, Alleyne said the contention persisted.
“The Authority was adamant and we were adamant,” she said. “Eventually the Authority said they would step back but I recall officers still faced the challenge. Assertive officers seem to not have problems but younger ones still have issues.”
Surprised that an MOU still has not been signed, Alleyne said another issue surrounding investigating and prosecuting cases arose from delays by the Authority.
“Things kept shifting with the Children’s Authority,” she said. “We would have defendants and suspects in custody but when we got an appointment with the Authority for a week or ten days after, we couldn’t hold suspects that long. That system couldn’t work.”
In some instances, she said, police did their work and would, according to the existing protocol, take children to District Medical Officers for examination following reports of physical and sexual abuse. But the Authority was also liaising with the DMOs, which created confusion about what the medical doctors had to do and to whom they were supposed to report.
Children’s Authority Director Safiya Noel did not know why an MOU with the TTPS was still outstanding.
“We had a draft MOU with the police for a while but it was still not signed,” she said during a 20 February interview. “I have to find out why we have no agreement signed. I know the CPU changed heads several times.”
So seven years into its existence, from 2010 to the present, the Authority has been funded to the tune of TT$157.1 million.
And two years into its operations, the Authority and its current director are being investigated over the relocation of a ward of the state to Noel’s home. It faces high staff turnover and its new Board of Management has been named but is yet to be installed.
To its credit, the Authority has built an administrative structure from scratch and the mere fact of its existence has heightened public sensitivity to the treatment and circumstances of children. The Authority has also built a sophisticated database that satisfies a national thirst for empirical data; as of February, Noel said, the Authority had investigated 3,500 cases. It has established its own Child Support Centre and has an emergency response team.
But it has licensed only seven children’s homes thus far, facilitated only nine adoptions, and is yet to roll out a promised National Protocol on Child Abuse. In the February interview for this piece, Noel said the protocol would be ready in “a couple more months.” Three months later, it is still not ready.
While the existence of the Authority and the new suite of legislation have heightened public awareness about child abuse and protection, the Authority is yet to begin fulfilling its mandate for public education.
There has been no discussion on necessary amendments to the Children Act (2012) and the Children’s Authority Act (2015) and no advancement on a Children’s Ombudsman recommended by the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-appointed Child Protection Task Force.