“CHILDREN’S RIGHTS – A TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO PERSPECTIVE
Trinidad & Tobago has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as have most of the other countries in the region. Despite its comparative affluence, like most of them, Trinidad & Tobago has a dismal record in ensuring that both the letter and the spirit of the Convention are put into practice.
It is not that attempts have not been made. By the year 2000, legislation had been drafted and passed through both Houses of Parliament in Trinidad & Tobago to satisfy every provision in the Convention, but then the government changed and changed again and again. In the seven intervening years, none of the successive governments have seen it as a priority that the legislation be proclaimed and put into effect. In March, 2007, election year, the same package of laws, now with various amendments, was once again introduced in Parliament, where it still awaits attention.
In April of 2007, a National Plan of Action for Children was launched by the Ministry of Social Development with much fanfare and a glossy publication in which it was stated that the National Plan of Action Committee (EST. October 2001) ‘became the first national body to be formally charged with , inter alia ‘facilitating and monitoring the implementing of the CRC and ensuring integration of the CRC with national planning and budgeting allocation processes.’
The Report went on to point out four key measures which had been taken to this end in the intervening six years. The first was the establishment of a Disabilities Affairs Unit (in 1999…three years previously) which was not specifically aimed at children, a system called SHARE of distribution of food hampers to the poor, also not specifically aimed at children, the introduction of a Disability Grant that mostly goes to adults and administrative changes to the National Family Services Division of the Ministry…also not specifically targeted at the needs of children.
Indeed, in the intervening years since the Committee was set up, the most significant Government action to help children in T&T was the establishment of the Family Court that specifically deals with family disputes arising out of the care and custody of children. It is , perhaps the most effective and advanced model of its type in Latin America and the Caribbean. That, in itself, is a magnificent achievement, but it is a far cry from the promises made and the needs long expressed, most significantly for the establishment of the Children’s Authority which legislation provided for back in 2000.
In the interim there have been a multitude of news reports that have horrified the nation, of murder and vicious abuse of children under the age of ten. One was a four year-old infant raped and buggered to death by a step father who held her mouth shut so her screams would not be heard. The child, despite having being hospitalized on more than ten occasions in her short life for abuse, had been sent back into the abusive home situation and her death. The establishment of a Children’s Authority was to have prevented cases such as this, but no action or budgetary allocations have been made for its establishment despite almost continuous pleas from NGO’s, CBO’s and other child centered organizations that , themselves, have neither the finances nor the legal authority to set up such a facility.
In 1999, a DNA testing Bill went to Parliament to enable police to produce evidence against people who sexually abused children. One of those, Akiel Chambers, was buggered, strangled and his body thrown into a swimming pool. The Forensic Sciences Laboratory still has his sperm stained underwear, but the refusal of the government to pass the necessary legislation means that his killer, and those of many other children, goes free.
NGO’s established to meet the needs of children have mushroomed in the country as a result of government negligence. The four government sponsored institutional homes for abused and abandoned children and orphans can hold no more. They are over full, under resourced and understaffed. At least twenty-three ersatz children’s homes have sprung up, unlisenced, often poorly run, and, in the absence of legislation, unsupervised. The people who set up and run these homes simply refuse to allow anyone to investigate conditions under which the children are kept, and as a result, news reports about abuse of the children that find themselves living in some of them appear with a monotonous regularity. Yet, Magistrates and Police continue to send abandoned and abused children to these places since there is nowhere else for them to go, on the general assumption that, as bad as they are, they are better than what the children face in their own homes. In the absence of a Children’s Authority, no one knows for sure.
An Expanded Foster Care Program has been approved, but has not yet been implemented so at the present time, even this option is not available for children in abusive situations.
Free birth certificates in accordance with another CRC provision are now available for all children, although the initial speedy machinery for obtaining them has broken down, and two of some eighty-eight projected government funded Early Childhood Care and Education Centers have actually been built in the six years since 2000. For a relatively rich country, this is not much to boast about.
NGO’s still fill the gaps with an impressive children’s village, a home for children with HIV/AIDS and one for Street Children, as NGO’s always will. They receive some state support, but are mainly founded and upkept by corporate, religious and private donations .
Children are still being placed in adult jails in many Caribbean countries, contrary to the Convention. In T&T this is mainly confined to girl children of age sixteen and over when the one institution to which female juvenile law breakers are referred either can’t hold any more inmates since they also take in children removed from their homes as a result of abuse, or cannot deal with the behaviour of the girls in question. Legislation has also been drafted, in 2000, specifically to deal with what will in the future be called Community Residences for Children, but this, as well, awaits, in the package of Children’s Legislation, the attention of a too-busy Parliament.
Unlike Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago does not have a Children’s Ombudsman, and there is no one focal point in the public service’ to monitor the implementation of the CRC’ as was outlined above.
It has been argued that the situation in Trinidad & Tobago is no worse than it is in any other Caribbean territory, and is, indeed better than in many, but that in itself is a lame excuse for the lack of political will that has allowed the failure of implementation of measures agreed upon as urgent and essential by virtually every stakeholder in the country, including the relevant Ministries involved in drawing up the Plan of Action published in April 2007.
As one commentator put it: ‘ Children don’t vote, so their needs come behind those that do.’ One wonders, however, if those that hold the reins of power realize that today’s children will grow up …to become citizens, to become drug-pushers, gang members that steal, rape and murder, to become abusive parents themselves….and to vote.
May 3, 2007
Caribbean Center for Human Rights
T&T Coalition Against Domestic & Gender Based Violence
1 Robinson Ville
Trinidad and Tobago”