Protecting the children

At Monday’s Violence Against Children Conference at the Hyatt Regency, Port-of-Spain, participants were shocked by a blunt, though delicately blurred, video showing a seven-year-old child being sexually abused by an adult male, described as the boyfriend of the girl’s mother.

As if the act itself were not disturbing enough, Margaret Sampson-Browne, manager of the Police Service’s Victim and Witness Support Unit, then let her audience know that the mother was aware of what was happening, but did nothing to stop it. It’s not even the first such case. In one 2011 incident reported by the police, a man made a video of himself having sex with his two teenage daughters.

Since taking on the challenge of bringing a more engaged role for officers of the law in the management of victims of crimes, Sampson-Browne has been neither hesitant nor obscure in her willingness to explain the day-to-day horrors she experiences in her job and to call for a greater sense of public responsibility in protecting the helpless.

Since the victim support unit began making more interventions in such cases, there has been a steady rise in the reporting of sexual offences cases since 2008, when the unit handled 14 cases to 118 in 2011. The Children’s Authority was formally inaugurated in April 2009 and is one of many state services focused on the welfare of children.

Other services, such as the Family Court, the Community Remediation Unit, Family Services Unit and Childline are all focused on providing support to families in difficulty. The most critical component in the mix of legislation focused on protecting children is the Children Act, designed to replace its ageing predecessor with legislation more focused on modern realities.

The final version was first read in the House of Representatives in January 2012 and after debate and amendments, the Act has been awaiting presidential proclamation since August.

Monday’s session of the conference made it clear that the police could do with more training on the legal remedies that are available to them in cases of domestic abuse of children, but the numbness of the public and the troubling ease that communities seem to bring to turning a blind eye to clear cases of violence and abuse must also be equally urgently addressed.

At a November 2012 forum presenting the Breaking the Silence project, Professor Rhoda Reddock called for more research and deeper data on the prevalence of child abuse. Such research might also point to the societal causes of both these appalling incidents and the polite but deadly silence that allows the abuse of minors to continue for years.

Such a data-gathering initiative might also bring more collaboration and coherence to the many services and projects that are trying to work on the problem in unproductive silos. Whether through scattered enthusiasms, careless dismissal or wilfull ignorance, the abuse of minors erodes the foundations of the nation’s future by destroying the potential of the children who will be expected to build it.

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