When I first heard the news in the early morning last week Wednesday, that police had raided a church where horrific abuse was allegedly occurring, my first thought was, “Oh, is that finally a crime now?” According to initial police reports, 69 persons were released after being allegedly held captive in cages within the church’s compound.
Our humble Police Commissioner even described it as an example of “modern-day slavery”, saying “we have cracked what we believe is the biggest human trafficking ring in the country”. But there was one problem as the day wore on and more information emerged, the Police Commissioner’s narrative would later appear mildly schizophrenic.
This story was so bizarre, most of us initially reacted in the only sane way we know how—posting incredulous comments on Facebook about how crazy T&T is. Social media began flowing like a river of fevered dreams. Was this church a crazed cult? Was this pastor some sick, demented soul? Were people subjected to torture like beatings, or electrocutions, or having to listen to Colm Imbert’s budget speech?
As the story grew and international news agencies began to pick it up, the Minister of National Security pleaded with everyone to calm their neurosis, and to remember he was very much involved in this gallant raid. And the Attorney General selflessly reminded everyone this was why he wants to clamp down on the freedom of NGOs.
By mid-morning, I began searching out the church’s Facebook page. I learned the pastor had served time in jail, a clear red flag, of course. I also learned the church was masquerading as a rehab facility catering for people suffering from drug abuse and mental illness.
“A-ha. That’s how he lured his victims,” I told my friend James. “By pretending his church was a psychiatric facility. It’s dastardly!”
“What if it is a psychiatric facility?” James responded.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well, what if they accidentally raided a psychiatric hospital and then tried to say it’s a human trafficking ring,” replied James.
“James, how demented are you?”
But it turns out James wasn’t the only crazy one questioning the official police account of events. The Ministry of Health put out a statement saying they had visited the premises and made recommendations for improvements.
Now admittedly, I don’t know much about modern slavery. So I was surprised to learn it’s apparently customary for modern-day slave traders to submit to the Ministry of Health audits. In any case, by mid-evening, the story had taken another dramatic turn.
It turns out under the previous People’s Partnership government, grants were given to this pastor to facilitate the work he was doing. This fact quickly became a talking point on social media among some People’s National Movement supporters; because as any rationale person in touch with reality could see, Kamla was supporting slavery. Also by this time, dozens of photos (which I’m sure weren’t leaked by the police), showing cages within the facility, began circulating online.
One person who was appalled by these images reached out to me, via Facebook. Describing her personal battle with mental illness, she told me of the time she spent at St Ann’s. She felt putting people in cages, regardless of how dangerous they were to themselves and others, was wrong and not proper conduct. Which is an argument hard to refute. But another person whose relative spent time at this facility told me she knew the facilities at this church weren’t ideal, but they were far better than St Ann’s.
I felt these were thoughtful arguments to consider. How do we care for the mentally ill? At what point does trying to protect someone constitute abuse? Is the pastor abusing his patients or is he just running a cash-strapped organisation, doing the best he can with what he has?
Considering how the Government runs the public hospitals, should we trust them to properly run mental care? By the evening news, the Police Commissioner also added his two cents to this deeply complex issue. He felt anyone who questioned him was an idiot.
As night grew, I heard the pastor had not been arrested. Probably because no one knew exactly what he had to be charged for; endangering patients or trafficking slaves? They seem like drastically different things.
“I feel uncomfortable about those cages,” I told James, while we had some beers.
“There are cages in St Ann’s, too,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“Because I had to put my mother there,” he said, nonchalantly.
James and I were friends for over ten years. But I hadn’t thought that he or anyone else I knew was affected by mental illness. And just then, as the night grew darker, I realised I hadn’t thought about where those 69 people now were either.
—Darryn Boodan is a freelance writer