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The report on “Safeguarding Children in Community Residences and Child Support Centres in Trinidad and Tobago” reveals multiple levels of failures to protect children. The failures are specific to individuals and institutions, but the failures are also shared by all of us.

The Coalition against Domestic Violence welcomes this report even as we note that this is not the first such report to investigate the State’s responsibility to ensure child protection. But with determination, this report will lead to strengthening the co-ordination and accountability of systems of State protection of children.

The Coalition agrees with the main recommendations including the need for facilities for children with a high risk of harm to others; a risk assessment framework for operations of Children’s Homes; age-appropriate and child-friendly complaints mechanism must be established and disseminated amongst children in residential care institutions; and the development of co-ordinated national response.

Beyond these specific recommendations, the vulnerability of children in this country is very much linked to large and deep issues of inequalities.

While the report is not focused on the causes of children in care, it suggests that most children in residential care are from low-income families and communities.

They may live in over-crowded conditions, are likely not to have had access to quality education to meet their specific needs; may suffer malnutrition; and not have adequate loving and kind parental care for emotional stability. In short, these children lack all levels of security. Many, and in particular girls, may have experienced sexual abuse.

We must fix the system of residential care to ensure children do not encounter further abuse and they receive the highest level of care and protection from trained and accountable professionals. But we must also focus on how poverty and inequalities shape childhood experiences. It will enable us to reduce the numbers of children needing care in residential facilities.

Children have a right to a dignified life. And this means that the State has the duty to provide societal conditions for the full development of their personality. These obligations are even more urgent in cases of children affected by conditions of vulnerability, such as the case of children under the protection or custody of the State and private institutions.

The Coalition calls for a strategic framework that will provide alternatives to placing children in institutional care. This means supporting families and parents to care for their children through parenting education before and after becoming a parent, psycho-social support, social care, adequate housing and social protection.

Prevention must be prioritised and for this, a robust social care system is required. Too often we open the newspapers to horror stories of mothers with children, no income and no housing. Why is this the case in a country with the wealth of Trinidad and Tobago? These are avoidable social tragedies.

All persons engaged in child protection, including administrators, must be appropriately trained and certified and there should be systems of auditing and monitoring which include the feedback of children under care. We also need resources to support evidence-based, gender sensitive and personalised psychological interventions for girls and boys.

We need pathways of accountability for childcare institutions, and we endorse the recommendation for a Children’s ombudsperson or commissioner. All childcare professionals must understand their human rights obligations, including those outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As an institution governed by human rights principles, CADV notes that discrimination continues to be embedded in the laws of this country. One of the boys fled a care institution, to escape abuse as a result of his sexual orientation. Is this surprising when the State maintains the criminalisation of consensual same-sex relations? This criminalisation reinforces and maintains attitudes of stigma, discrimination and hate which must affect children acutely.

The report tells the story of Amy Annamunthodo and her mother. The mother was only 12 when she had her first child and 14 when she had Amy. She was a victim of child sexual abuse for which there was not adequate protection, reparation or justice. And the cycle of abuse continued, ending in the sexual violence and death of Amy.

The story of Amy and her mother should strengthen our resolve to improve family support services and policing. Concurrently we must reinforce access to sexual and reproductive services, including comprehensive gender and sexuality education for children.

We all share responsibility for the failures to protect children from harm, whether in institutions, families, neighbourhoods and schools. But we emphasise that State institutions have specific obligations for which they must be held accountable.

The Coalition against Domestic Violence calls on all of us to be active protectors. Be on the alert for children who are in harms away.

Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves. This includes collective insistence that children should not grow up with violence, in poverty and without access to quality education, health care and social protection.

Coalition against Domestic Violence

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