Alsoona Boswell-Jackson

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A social media post last week Sunday night made by 15-year-old Children’s Authority Child Support Centre escapee Ricardo Thompson, detailing claims of experiencing abuse and ill-treatment at the child support centre, sparked some outrage by the online public and raised questions about staff monitoring and training.

But in a virtual media conference held by the Children’s Authority, director Nichola Harvey-Mitchell defended the institution’s staff saying it hired people with the relevant knowledge, skills, abilities, and other attributes about their degrees and experience in the field.

Staff hired included trained psychologists, counsellors, social workers and medical doctors. Harvey-Mitchell said training of these professionals was also ongoing.

“As the Children’s Authority, we are steadfast in our mandate. We continue to do what we are mandated to do and I want to say commendations to all of the staff who will make personal sacrifices to ensure that the children are safe, that the children are protected, that the children get their meals, that the children get their clothing, that the children have their three contacts with their parents on a weekly basis to ensure, they continue to maintain positive relationships with their parents,” said Harvey Mitchell.

Of the claims of abuse, however, she confirmed a complaint was made to her by one of the boys during a discussion before his escape, which was currently under investigation.

Responding to whether claims of abuse had previously been made, Harvey-Mitchell said, “Yes, we have had claims of abuse within the particular home. Some of them were substantiated and some were not substantiated when we did our investigations into the children’s home.

“Similarly, at the child support centre we had one abuse matter if we could say that…recently and this present one which we have dealt with.”

But despite Harvey-Mitchell’s praises of staff, some activists believe lack of adequate training was still a huge problem at children’s homes.

Social worker Alsoona Boswell-Jackson, who has worked in various capacities with children’s homes and community residences, said while the infrastructure was there to try to offer a resting place and meals to children, these homes severely lacked staff training.

“Many homes hire persons and the people that they hire to deal with the children are not adequately and sufficiently trained. In addition to that, a lot of these homes are short-staffed.

So because they are short-staffed, there is a high turnover of staff, because of how the environment is set up, and the conditions under which they work and then remuneration not being adequate.

“So you would find that staff is stretched thin and they are not adequately paid or handsomely compensated for the things that they have to do and the length of hours that they have to work,” Boswell-Jackson illustrated.

Boswell-Jackson, who also works with school-aged children, adults, and families and is also a part-time parenting educator with Families In Action, made the comments during a telephone interview with Guardian Media while responding to the post made by Thompson, one of the three remaining minor escapees, who escaped from Children’s Authority Child Support Centre last weekend. Two of them, Semion Daniel, 15, and Antonio Francois, 16, were killed last Sunday night while allegedly liming with other teens at an abandoned house at Desperlie Crescent, Laventille.

Boswell-Jackson noted one had to take into consideration why children were in a home in the first place.

She said they were in homes for several reasons—placed by the court for their protection, abandoned or removed from their homes because of various forms of abuse, so they were experiencing some degree of trauma in their lives and if the staff at these homes were not mentally and holistically trained to deal with the children, then the possibility of abuse was very high.

The Government must also be held accountable regarding children’s homes, Boswell-Jackson said.

“I think the Government needs to play a more serious and crucial role in the running of these homes. A number of these homes are faced with a lot of bureaucracy and red tape from the Government in terms of finance and implementing certain legislation.”

She said while some legislation existed as it pertained to guidelines for community residences, they did not work synergistically.

“There is legislation in terms of the guidelines for community residences, it has the Children’s Act and the licensure that the Children’s Authority has, all this legislation could be put in place, but if you don’t have a synergy from all the stakeholders—the union that governs the caretakers, the Government and the board of the homes, to ensure that the parameters that are enshrined in the legislation are carried out, then you would always be butting heads and the children would be the ones who would be the collateral damage,” Boswell-Jackson warned.

Trauma specialist and president of the Organisation for Abused and Battered Individuals (OABI), Sherna Alexander-Benjamin, agreed with Boswell-Jackson’s sentiments, adding that being the recipient of a degree did not mean one was qualified to understand how to interact with residents in community homes.

Speaking on the alleged abuse posted by Thompson, Alexander-Benjamin said reports about abuse in what is now called community residences were not new.

“Change of name does not change the behaviours that are consciously or unconsciously perpetrated against the residents. The majority of staff members lack adequate training to function in such environments,” she reiterated.

She added, “Also, there may be staff that may feel overwhelmed and do not have the skills to effectively function such staff may be manifesting harmful behaviours believing it’s right based on a lack of knowledge and training.”

Alexander-Benjamin said the governing body for these community residences ought to revisit their policies, reporting, and accountability mechanisms and incorporate a social justice lens to humanise policy and mechanisms.

Meanwhile, former commissioner of prisons Gerard Wilson, who during his tenure in the Prison Service dealt extensively with both male and female minors from juvenile homes reaching the prison system, said he was not certain adequate training was given to caretakers at these homes.

“There are so many factors that we can look at, as we look at juvenile delinquency. Sometimes these places are opened and the state might be happy that they have a place to send them. But are we really spending time to equip these facilities with persons who are trained and mature and competent to deal with these juveniles?” Wilson asked.

He said the job was not for the faint at heart.

“I am telling you, they could be a handful and if you do not have patience, forget it. If you are taking the job because it is a way to put bread on your table…forget it. You must have a passion. And you must be genuinely interested in the well-being and welfare of these children,” he advised.