Post 392.

The Children’s Authority’s press release on September 20 is a red flag regarding children’s increased vulnerability. Abuse rates were already high prior to covid19.

On January 29, the TTPS Child Protection Unit reported a 137 per cent increase in criminal acts against children, including a 45 per cent increase in violent offences such as cruelty, between 2017 and 2019, years when the economy slowed and unemployment soared.

Similarly, in its 2018/2019 report, the authority highlighted “an increased number of children lacking care and guardianship…and children in need of supervision…While for Trinidad, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect continue to be the highest categories of reports of abuse, in Tobago, sexual abuse, neglect and children lacking care and protection were the highest categories of abuse received.”

The highest number of cases were reported during April-May and during October, with an average of 361 reports recorded per month.

Children 10-13 years, and children in the areas of San Juan/Laventille, Tunapuna/Piarco and Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo in Trinidad, and in the areas of St Andrew and St Patrick in Tobago, were at highest risk. In terms of reports, sexual abuse accounted for 23 per cent and neglect, 20 per cent, but note that ten per cent of children lacked care and guardianship and another seven per cent were in need of supervision.

Girls experienced significantly higher rates of sexual abuse than boys (34 per cent to ten per cent), and boys experienced slightly higher rates of neglect than girls (23 per cent to 17 per cent). Strangely, the authority doesn’t sex disaggregate perpetrator data, but, historically, sexual abuse of girls by uncles, cousins, fathers and other trusted men is a consistent risk. Girls are most vulnerable to abuse in the homes where they are now confined.

Children with special needs are always more vulnerable because they are more dependent, and less able to break silences about their conditions and experiences. Migrant children are a new category still insufficiently integrated into our social services, and at risk for sexual exploitation.

The numbers show children’s complex and stressful circumstances. Sexual abuse reports increase up to 16-17 years, but physical abuse reports decrease. Reports of children in need of supervision increase significantly at 14 years while reports of neglect go down after 13 years old.

Given that “children in need of supervision,” “lacking care and guardianship” and “neglect” comprise the most reports (except for children 14-17 where sexual abuse is the most reported form of abuse), it is not surprising that mothers account for 40 per cent of perpetrators, for they have unequal responsibility for child care and financial provision under more severe conditions of economic stress and poverty, both of which have increased as the economy contracted since 2015.

This brings me to this week’s press release. In it, the authority reminded parents to “ensure children are left in the care of trusted and responsible adults” and that “older children should not be given the responsibility to supervise younger ones.” This is hopeful, but nearly pointless to say when daycares and schools are closed, and many parents do not have the luxury of working from home.

Across the country and at different levels of employment, women’s jobs are at risk because they have no one to stay home and look after their children. Children are being left at home by themselves or with older children because parents have no better choice, not simply because they are irresponsible.

State decision-making always affects the most vulnerable, in this case economically insecure and single-parent households, and children. This occurs whether such policies intend to or not, and whether state officials acknowledge this impact or not. Covid19 public health decisions have increased children’s vulnerability to abuse. Gender-sensitive and child-sensitive decision-making would have required these very officials to forecast this likely scenario and build in a response.

Child abuse is not a virus, but it is a public health issue for it impacts thousands of children each year, harming their mental, emotional and possibly physical health, and literally reproducing such harm over a lifetime and even generations. We cannot finger-wag at parents who cannot cope with the effects of the economic, social and policy crisis created first by the crash of a petrostate and now by the pandemic.

What we need is a state that will spring into action to ensure options for children’s safety with the alacrity it responded to our risk to covid19, and with the sense of these as intersecting vulnerabilities. The authority highlighted an existing problem which will only worsen. Whose responsibility is it to prevent the rise in reports typical of October? I fear for our children.