The Sophia home: Giving abused and neglected children a second chance

At age 14 Jenny (not her real name) was removed from the place she called home where she lived under horrific conditions. She was sexually abused by an adult male relative and forced by a female relative to mother her children and be responsible for all the household chores.

The child lived with the relative because her mother, an alcoholic and a gravely ill woman, was unable to take care of her and some of her other siblings, and even though she escaped several times from the relative and went back to her mother, she was returned.

In the end it was neighbours who suspected that the child was being sexually abused and contacted the Child Protection Agency (CPA), as a consequence of which she was eventually removed from the home and placed in state care.

“I never told my mother, but I would run away from my [relative’s home] and go back because of what was happening but she keep sending me back… I happy to now live in a home because is like I now see that people love me and I want to be better in life,” the child, now 17,  told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent candid interview.

The dream of being ‘better in life’ is also shared by 16-year-old Joshua (also not his real name) another child who is now in state care after both of his parents abandoned him and other relatives indicated they were unable to care for him.

Joshua has only been in state care for 13 months but for him it is the best 13 months of his life, and he hopes one day to become a chef and prove all those who have said he will become “nothing in life” wrong.

Unlike Jenny, who is more matter of fact about her situation, Joshua is very emotional, and he cried bitterly as he told this newspaper about his father, who lives in the vicinity of the state home, but who does not recognize him as his child even though he is his only son.

“Right now I would say I don’t have a father, that is not my father,” he said as he cried and while he loves his mother, she has been in and out of the country and does not take care of any of her children. He also finds it difficult to believe that she had taken him as a child and placed him on the bridge where his father lived. His father did not receive him but his paternal grandmother took him in and cared for him for many years. However, in the end she was unable to continue.

“Right now I wish my grandmother was alive to see me now and to see what I will do in life, because I know she will be proud. Right now I just want to prove all my relatives wrong, all of them who say I use to run up them blood pressure and so, I want to show them that I will be somebody in life,” Joshua said with great determination in his voice even as the tears continued to roll down his face.

 

‘Second Chance’

Jenny and Joshua are among the over two hundred children who are in state care and their determination and drive to be better in life have made them two of the “success stories” at the Sophia home for boys and girls.

It is children such as these two who have kept administrator of the home Roxanne Blenman and her 15 staff members going. Even though her voice for the  most part was drowned out by the shouting and running children, Blenman said, they do their best to give a child a second chance. Many times the tragic stories  make them weep, but Blenman, who has been at the home for five of the seven years it has been in  operation, said they know that they have to work to help the children who are definitely in need.

The employees at the Sophia home along with those at the Mahaica home, Drop-in Centre and the child care workers at CPA and throughout the country all work collectively in their attempt to protect children who are in vulnerable situations and are many times being abused physically, sexually and emotionally.

It is a thankless job many a time, but for Director of the CPA Ann Greene, who heads the team that seeks to protect the nation’s children, it is all about trying to give the children  another chance.

She said as Guyana joins the rest of the world in observance of Child Protection Week under the theme ‘Joining Hands for Effective Child Services,’ which starts today, they want to break the silence on the sexual abuse of children which for the most part is still a hidden crime even though more and more persons are now being placed before the court.

“When we place children in a home we work with them to help them to like themselves and help them to heal and perform to the best of their abilities and to be comfortable,” Greene told the Sunday Stabroek.

From all indications Greene knows the stories behind most of the children placed in state care and she said for Jenny and others like her who are abused the “wheels of justice turn too slowly.” The relative who sexually abused Jenny for years is still on the run and as such she is being denied the justice needed. This, Greene said, means that it is difficult for her and other children who face the same issue to have the closure needed for them to really move on. While it is not ideal for children to be placed in homes, Greene pointed out that it is never an indefinite situation as they always work towards reintegrating the children with relatives or in some cases they are placed in foster care.

“It is devastating for a child to live in an institution, but we do our best and every day we try to work with them and cheer them, console them. We like what we do, sometimes we get no sleep because there is always a child with a tragic story who needs help,” Greene said.

While, they may not get their due for the tremendous work they do on a daily basis, Greene said they would keep marching on and hope that the public would understand the magnitude of child abuse and support them in their quest to truly protect Guyana’s children.

 

Harming herself

 

Jenny tells the chilling story of attempting to take her life on many occasions when she first arrived at the home, because for her she was not good enough.

“I don’t know if it is attention I been want, but I use to cut myself because I say you know is best I die, but I thankful to Miss Blenman and all the workers here and Miss Greene and my case worker for working with me and showing me I could do better,” she said.

When she arrived at the home she could not write her name as she had not attended school for many years, but today she can do so and can read. She attends the Sophia Special School but hopes to move to the training school to learn a skill as she wants to seek a job when she leaves.

For years Blenman said they had been attempting to have Jenney move in with a relative but though she spent time with the mother, the home situation was not ideal. Her mother died earlier this year.

“Now my mother dead and my father dead since I was a baby so is just me and my sisters…but I don’t want to go and live with any relatives…” she declared.

She will have to leave the Sophia home next year when she becomes 18 as she would legally be an adult, and Blenman said it would be ideal to have a halfway home for children like her who have no homes to return to but who maybe could work and live in a halfway house until they can move off on their own.

Jenny’s relatives have indicated that they would “marry her off” if she returns to them as she is of that age, but while she longs to have a family of her own she is adamant that it is not the right time. She said the best day in her life was being placed in the home.

Joshua, who is doing catering at the Sophia Training School, hopes to one day become a chef and maybe get a job on a cruise ship. He also hopes to take evening classes later and write CSEC.

Blenman said while his relatives had described him as troublesome, upon entering the home Joshua was a transformed child and is the model child at the institution. He not only takes care of himself but helps to take care of the younger boys at the home.

During the summer he helped with Mathematics lessons for the younger boys and would wake them up in the mornings and prepare them for his classes.

The administrator said Joshua’s father has no interest in taking him, even though they have reached out to him and asked him to visit him at the home. She said the last aunt who took care of him faced financial difficulties and was unable to take care of him and took him to  the CPA.

“The beautiful thing about Joshua is that he is a good boy, he works a lot and he shows us the potential that he can do better…” Blenman said of the 16-year-old.

She said the two children are allowed to go out and be involved in outside activities because they are well behaved as they are sent out on merit.

She said that they along with the CPA work with the children to build their self-esteem and to give them a hope for a better life. Unfortunately, there are instances where after they are integrated they are not given the attention and support to keep them on the track of improvement.

Blenman sometimes she feels that she has had enough, but then when she thinks about the children and sees the transformation in those like Jenny and Joshua, she knows she has to continue. At one time the home had 125 children but today they have 90, all of whom have a story. While the home is supposed to have children between the ages of 4 and 17 at present they have two toddlers who are both two years old.

“They bring me joy,” she said of the children, adding that her only daughter would jokingly tell her to take her bed to Sophia because it is the home she always thinks about.

In observance of Child Protection Week the CPA will be holding a rally and walk on Wednesday as they attempt to break the silence on the sexual abuse of children, and the following day a concert for parents and children will be held in the Botanical Gardens.

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