Single parent initiatives should be reviewed

By Guest Contributor

FOR DE RECORD BWLife for the average Guyanese parent, and especially the thousands of single- parent mothers left to struggle because fathers opt not to honour their obligations, remains a struggle.

In addition to monthly grocery and utility bills and rent, they must contend with increases in day care fees, the cost for school materials, such as textbooks and uniforms and transportation.

At the same time, government has been beating its chest over initiatives which it seems to believe are worth a gold mine; the $1,500 yearly uniform vouchers and the $10,000 transportation vouchers are the most recent initiatives to help the parents take care of their children.

However, to add to the frustrations faced by parents, many of whom are living from pay cheque to pay cheque, the very government that claims it is doing all it can to assist them to care for their children–our leaders of tomorrow–is now threatening to put parents before the court if they are in the habit of leaving their children home alone.

This startling announcement was recently made by the Minister of Human Services Jennifer Webster, who said that parents guilty of leaving their children at home unsupervised will be charged in order to send a strong message.

One has to wonder how the minister came up with such a plan of action. Was there a public discourse? Did she consult with her social workers, childcare officers or even the head of the Child Care and Protection Agency? Did she get any input from anyone that pointed to the fact that some of these parents may very well be taking this course of action because they have no choice?

The minister also said that her ministry will be aggressively pursuing fathers who fail to financially support their children. In many cases, she admitted, there are warrants issued for fathers who fail to financially support their children, but they cannot be located.

Why only now? Why must a mother be forced to endure the humiliation of going before a court to ask for money? Why should she then have to go with the police to serve a summons on the very man who has neglected their child? Why can’t steps be put in place from the day that a child is born? Why can’t the child support initiative be started from birth and continue until the child attains the age of 16, regardless of whether the woman has applied for it. In that way the child would be financially secure from birth.

Successive governments have encouraged fathers to be delinquent. They have sat on this issue for far too long without taking steps to correct it. That is to say nothing of the meagre $1,500 a week that mothers receive in some cases. How can this help to feed and clothe a child plus pay for day care services? If you do the math, it will cost at least $8,000 a week to care for a toddler and with age the costs will increase.

In May 2009, the then Minister of Human Services Priya Manickchand announced that some 712 single parents would receive $1,000 a month from the government through the Ministry of Human Services to assist with day care fees for their children. This would have been the first batch of single parents to benefit from the Single Parent Fund that was announced the previous year by then president Bharrat Jagdeo.

Manickchand was even bold enough to say that this money represented 25% of the average cost for day care services and that it was better than nothing. The catch was that in order to receive this $1,000, the single parent must have been earning an income of under $30,000 a month, maintaining at least two children and had day care as an expense.

Parents were also required to be registered for the programme and at the time some 30,000 single parents had registered but of course not even half benefited then. There has been no further word from the ministry about this programme and it is unclear whether it is still in existence.

Last year, yet another initiative was announced. During the budget debates Minister Webster told the National Assembly that government planned to introduce night-care facilities for children of single parents with night jobs. It’s been more than a year and nothing else has been heard about the programme.

Now that the minister has decided to go after these so-called delinquent parents, will she make the night care arrangements possible? And will she also be securing an increase of the $1,000 day care assistance, if it is still being given out. The minister and her ministry need to get with the times. A ‘proper’ day care doesn’t cost $4,000 anymore; in many cases it is double that amount.

What many working single parents would like to hear is that the minimum wage is being doubled so that parents can actually pay the day care fees on their own and not have to be banking on the government’s $1,000.

They also need more caring and understanding employers, who, in looking for enhanced performance from their staff and particularly the females, can be more family-oriented. They can offer day care services or allow employees with children to work flexible hours. Unfortunately, some employers these days have banned employees from bringing children into the workplace.

Many parents, whether single or not, have been guilty of leaving their children at home alone at least once, whether to run around the corner to the shop or to run an errand. Few parents in Guyana can afford nannies.

Women working night jobs or shifts have it even harder. What are they to do? Take their children on site with them or leave them home and pray for the best? It is either mommies go to work and earn some money or they stay home with them and depend on the assistance they will get from the ministry, which is next to nothing.

Children have needs and the faster the minister understands that and desists from trying to put parents under more pressure, the better off everyone will be.

What happens if that parent who is charged is placed on bail and cannot afford to pay? Will the ministry take the child or children from that parent? Will they be placed in state care temporarily or with relatives? What will happen if the state doesn’t have space to accommodate all those other children whose parents cannot afford to pay bail?

It is a known fact that there are delinquent parents out there; parents who leave their children alone for days at a time. On the other hand there are parents who are clearly trying. The children are left alone for a few hours while their parents go to work. Gone are the days when one could trust or even ask a neighbour to look over or keep our children. In a world that continues to bear witness to abuse in all forms, children may be safer just being home alone.

If the minister’s plan had been in force months ago many parents would be before the court. School was out for two months. The few free programmes that were available were packed to capacity. If you wanted your child to do something, it meant you have to pay and not all parents could have afforded to. So in most cases the child/children had to stay home alone.

Ensuring that children are cared for should be at the top of the list of the minister’s priorities but making rash decisions will not help the situation. This is an issue that needs close study and input from professionals. The ministry should start examining all its single parent initiatives and see how many are actually benefiting. Even if a good number is, that still does not solve the issue of children being left alone.

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