Kean Chase has dedicated all of her adult life to fighting for the rights of children, especially those who are abused in horrific ways. And while it is a fight she and all the others in this army will not win in the near future, it is one that she will continue to battle if it means helping one child to be healed.
Month after month, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute Chase hears and sees case after case of abuse being perpetuated on hapless children. And while that might be enough for another person to switch gears, for Chase it only means that she has to keep fighting. But she is quick to admit that it is a fight she cannot continue for the rest of her life. When she eventually has her own family, she will no longer be able to spend an entire afternoon listening to the mother of an abused child who just wants a hearing.
For her, the bad days come when she knows that it would take “a signature or just a phone call to make a difference in someone’s life and for some reason that official would delay or just would not do it. So if you are going to find me upset, it is because some major stakeholder who has the capacity to assist in making such a significance change just would not do it…”
Chase said she cannot wrap her mind around how persons can operate so callously. “So those are the days when I really get worked up,” she told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent sit down.
The biggest problem for Chase is the fact that children in Guyana are neglected; she pointed out for instance that there was no activity in the Jubilee celebrations that specifically targeted children.
“What we do in Guyana is we focus so much on education… But we are not focusing on art and culture as much. Most of our children have talents and where are these talents going?” she questioned, answering, “They are going to waste.”
Chase said many do not understand the link between children being neglected and adults who “turn out to be criminals and petty thieves…” and this is the reason why one of the first issues discussed with parents at ChildLink is early childhood.
For Chase, it is not surprising that she is in an area where she can help others as she always knew that was the direction her life would take, but initially she toyed with the idea of being a paediatrician.
After reading for her social work degree, Chase suffered a major setback when she lost her mother, but months later she started working at ChildLink and has been there even since. She credits being one of 13 children for the same parents for who she is today.
Her first position was that of a community worker and she remembers how tentative she was initially to move into the community of Riverview to try to make a difference in the lives of children and their parents.
“I love to take Guyanese into Riverview because of the contrast, from the public road… Two minutes’ walk in on the dirt dam and the reality hits you like wow life in Guyana… People’s houses are built on the river, water is running underneath, and it is like 15 persons in a home… You have lots of parents making babies and babies making babies,” Chase said.
Initially, she wondered what a minute person like herself, fresh on the job, could possibly do to impact the lives of the persons who were crying out for help. Attached to a centre that offered after-school classes, hot meals and counselling, it was Chase’s responsibility to visit with residents, ascertain their needs and link them to a particular service offered by the centre.
While eventually the community became her life, Chase disclosed that for the first three months she cried every day because of the sheer volume of work and the desperate circumstances under which residents lived.
“It was like you were not seeing any change,” she said. “You know like today you see a child and you think you are making a difference and then tomorrow the parent comes and says ‘Oh there was a fight and who didn’t brick down who and who broke a window’ and that sort of thing.” But, as she puts it, after the first three months she got “her groove on and I felt this is what I was meant to do.”
For her it was the dependability of the children and the parents as sometimes a parent would be standing at the gate waiting when she arrived at work because they “know they got an issue and before they beat the child or break their partner’s hand… [they] come to talk to you. And then for me is to see the transformation in persons’ lives in little, little ways – the first time they get a birth certificate, the first time they get a clean uniform.”
Wrapping gifts for the children at Christmas and the joy it brought their faces is a reward that cannot be counted in dollars and cents and the fact that she could have just given a listening ear young as she was at the time.
But it was so good to get the parents together on Saturdays and have them “talk about spousal issues and sometimes you didn’t even have to offer advice; it was just a matter of facilitating the discussion… Because for them they had nobody to turn to for an intelligent conversation,” she recalled.
A case from that area remains with her and she wished there was more she could have done for a child. The organization never managed to work with the mother who refused to be engaged but who allowed her children to visit the centre.
The child lost sight in one eye, while the other was damaged when he was hit in the face by his mother. His crime? He had attempted to assist his mother while she was washing but managed to put dirty clothing in the basin with clean clothes. He was just five.
“For him, it was just trying to help mommy because he knew she was tired. Up to today, she has not accepted that she did anything wrong… Mommy moved on and she was like ‘you all too sensitive.’”
‘One shock to another shock’
Chase soon moved into the school environment and she describes the move as “one shock to another shock” while making it clear that children at home are the same in school and it is not a case of them being different when they are out of the home. “If you watch your child close enough at home, that’s your child at school. There isn’t a vast difference,” she said.
She was attached to three schools in areas considered to be depressed and there she saw the adverse effects of poverty, but also the resilience among the children. It was not only the children she dealt with but also parents and teachers and it was through that experience that she was able to discover, “How much parents really value their children or how much they did not value their children and how much teachers valued their work and how much they didn’t.”
She does not believe raising the salaries of teachers will transform the profession because the conditions under which some of them work are so deplorable that only changing those conditions would really make a difference.
Her proudest moment so far was being the front person for ChildLink’s ‘Tell Scheme,’ which was dedicated to prevention of sexual abuse in primary school. “I did not understand how much children needed to know about their bodies until I started doing the Tell Scheme…,” Chase said, revealing that she would have visited over 300 schools and worked with over 500 teachers.
The project, which was introduced in 95% of the country’s primary schools, ran from 2011 to this year. “It was scary how many teachers wanted help to talk about the body… Because there were so many reports of who was touching who,” Chase said adding that she was even asked to work with some nursery school teachers who found it difficult to deal with children in their class performing oral sex on each other.
She said the sexual games in primary school are so scary that she is afraid to think about what happens in the secondary schools. Recently, ChildLink dealt with a case of sexual abuse among teenagers, which was played out like a ‘game’ called ‘catch me bugger me’. The first time she heard of the so-called game was in Essequibo in 2011 and initially she thought it was confined to that region. But it is 2016 and it is the same ‘game’ being played by children in Georgetown. She also heard of it in Region 3 and in Mahdia. “This thing is real and parents don’t know it is real, but teachers know it is real,” she said.
Recently ChildLink had to get the police involved to break up a group of girls under the age of 14, one of whom was ‘a madam’ with a list of sexual favours her girls can perform and for what price. “… Girls [are having] anal sex with men and older boys…” to avoid it being detected that they are sexually active when taken to the doctor.
“We have girls having anal sex in school after drinking alcohol and you have specific alcohol for specific schools. So if I am going to this school I am only drinking this,” Chase said, adding that the alcohol is taken into schools in children’s water bottles.
All of the above and more propelled Chase to continue. And even though at one time it meant she was the only one who drove the ‘Tell Scheme’ project she never thought of quitting. “I felt like… this thing is absolutely needed and it has to be done even though it was hard.” One reward was after a two-day training programme when a teacher indicated that she now felt equipped to speak to students who are sexually involved.
Though she is not a parent, Chase said she has seen enough to know that parenting skills are really lacking and there is not much to assist parents in this area. She is concerned about the number of children who are in institutions and wondered aloud what happens to them when they have to leave that institution because they are no longer children.
Apart from the fact that she knows someone has to fight the battle even if it is to help one child, Chase said remaining in the area is also due largely to the fact that the staff of ChildLink all have one common goal and as such there is no lackadaisical attitude to the work. Cognizant of the toil this type of work has on the psyche, ChildLink’s Managing Director Omattie Madray has mandated that staff take a two-week break every three months.
“I also have an amazing family,” Chase said. “I live with my brothers and one sister and we are a very close-knit family. That keeps me going. Of course religion also plays an important part in my life…”