Protecting children from abuse, neglect, outright violence, and exploitation is a responsibility that first and foremost lies with the parents or legal guardians of the children, and it is normal to expect that those parents and guardians will go out of their way to ensure the safety of their offspring or wards.
When such protection is lacking, the potential for sometimes serious physical and psychological damage, economic deprivation, molestation, and exploitation of a child becomes a frightening reality. To combat this, most countries of the world have set up within their governments an agency tasked with monitoring the welfare of children, and empowered to take drastic action to secure the safety of those determined to be at risk.
In Guyana, the agency tasked with this responsibility is the Child Protection Agency which, over the years, has aggressively sought to educate the public on child protection issues while executing its mandate with respect to protecting our nation’s vulnerable and at-risk children.
Not that this is an easy task. Despite being empowered under the Childcare and Protection Agency Act 2009 “to provide and maintain childcare shelters and facilities for children in need of care and protection…” and “to take any necessary action against any private person or organisation to ensure that safety and wellbeing of children under the care of that person or organisation are promoted and protected” and also “to place children in foster homes or orphanages or other places of care where protection of the children can be obtained,” the agency sometimes has to grapple with a public outcry and uncooperative family members whenever it seeks to carry out its mandate. Many times the Agency will, of necessity, have to work in collaboration with law enforcement to ensure the safety of all parties as they carry out their investigations including, from time to time, taking a child out of the custody of parents deemed unfit and a risk to the child.
Nevertheless, the Childcare and Protection Agency Act 2009 seems inadequately drafted at first glance, not dealing in depth with the matters it covers. The Act consists of a total of eight pages only, while a comparable Act, the Trinidad and Tobago ‘Children’s Authority Act’ is thirty-one pages long and deals specifically with more wide-ranging matters affecting children under the care of the Authority, even including adoption matters and the handling of matters relating to the death of children while in the care of the Authority. Similarly, the Children Act 46:01 of Trinidad and Tobago does seem more comprehensive than the comparable Protection of Children Act 46:06 of Guyana, from a layman’s perspective.
In the July 2016, the Childcare and Protection Agency had the misfortune to be associated with the death of two children in a fire at its Drop-In Centre on Hadfield Street. This tragic accident occurred just days after the two young brothers were taken into the care and custody of the Agency as victims of neglect in their home. Interestingly, this same building had its top flat destroyed by fire in February 2010 even as it housed forty-six children, forcing their temporary relocation. It is not clear what might be the extent of the psychological impact or trauma that children who experienced both fires, particularly the later fatal one, might have felt.
Also in 2016, on Christmas Eve, a child was struck down and killed on the grounds of a New Amsterdam orphanage by a car allegedly driven by a teenage orphan who had taken the car without permission. Sadly, the eight-year-old girl died the next day.
These two incidents highlight the terrible irony of a childcare provider being responsible for the physical harm and death of the children for whom they were supposed to provide protection. The immediate reaction in Guyana at the time of such tragedy sometimes is to bury our collective heads in the sand and wait for the memory of the tragedy to recede, as if it never happened. Not so for the Red Thread organisation as they picketed the Childcare and Protection Agency following the incident – a picketing exercise which was vocally denounced by the Agency.
Nevertheless, when tragedy strikes the weak and poor and vulnerable, it behoves those who bear responsibility to act immediately and correct the flaws within the system that contributed to the tragedy. The changes made and the improvements realised should also be shared with the public so that the national psyche can be repaired with regard to the disturbing accidents.
The government directed Commission of Enquiry has submitted its final report and it remains to be seen how many of the recommendations contained therein have been effected to date. Minister of State Joe Harmon, speaking after receiving the final report of the commission stated that, “This is a wakeup call for us insofar as fire safety and security is concerned.” We can only hope that the wakeup call has been heeded, as we all are familiar with the propensity to reset the alarm button, roll over, and go back to sleep.
The issue of childcare and protection is a very important one as it speaks to our very claim to humanity. The protection of the weak and vulnerable is one of the key aspects of a civilised order, such as we would like to profess ourselves to be. The Childcare and Protection Agency must speak up for the sake of the children and their own legacy. There must be greater funding for the Agency, both in terms of the facilities it maintains for the housing of children, and the quality of human resources and ongoing training it can attract and retain.
The burnt out Drop-In Centre on Hadfield Street remains exactly as the fire left it in July of 2016 – a stark reminder of the horrifically painful death suffered by two young brothers, the older of whom heroically rushed back into the flames to try and save his younger sibling. A story of such bravery should not be rendered to the dustbin of our forgotten memories. Some good must come out of the accidental death of these children.
It is time that we look again to the laws and regulations regarding childcare and protection and it is also the time to furnish the agency with the appropriate tools to carry out their mandate. These tools include funding, facilities and updated training and legislation which will take in the full span of a child’s entry into and exit from the care and responsibility of the childcare authorities in Guyana.
The vulnerable children of Guyana deserve no less.