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Ex-minister claims Children’s Authority failed murdered teens – Trinidad and Tobago Newsday


Former senator Verna St Rose Greaves offers words of comfort to the mother of murdered teenage Antonio Francois at the Forensic Science Centre in March. - AYANNA KINSALE
Former senator Verna St Rose Greaves offers words of comfort to the mother of murdered teenage Antonio Francois at the Forensic Science Centre in March. – AYANNA KINSALE

FORMER minister of gender, youth and child development Verna St Rose Greaves believes the Children’s Authority failed two teens who were killed after running away from one of their facilities.

Greaves, a career social worker and activist, responded to questions by Sunday Newsday on the double murder of Antonio Francois and Semion Daniel, both 15. The teens were shot dead on March 28. The two were among five boys who ran away from a children’s home in Valsayn by squeezing through the burglar-proofing on March 20.

“The authority failed miserably in their handling of this atrocity.
“Some of what irks me may seem pedestrian to people outside the field of work. The humane aspect of the situation is critical to the work that we do. Being humane must be the essence of what we do, who we are, and who we strive to be.”

She said she felt that director of the Children’s Authority Nichola Harvey-Mitchell was “abandoned” by the Ministry of Child and Gender Affairs, headed by Ayanna Webster-Roy, after the double killing.

The day after the teens were murdered, Harvey-Mitchell held a media conference where she said there was a gap in the security and supervision but disagreed that the authority “failed the boys.”

“And while the authority will take some measure of responsibility for the lack of supervision for the short moments we didn’t have the proper supervision, as well as when we didn’t have the security in place on Saturday, we want to also make known that this is a national problem. We would get children at the end of the pipeline; we get the children when they are abused,” Harvey-Mitchell said then.

Greaves said: “The boys put into her care for safekeeping, were dead, but she insists that the authority had not failed them. Even as the situation was unfolding she sought to deflect from their murders to the shortcomings of parents. The silence from the minister and board was deafening and downright disrespectful, not only to the director, but to the parents of those boys and to our children.”

Greaves proposed a governing body to supervise the Children’s Authority. She said with the authority being “fairly new” it warrants closer scrutiny, suggesting the appointment of an “Ombudsperson/ Children’s Guardian” to “guard the guards.”

She said the Children’s Authority must accept liability for the teens’ deaths and “fully supports” the mothers of the children taking legal action against the state.

“Yes, of course they should be held liable. I fully and actively support the parents pursuing legal action against the state and its agents. I think that for too long we have depended on supposed ‘people of conscience’ to do the right thing. Over and over calls for justice have been ignored.”

Teens complained of abuse

Francois’ mother, Nicole Braithwaite, told Sunday Newsday that her son complained to her a month before he ran away that he was being abused at the facility.

Francois, who began “acting out” after the murder of father Christopher Francois in 2016, was put in the care of the authority by his mother. Braithwaite said she hopes more will be done to protect other children, not just by preventing further cases of boys running away but providing a safe space for children in care of the state. She said her son’s allegations of abuse were not treated with the care she thinks it deserved.

“On February 24, he called me and told me he was being abused… He told me he was kicked off his bed and the person monitoring the call said, ‘aA least he had no broken bones,’ and, ‘It’s a blow-up bed so he did not have far to fall.’”

Another mother, who did not want to be identified, said her son also complained of being abused while in care of the authority. He was one of the four who escaped with Francois.

Both children were taken to the Children’s Authority by their mothers.

The woman said after her son ran away she is no longer confident in having him in care of the Children’s Authority, especially at the same facility he ran away from.

She claimed her child, who was put on suicide watch, will not discuss his abuse on the phone with her, since all calls are monitored. She is now hoping to have him returned to her at the next court hearing in June.

The Children’s Authority reported that it investigated the allegations of abuse and found no merit in the reports.

Greaves chastised the idea of the reopening of the St Michael’s Home for Boys, which will be used as another safe haven for children in need of state care. She said there are reports of abuse, on all levels, that were made at St Michael’s that were never resolved before it was closed in 2018.

The home is expected to be reopened in August with a mandate to provide residential restorative programme targeting male children in need of supervision between the ages of 12 and 18. It will be managed by the Military-Led Academic Training Programme (Milat) under the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service. It was previously under the Ministry of Child and Gender Affairs.

A better future

Webster-Roy, in a response to Sunday Newsday two weeks ago, said the facility will be guided by the National Standards for the Care of Children, “which stipulates the need for qualified personnel at all levels.” The new facility will include a variety of interactive programmes and activities focusing on their individual care plans.

Greaves said the children must come first and believes the time has come for alternatives to state care that will include the wider community.

She said she was not a fan of the term “children in need of supervision” and suggested it should be changed to “children that we need to love and support” or “children we will care for” or “children are deserving of our attention.”

“The question must follow whether it is prudent or sustainable to take so many children into care.
“Alternatives to care must therefore be given serious consideration. The best place for children to be is with their families. Only when there are no viable options should children be put into care.

“Our communities are crying out for attention and the answers to so many of our problems resonate there. Parental support and co-operation is an important resource. Value it. Work with parents.”

Greaves also echoed the sentiments of Opposition Senator David Nakhid, who called for an audit of the Children’s Authority.

“A comprehensive staff audit may prove useful. We need to revisit the structure of the organisation, which may prove to be useful in ways which will affect how the authority operates. There must be greater scrutiny in the selection of board and staff,” she said.

Greaves’ concern about staff was first raised by former director of the Children’s Authority Dr Hanif Benjamin, who in 2019, in e-mails seen by Sunday Newsday, demanded that the qualifications of staff include social work, especially for those in a supervisory position.

At a Monday night forum in April, Nakhid called for a forensic audit into the Children’s Authority for 2016-2020, saying it had received some $378 million during that period.

Greaves said there will always be a need for financial support for the Children’s Authority but the resources needed to assist the children go beyond financial help.

“Are we making the best use of our resources? Are we getting value for our money? We must innovate and pool with others, (and) at the same time lobby and advocate for the government to readjust their spending priorities. People are our most important resource.”

Greaves called for the implementation of the National Register of Children, which she said is in the Ministry of Child and Gender Affairs, to better understand the needs of children who will be assisted.

“Who are our children and where are they?
“Sadly, we really do not know. Geographically, economically, educationally, developmentally, medically etc.

“The National Register of Children needs to be put into active operation. If properly done and managed it will allow us at a glance to have data that tells us all that we need to know for timely intervention.”

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