By Klysha Best
The third term and first of an all-out physical return to schools in the last academic year began in April. Since then, the headlining story on a weekly basis was the violence taking place within schools, or out of schools involving school children.
The most recent was an incident that will leave a young girl’s face scarred for life after she was stabbed during an altercation. That teen, a student at Williamsville Secondary School, was reportedly the victim of bullying and since the incident, her attacker has been expelled.
But what is to become of these children? Are we just to leave them by the wayside? Blame the parents? Leave it for the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the police service to handle? Do we send the children to see a psychologist or social worker? Who can really help and how?
Catholic News chatted with Probation Officer and Social Worker Gina Malchan- Bonas for some guidance on this matter.
According to Malchan- Bonas, T&T is a nation in crisis, from the incidents of domestic violence, murders, and robberies, and what we are seeing with our children is simply a reflection of the society at large.
She said: “Concerning school violence, which is still a heated topic now, there are many factors that we have to consider. Seeing that the majority of the instances have been within school walls, we first have to evaluate the needs of the schools, as different schools would have different levels of violence and would require different intervention.”
What social workers do
“Generally what school social workers try to accomplish is collaborate with school personnel like the deans, safety officers, guidance counsellors, pool the resources
together and host an intervention, either group work, individual, parent session, work with the teachers, visit the home and/or probably seek external referral services to help effect the programme that we want to provide.”
Malchan-Bonas added: “One of the other things is community work. This is very important, too. We may want to bring in the community police to have sessions in the schools to talk to the children. So that is one way that we can try and help out.”
“I’ve had one colleague inform me that even though her level of school violence is low, one of the things that she would have come across is that bullying is an issue in the school, so she will try to target a programme to deal with bullying before it reaches another level.”
Malchan-Bonas revealed that as a probation officer, her clientele comes from referrals from the court. She said much like the attacker in the Williamsville incident, she will deal with young offenders and sometimes people over 18.
“One of the things that is usually done is that they can be placed on probation between one to three years, and we have programmes to facilitate those offenders.”
Regarding the issue of a student being expelled for an infraction in school and the subsequent loss of education, Malchan-Bonas said in such cases, the social worker can refer the child to alternative educational facilities, or if the family can afford, private tutoring.
“I know that the MILAT (Military-Lead Academic Training) programme is geared towards children who may have some issues, but of course children have to go willingly. We cannot force a parent to send their child there. It will take some discussions,” said Malchan-Bonas.
She also suggested other programmes like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
programme and the Multi-Sector Skills Training (MUST) programme.
Malchan-Bonas said based on the age, a child can enrol in those programmes and get some technical skills. “In some cases, the social worker will give the suggestion and try to empower the client, but it is up to the parents at the end of the day. We can only do so much.”
While a social worker has to work with referred students, for intervention to take place, Malchan-Bonas said a parent or guardian can in fact reach out to the district office at the school, whether it’s primary or secondary, contact the MoE’s Student Support Services Division to work with the child and offer support to the family.”
A lack of social workers
Sadly, Malchan-Bonas said that they do not have enough school social workers and are desperately in need.
She pointed out there currently is a pool of a little over 100 social workers and so many more schools. In some cases, there are three schools assigned to one social worker and this is not sufficient to deal with the cases. Malchan-Bonas said if they had one social worker to every school, it would make the job a little easier.
For persons who do not see social workers as a need, Bonas begs to differ. She said social workers are professionals, just like the doctors, nurses, lawyers, and the magistrate, and they are trained and equipped to deal with social issues, family issues.
“It’s only when a crisis takes place when you hear the call for more social workers etc. But for us, we know that there is a need, and we reach out despite what other people might think,” said Malchan-Bonas.
“Our intervention is holistic. We would try to work with the family, school, community and even the church, to see how best we can offer a holistic approach to a situation.”
“For example, the probation officer, who is a social worker for the court, has to check the person’s background, interview the family, those in the neighborhood, the church, the school, and delve into personal issues, in a bid to determine the situation and help the magistrate make a fair decision. We are needed, we are important, we may be in the background, but we’re doing the work and our service is definitely essential.”
Bonas reiterated her call for more social workers, saying that they are needed to provide the psycho-social support to families in crisis.
Rising issues of mental health
As a member of the Association of Social Workers, Malchan-Bonas said they are trying to put things in place, but social workers need to get the support also from the wider society, especially now where she has noticed that mental health issues are certainly prevalent, and it has taken a toll on individuals and families.
“One of the things I can probably suggest, is for the Ministry of Health (MoH) to have hotline numbers with competent people, psychiatric social workers, doctors etc., who are there to assist.”
There are different forums to help educate, via discussions and even school sessions when it comes to mental health issues.
“As social workers, we will intervene based on the needs of the client. In a case where an individual may have experienced job loss and is unable to have an income, we would probably suggest a food card, we may pen a letter to the welfare officer. Sometimes we pen letters to the HDC (Housing Development Corporation) based on the situation, we can refer the client to a mental health officer, or psychiatrist or medical social worker. So, we try to utilise the resources that we have in order to assist the client as much as we could. Some may need counselling.”
There is also the Family Services Division. Via this platform, social workers try to empower clients as much as they can to help find their way.