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Addressing the crisis of child abuse

In a recent interview on The Catholic News’ programme Altos, Rhonda Gregoire-Roopchan, the General Manager of Child Welfare Services at the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, shed light on the alarming trends of child abuse and maltreatment of children facing the country.

Gregoire-Roopchan revealed that the Authority is experiencing a “real call to fulfil its mandate” as they receive an average of 5,000 cases of reported child abuse and neglect annually. She stated, “And that means that as a society, we really need to do better. We have a lot of responsibility in caring for children.”

The types of cases the Authority deals with include “sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect of our children,” with an average of 400 new cases reported each month.

Gregoire-Roopchan acknowledged that while greater awareness and reporting have contributed to the rise in cases, “we still suspect that in certain areas there is some level of underreporting.”

To address this crisis, the Children’s Authority has been working closely with key stakeholders, including the Trinidad & Tobago Police Service and the Ministry of Education. Gregoire-Roopchan emphasised the importance of collaboration, stating, “The police, particularly the Child Protection Unit, and more so the Special Victims Unit, we are very close partners…”

She explained that the police handle the criminal investigation side, while the Authority focuses on the psychosocial needs of the child, and the two entities work together to provide a comprehensive response.

The Authority has also signed a National Protocol for Child Abuse Prevention and Management, which aims to streamline the response process and ensure that “a child being reported to us can really have the best experience, the most efficient experience, because we are working together.”

Regarding the school system, Gregoire-Roopchan explained that the Authority works closely with the Education Ministry’s Student Support Services, equipping teachers and staff to identify and report suspected cases of abuse.

She said, “There is a collaboration, and we work very closely, in particular, with Student Support Services and school supervision to make sure children get things like enrolment in school, reporting of abuse, going out on intervention together.”

The Authority has also collaborated with the Archdiocese of Port of Spain, which runs several children’s care homes in Trinidad and Tobago. This partnership led to the licensing of all Catholic children’s homes in the country, ensuring they meet the necessary standards to provide the best possible care for the children.

When the Authority receives a report of a serious incident, Gregoire-Roopchan explained that the Emergency Response team is deployed within 24 hours. “What they do is triangulate the information. The Authority is guided by legislation, and the law allows us to explore many avenues to get at what is the real truth, and most importantly, what is in the best interests of the child.”

This includes interviewing parents, the child (if possible), and gathering collateral information to understand the situation and determine the best course of action to protect the child.

Addressing the regional context, Gregoire-Roopchan stated that the trends they are seeing in T&T “mirror what is happening in the Caribbean”.

While the issues faced may be similar across the region, Gregoire-Roopchan highlighted the importance of engaging the public and ensuring they know how to report suspected abuse.

“What is concerning and what is important is that we know how to treat with abuse and how to engage the public to make sure that members of the public know when they see an abuse, what to do, who to call, when they call, what is going to happen, and how can they have a role in supporting a child.”

As the country observes Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month, the Children’s Authority is ramping up its public outreach efforts.

Gregoire-Roopchan urged the public to report any suspicions of child abuse: “You do not have to investigate. You do not have to know the full truth. All you have to do is have a suspicion and allow the entities like the Authority, like the police, to follow up.”

The public can reach the Children’s Authority at 996 or 800-2014 to make a report. “Child protection is everybody’s business,” she said, and the public’s vigilance and reporting can play a crucial role in protecting the most vulnerable members of society.