We refer to the imposition of a three-year jail sentence on Kamla Ramcharan, 29, of Longdenville, Chaguanas, for burning the left hand of her daughter, Vishala Bikharrie, eight, on a hot tawah, in a supposed attempt to discipline the child for allegedly stealing $5 from a schoolmate.
Reports are that Ramcharan tried to burn the child’s hand on the tawah, and then burnt it on a stove flame, for which Vishala incurred third degree burns.
Chaguanas Magistrate Gillian David-Scotland described it as a heinous act for which the mother had shown no remorse later.
While we would normally be the first to applaud the meting out of justice to an offender, in this case we ask whether imprisonment is in fact the best outcome to this case, given the circumstances leading up to the offence, and now the fact of the children’s deprivation of their mother.
It seems to us to be a case of an overburdened parent — a single mother of four children — clearly having inadequate parenting skills to cope.
However, unlike the gist of the argument posited by her friends and neighbours at the courthouse, we would not go so far as to suggest that Ramcharan just suddenly snapped under the pressures of life. We say so because it was a sustained act involving both tawah and then stove flame, and because afterwards she didn’t express shock at her own actions but on the other hand tried to justify herself to the police. She had said, “I not sorry for what I do. I sure she not going to steal again.” On the contrary it may well be that Ramcharan was exhibiting a pattern of learned, cultural behaviour. Many persons in pockets and communities across Trinidad and Tobago themselves grew up from childhood witnessing punishments such as kneeling on a grater.
It may well be that in the present case the presiding magistrate decided to send a clear message that burning a child is not any social norm that she is prepared to tolerate.
Supporters of Ramcharan — including Vishala’s biological father, Navin Bikharrie have argued that the three-year sentence was too harsh.
“That woman try hard but she is frustrated,” remarked one woman. “Three years is too harsh for a mother.” Navin agreed, vowing to visit her often in jail to offer words of comfort.
In addition to the first question as to whether Ramcharan’s actions were out of character or alternatively were a characteristic of her internal values, one must also ask whether or not she would be likely to commit such an offence again, to any of her four children.
However even if there is an unfavourable answer to both these questions, one must ask a further question: in general are those four children better off with or without their mother in their lives for the next three years?
It is a question not to be taken lightly.
Further, we would ask whether there might be some alternative to incarceration, that could let the mother retain contact with her children. This is especially desirable given the fact that this was her first offence.
For example in such cases one option instead of jail might be for a programme of counselling by social workers, and/or rehabilitation and psychotherapy at St Ann’s Hospital. Of course, Ramcharan has the right to appeal her sentence.
While we note that Vishala has now gone to live with her father, we wonder who is going to raise Ramcharan’s three other children, and whether any such new arrangements might now mean the break-up of the family.
This sad case certainly highlights the situation in hundreds of households across TT where some parents find themselves simply unable to cope with all the heavy responsibilities of raising children. What help is available for such distressed parents, we ask? It may be that a parent under pressure simply needs a place of solitude to get solace, away from the burdens of parenthood say just once a week, such as the centres for healing once proposed by former Gender Affairs Minister, Verna Rose-St Greaves. As TT moves away from living the ideal that, “it takes a village to raise a child”, it may be time for more State assistance to help reduce the burden of parenthood, such as sending children to homework centres.
More must be done, where possible, to help prevent such tragedies recurring.