IN the past two decades there has been a sharp decline in the number of street children visible in the capital city of Port-of- Spain. But this is not good news as these children have jumped from the frying pan of living on the street to the fire of gang life, drugs and even informal prostitution.
This was the view expressed by Sister Roberta O’Flaherty, executive director of Credo Foundation for Justice, during an interview with Sunday Newsday. She recalled the Foundation, which manages the Credo Centre at Nelson Street for at risk boys and Credo Sophia House for at risk girls at Park Street, began working with street children back in 1997.
She said originally the children would go to Credo straight from the street. Most were runaways from home usually due to abuse, neglect or some had no money to go to school. Those not in school would be in Port-of-Spain trying to get money on the streets. She said the children would be “very pathetic looking” and adults would always want to help.
“In those days they would quickly gather up some money.
They survived because they gave services both sexual and otherwise,” he explained.
She recalled most of these children had some “home” to go to in the evening and if it was not their actual home it would be places to sleep like bars or places where there would be “unsavoury activities”.
She noted “nice cars” would pick up the street children at Independence Square for “services”.
“The streets are no place for children to be,” she stressed.
She said there were mainly boys on the street who ran away from home as the girls would generally end up with a man who would offer a roof over their heads for sexual services.
“A sort of informal prostitution,” she explained.
She stressed that though you were not seeing girls on the streets it did not mean that their problem was not as serious or even more serious. For some children on the streets there is the rare occasion where their parents would send them to sell on the streets.
She also recalled one boy with a box of sweets whose parents told him not to come home until he sold them all.
Asked about a particular case that affected her, O’Flaherty responded there are so many. She recalled a ten-year-old boy who knocked at their door once who had been living alone in a box on the Beetham Highway. There were also children who ended up parenting a parent who was a drug addict, children living in cemeteries and one family where the stepmother put the children out on the side of the road. Other children were greatly abused in family situations and were helped by a school social worker.
“Our children suffer quite a lot.
Far too much,” she lamented.
She said now the children who arrive at Credo Foundation homes are brought by the Children’s Authority because they were living in “unacceptable circumstances” or were brought by the police. These children are not street children but have a home they are attached to. She noted the children who come to them are not running to the streets but running away from circumstances and are “always dying to go back to school”. O’Flaherty said they do not see as many children on the streets as they did before though they are still there and one child on the streets is “too many”.
“You do not see them running around in Port-of-Spain quite as much as ten, 15 years ago. It is not a plus. They are just not visible,” she noted.
She explained the reason they are less visible is because the street children are being absorbed into criminal activities.
“As soon as they on the street between gangs and drugs in no time they got themselves in a serious situation,” she noted.
She explained those in gangs and involved in drugs are “kind of hidden” and their lack of visibility may also be due to more policing. She said the population of street children has changed “tremendously” over the years as has the culture of Port-of-Spain with the gang and crime problem 20 years ago not “nearly as bad as it is now”. She noted the foundation spends a lot of their time doing prevention, keeping children from ending up on the streets.
She reported that at the new centre on Nelson Street, opened in 2014, they have a homework programme for children in the area so they can achieve better academically.
“They can find a safe place for positive activities and to develop friendships. We are helping the community to be healed, come together and be ready to support one another. Form neighbourly bonds and community bonds,” she said.
Questioned what can be done to address the issue of street children, O’Flaherty said it is about strengthening families, helping parents improve their parenting skills and empowering them to improve their ability to generate income.
“Children should not be on streets, or in a (community) residence like (Credo). They should be with his or her family,” she stressed. “In the long run when helping a parent you are helping the children.” She noted that because of unfortunate circumstances they end up in a community residence and Credo does the best they can but they cannot replace healthy families.
She said strengthening families is a “big issue” and not something that can be done easily over night.
At the State level, O’Flaherty said there needed to be a lot more support services for children and for those working in community residences. She noted for Credo when children need special care most times there is no place to take them, and if care is provided it takes months. She explained some of these children require special medication as a lot have mental problems but the medication, which is expensive, never seems to be available.
“Support services for children really can be beefed up. Sometimes you do not know where you can bring a child when you have pressing problems,” she added.
For the general public she said the neighbourly and community spirit is less than it used to be and people need to look out as neighbours when a child may be in trouble. She advised people to call and make a complaint and report if they suspect a child is being abused, adding that this is one of the things the Children’s Authority has been asking people to do.
“Children are being slapped and abused in a house nearby and people do nothing about it. The days are past where you say ‘it has nothing to do with me’. Too many children are ending up dead. If you do nothing you are part of the problem,” she stressed.
Minister of Social Development and Family Services Cherrie- Ann Crichlow-Cockburn, speaking during a brief telephone interview, said thus far they had not found evidence of a problem of street children in the country but the issue would be looked into. She also noted the area of children was now under the purview of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) but her ministry would be working closely with OPM and the Children’s Authority.
The head office of the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago is located at 35A Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain.
They can be reached via telephone at 627-0748, 623-7555 or 625-7151 or via email at info@ ttchildren.org.