Prompted by the recent deaths of two children whose alleged abuse cases were being handled by the Child Care Board (CCB) and strong public criticism of the board’s response, the minister responsible for the agency this afternoon announced a plan of action to handle future reports more efficiently and effectively.
Flanked by CCB chairman Ken Knight, Director Joan Crawford and other members of the board, Minister of Social Care Steve Blackett told a press conference at his Warrens Office Complex that one measure already introduced was a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the state agency and the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) to ensure efficient and effective responses to reports of child abuse. “Some of the provisions of this draft MOU are that child care officers are to be trained in investigative interviewing by the police department and police officers are to be trained in the techniques of interviewing children by the professionals at CCB,” Blackett disclosed. He said this training would be conducted periodically with the aim of enhancing the interviewing skills of both groups.
Blackett said the plan also calls for police officers from the Sex Crimes and Trafficking Unit “or other assigned police officers” to accompany child care officers when they conduct interviews about child abuse.
He added that the MOU requires all suspected sexual and physical child abuse cases to be reported to the police by the child protection agency before the close of the workday on which the referral was made to the board.
“And the CCB has undertaken a comprehensive review of the information management system of the agency and is expediting a substantial upgrade of that system,” added Blackett.
The minister said following the suicide of 12-year-old Shamar Weekes of Checker Hall, St Lucy who neighbours claimed had been abused, the board appointed “a specially constituted committee” to review internal protection procedures, including the case management information system. He said that part of its mandate is to recommend updated protocols which are better suited to the operations of the agency in the prevailing social conditions of Barbados. The Ministry, he added, has also held discussions with representatives of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) with a view to obtaining assistance for the board. “My ministry subsequently accepted a proposal from UNICEF for that organization to provide short-term institutional strengthening assistance to the Child Care Board.” He said he was also reviewing proposals from an emerging non-governmental organization (NGO) headed by former juvenile court magistrate Faith Marshall-Harris aimed at providing a safety network for Barbadian children.
“That organization will bring together doctors, legal experts, criminologists, social workers and advocates, counsellors, psychologists and religious leaders for direct community level intervention, and to lend expertise to officials in key areas,” stated Blackett. He also proposed the development of a comprehensive Child Protection Policy for Barbados, working with the best minds in and outside of Cabinet to develop a new policy, structure and legislative framework. “It should also realize a refocusing and rebalancing of the Child Care Board’s programming towards more strategic emphasis on prevention, as opposed to the overwhelming focus on responding to actual maltreatment of children.” Blackett said the Child Protection Policy would make a significant difference to children, helping identify those most at risk of abuse and neglect so authorities could act early. He expressed concern that the needs of the community were no longer being adequately met by existing legislation and therefore, as a matter of urgency, his Ministry would undertake a review of all legislation related to child protection with a view to drafting a comprehensive Children’s Act. He acknowledged that the current practice of removing children from homes only when there were clear cases of abuse was no longer working. Blackett stressed that while counselling with the cooperation of parents and guardians and keeping children in family care had been effective in the past, this general approach had outlived its usefulness. “It is very clear as underscored by these recent cases that societal conditions in Barbados have changed radically and dramatically over the last ten years and there is need for the agency to adopt new protocols in handling investigation of cases of alleged child abuse and neglect.” He said that there was no comprehensive or consolidated Children’s Act in Barbadian law at the moment and no legal requirement to report incidences of child abuse to authorities.
“The Government of Barbados and my ministry will do everything we can to allow the full review of the child protection process and will do nothing to jeopardize those aims, and wherever institutions and individuals have failed to protect children from harm, we will expose those failures and take the appropriate corrective action.”
The Child Care Board has said it lacked the resources to handle the number of cases that come before it.
In an interview with Barbados TODAY on July 9 Knight said the agency employed seven child care officers, half the number needed in order to be effective.
“What we are currently looking at, we do require as a matter of urgency – and we have addressed this with the Minister [of Social Care] and we are working on it – that there is a need to actually double up the staff at the Child Care Board as it relates to handling reports of child abuse,” he said at the time.
Blackett addressed the matter at today’s news conference, but said Government did not have the money to hire new staff.