The adage, “It takes a village to raise a child” is something the director of the Children’s Authority is hoping to achieve over the next three years to ensure the protection of children.
Nichola Harvey-Mitchell, 50, took up her role in March last year and has big plans for the organisation, from reform and self-sustainability to legislative changes.
Harvey-Mitchell, who has been an advocate for children in her personal life, told Sunday Newsday she intended to fully explore the rights of a child and ensure they were being properly enforced.
The organisation, she said, was developing its strategic plan, which showed the need to be more efficient and responsive.
“We want to increase the prevention of child abuse through sensitisation, especially in the villages, where people cannot reach us online. We want to sensitise not just the teachers and children, but communities.
“We want to do more lobbying and advocating for children’s rights in some changes in legislation, and, from a parental perspective, do work on the importance of the family,” Harvey-Mitchell explained.
Response and timely child protection, stakeholder collaboration, institutional strengthening and financial sustainability were areas she also planned to tackle.
A key area of focus for the agency was stressing the importance of family and getting the community involved in raising the child. She believes this method is one way to reduce incidents of child abuse because the family or family-type setting through the community’s involvement allows individuals to find positive influences and make contributions.
“The stories of children I am seeing through the Children’s Authority points to a lack of family structure, support and understanding of the role as a family member.
“The family is critical to the psycho-social perspective. Our society does not have that, so you see why we have so many fragmented families and so much abuse. Children come to us with stories that their mother or father has sexually abused them.
"How could that be when the divine role of a parent is to protect?"
She called for parents and people who intended to be parents to take their roles and responsibilities seriously.
“Parenting is a serious commitment for life. Five minutes of pleasure is a lifetime of development, which a lot of people miss with their children. We have to train and re-train our parents. Sex is a good thing but (they) forget the lifelong responsibility of taking care of a child.”
Collaboration with stakeholders, especially the police, and amendments to legislation were also areas the authority plans to push. Fine-tuning the working relationship with the police Child Protection Unit (CPU) was, she explained critical in improving their responsiveness to cases. The CPU and the authority were established about five years ago and have been working together to detect and weed out child abuse.
A good working relationship with the health, education, and other institutions such as churches, Harvey-Mitchell said, also determined if a child was at risk of abuse or to be potentially abused.
“Research has shown that child abuse can be prevented if we do work early in the life of the child, starting with the parents’ visit to the health institution.
“So we want to partner with all the agencies that the child would interact with to detect and prevent child abuse, but also work together to ensure the child is well taken care of and the rights of the child are sustained.”
She said the authority has approached RBC, Republic Bank, Massy Stores and others for financial assistance to fulfil its mandate.
The authority falls under the remit of the Office of the Prime Minister, headed by Ayanna Webster-Roy, which allocates funding for its operations.
“Our resources are not increasing as rapidly as the number of cases that we get. The government has been generous in increasing our subventions, but the child abuse cases and interventions and treatments that we have to deal with call for more financial resources.” she pointed out.
With the limited resources, she added that the staff at the authority has been working hard because of their collectively ideology of creating a safe environment for children.
The post of director at the authority is a full-time job. Harvey-Mitchell said the success of her goals for the authority during her tenure will weigh in her decision to seek a second term. The position has a three-year contract.
“At the end of the contract, the position is re-advertised, I can choose to re-apply,” she explained.
The authority has 278 fixed-term employees. There is an additional classification of employees who include 51 on-the-job trainees, associate professionals, interns and practicum students and 42 independent service providers.
The new board was appointed by the Prime Minister in December.
The members are chairman Dr Carol Logie, deputy chairman Jennifer Boucaud-Blake, Dr Hazel Othello, Dr Gillian Wheeler, Harrilal Seecharan, Denyse Gouveia, Dr Natalie Dick, Keon Cunningham, Marcrina Peters, Rawlinson Agard, Sule Joseph, Maria Baptiste, Laura Davis, and ex-officio member and authority director Harvey-Mitchell.
Strong family ties built foundation for success
Harvey-Mitchell, who grew up in Laventille, said she had to prove her worth a little more other because of the stereotype associated with the area in which she once lived.
She has an MBA (International), mini MBA in telecoms, a BSc in sociology and management and several certificates in customer service, leadership, organisational development, change management, public relations, speech broadcasting and media, competent communicator from Toastmasters International, teaching children about entrepreneurship from Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), positive psychology, personal development coaching and countering violent extremism.
Harvey-Mitchell said her education was mostly at local institutions and having worked in various sectors at different levels, her experiences have allowed her to appreciate everyone and their respective roles in society.
“The negative perception and stigmatisation of people from Laventille is there. I cannot ignore it. I am not rich, and my parents did their best to raise me and my ten siblings, but I had a strong family unit and foundation, which was key to my success.
“This stable family structure has transitioned itself throughout my life. My mother instilled in us that no matter where we lived, or how much money we have, hard work and service to others were important pillars of success.”
Although she does not have any children Harvey-Mitchell extends her motherly love and mentoring to the children in a non-governmental organisation she founded.
The We Say Yes foundation aims to help at risk-youth and allow them to explore their potential as entrepreneurs.
She said, “People refer to them as at-risk youth, but I call them at-potential youth, and our work is in East Port of Spain and extended to Arima. We have a structured six-year programme for children between 5 and 16 years old.
“We target children who may not have an opportunity and introduce them to concepts of entrepreneurship, self-empowerment and how they can use that to make positive choices.”
Harvey-Mitchell wears several other hats as a success coach, an author of a motivational book “21 Powerful P's to Success,” a lecturer, chairman of the Global Coalition for Youth Employment under the Ministry of Sport and Community Development, member of the community recovery programme set up by Dr Keith Rowley in July to evaluate and design a path forward for communities in need after widespread protests over the police killing of three men in Morvant. Her role on this team involves social pathology/ mental health, correctional services, and psychiatric forensic assessment.
She is also member of the Inter-American Development Bank's Next Gen leadership board and an alumna of the International Leadership Visitors programme of the US embassy.
“I am really passionate about serving the young people, especially those who may not have the opportunities I had. The vulnerable, those who may be disadvantaged, those who do not have (the same) economic well-being as others. This is why I work in the areas of East Port of Spain and Arima where there are depressed, low-income type families.”
Harvey-Mitchell urged people to not forget that spirituality also plays a key role in fulfilling an individual’s purpose in life and having hobbies is good for stress relief. Some of her own include dancing, singing, reading, exercising and of course, sleeping.
Increase in physical and emotional abuse
Statistics from the authority showed that there was an increase in reported child abuse for March-October 2020 of 272 cases, taking the total cases to 3,354 up from 3,082 when compared to 2019. It added that there was an average of 419 cases per month for that period.
Statistics also showed increases for the period in physical abuse to 15.7 per cent, up from 13.8 per cent in 2019, and emotional abuse of 13.1 per cent, up from 9.6 per cent.
The authority recorded minor decreases in sexual abuse of 22.3 per cent for 2020. That figure was 23.4 per cent in 2019. Neglect decreased to 15.1 per cent. It was 20.3 per cent in 2019.
Under the Children’s Authority Act, section 14, assessment, support centres, and reception centres are made available for the temporary care of children by providing care and emergency accommodation for up to 12 weeks.
The Child Support Centre also falls under the remit of the authority and has an emergency and short-term placement facility to accommodate children who were immediately removed. The location is secure, child-friendly and professionally staffed.
Harvey-Mitchell noted that the role of the authority was not to remove children from their homes but intervene if a child was in imminent danger.
“If a child's staying with their family is not in the child’s best interest, the child will be removed. The authority will seek to place the child with another relative who is suitable and able to adequately care for the needs of the child. If no suitable relative can be found, then the child will be placed in the care of the authority.”
She added that investigations must be done when reports are received to substantiate or not substantiate the allegations, which would determine appropriate actions.
“In order to substantiate the report, the authority conducts a social investigation, which usually involves a home visit that includes interviews with the child's parents and other relatives, a school visit and community enquiries.
“In some cases, additional investigative work is done to ascertain the facts of the case, so that a fully informed recommendation can be made. At the same time, the criminal investigation is conducted by the CPU.”