Children's convalescent home: providing sanctuary for the unwanted

By Judy Fitzpatrick
Stabroek News
January 16, 2000

Many of them are under four years old. They wear bright smiles on their faces and run to almost every person they see for affection. They love to play and, commendably, seem to be well disciplined.

At a first glance one would not discern a problem with these youngsters, but most of the children currently housed at the Red Cross Children's Convalescent Home in D'Urban Backlands, a programme of the Guyana Red Cross Society (GRCS), have had traumatic experiences. They have suffered severely at the hands of their primary guardians, in some cases relatives, before going to the home.

In one instance a two-year-old had her head bashed in and was beaten so severely that a permanent hole has been left in her skull. Another child was tied daily to his bed for two years because his mother was mentally impaired. Some of the children in the home have permanent multiple scars about their bodies and were so severely malnourished and neglected that they face permanent physical, emotional and mental damage.

Like most children, they have a burning desire to be loved, crave attention and seem eager to learn. Many argue that these needs cannot be genuinely provided in an institution.

The convalescent home is furnished with 30 cribs, 30 beds and has a 15-child day care centre in the lower flat of the building. There are about 25 staff members at the home who work a shift system to look after the 28 children currently housed there.

The children are taught proper behaviour and to be polite. They are disciplined through positive feedbacks rather than physical punishment. They are also taught the alphabet and to count, sing and dance.

Finances inadequate
The operations of the home are entirely funded by local donations and contributions made to the GRCS. About $800,000 is expended monthly on food alone. Breakfast for the children consists of a sandwich and a hot drink; their mid-morning snack is biscuits and fruit juice; lunch is a meal of rice, vegetables and a meat stew. This is followed by an afternoon snack of cake, ice cream and a beverage; macaroni and cheese or another light meal and tea is given for dinner and later, near bedtime, they have biscuits. "We try to feed them every two hours because they have small stomachs," Administrator, Michelle Goffin, said. Goffin, a Canadian, said that her staff are paid, "next to nothing, they are just given a stipend..."

The convalescent home is the single largest expense of the GRCS. During last year's public service strike it accommodated in excess of 50 children and now has a $1 million debt for 1999. Goffin said that it was becoming almost impossible to run the home because of the lack of adequate financial resources. However, the need is there and the building is currently being renovated to extend the play school to accommodate 40 children and to expand the day care centre to provide a more efficient service to the community.

Goffin said that many individuals and organisations assist by donating food items, clothing and toys, but much more is needed and she urged that further assistance be given. Any contribution made to the GRCS will help to reduce the home's monthly and daily budget.

More boys than girls
Goffin has conducted a study on 90 children in the home between January 1998 and December 1999. "People don't know what these children are all about, they don't have a clear idea of who they are," Goffin said.

The data was gathered from parents, guardians and social workers. The bulk of the children in the home come from poor families who live in depressed communities, mostly in the city. At any one time there are more boys than girls in the convalescent home. Fifty-five per cent of those studied were boys and 45% girls. Though an insignificant difference, Goffin says that this may be because girls are more readily accepted by a family member than boys.

At time the study was done, 55% were of African descent, 15% East Indian and 30% of mixed descent.

Thirty-six per cent of the children studied had been abandoned. Goffin explained that in some instances these children were found on the streets by members of the disciplined services. Some mothers left their newborn babies at the Georgetown Public Hospital, while others just took their children to the hospital and never returned for them.

She explained that if those abandoned at the hospital are under the age of four and are medically clear, they would be sent to the convalescent home, which is the only institution in Guyana that provides accommodation for abused children below the age of four. And though four years is its cut-off point, Goffin said that because of the demands of the society, sometimes children up to six years old are accommodated. Other similar institutions only accommodate school-age children.

Abused and neglected
Six per cent of the sample studied ended up in the home because they were so severely neglected or abused, that the social workers at the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security saw it fit to remove them from the custody of their primary guardians. However, the majority of the children in the home are taken there by either a parent or guardian. Staff of the home analyse the plight of each family that takes a child there to determine whether or not that child can be accommodated. The child's condition is examined to ensure that he or she is free of any communicable diseases and the family background is investigated. Goffin stated that HIV positive children are not accepted at the home. This is done because the home's caretakers are not medically trained and would be unable to provide the special care needed by HIV positive children, she stated. However, no child or family in genuine need is denied help, the administrator said. Depending on the needs of each family, a relevant agency is recommended for possible assistance. If the problem is lack of food, the family would be referred to the GRCS and the possibility of providing a weekly or monthly food package to the family examined.

Goffin explained that she tries as much as possible to avoid separating families. "It can be very traumatic for children to be taken away from their parents at such tender ages," she said. If the problem is that primary guardian has nowhere to leave the child while at work during the day, then the home would keep the child at its day-care centre. This would only be done if the primary guardian is employed.

Twenty-eight per cent of the children sampled were moderately malnourished. According to Goffin, these children will have some permanent deficiencies and their potential will be slightly diminished. Only 20% of the children sampled were healthy and showed no signs of malnutrition.

The convalescent home applies a number of factors to determine the severity of a child's emaciation. The children are weighed according to their age. "This is the single most telling factor to determine whether or not a child is malnourished," Goffin said. The child's haemoglobin (blood iron) level is also checked by examining the palms of their hands, eyes and hair. "If the colour at end of their hair is copper or orange then there is serious protein deficiency, if the bottom interior of their eyes are white instead of red then that child is likely to be anaemic." If the child's stomach is swollen and his arms, chest, and legs are thin then the possibility exists that child has a serious protein deficiency and or worms, she added.

Some 19% of the children in the home have additional medical problems such as heart defects, cerebral palsy, and physical disabilities.

Thirteen per cent of the occupants of the home, at the time of the study, had a parent who died of an AIDS-related illness, while the primary guardians of 24% were drug abusers. The guardians of 15% were not mentally competent enough to look after the children. Supporting the administrator's conviction, 22% of the children in the home showed signs of severe physical abuse.

Fifty-five per cent of the children in the sample were returned to their parents/guardians. Seventeen per cent were adopted and 26% were transferred to orphanages when they attained the age of four years old.

The administrator believes that not enough is being done to protect the rights of abandoned, abused children in Guyana. She believes that their number could be significantly reduced if an intense campaign is launched to sensitize the public on family planning.

According to Goffin some Guyanese also need to change their attitude towards children. "It is not acceptable to beat a child until he has physical scars."

She stressed that the community could not continue to turn a blind eye towards this problem. "If a neighbour is in trouble then help out, we have to start at the community level."

Goffin has no formal training in child care, but is a certified bio chemist. She took over as administrator of the home in 1997, having arrived in Guyana just six months prior. She testifies to her love for working with children. However, her two-year stint has come to an end and Goffin will be leaving the convalescent home in May to continue her studies in Canada. She hopes to continue working with non governmental organisations when she completes her studies.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples