More cases of child physical abuse being reported
--education welfare officer

by Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
June 24, 2001

An increasing number of cases involving the physical abuse, including sexual abuse, of children, is being reported to the Welfare Section of the Georgetown Education Department. It has also been receiving reports of emotional abuse, deprivation and neglect, truancy, loitering and absenteeism, bus-riding, alcohol and drug abuse and to a lesser extent bullying and fighting among peers.

Schools' Welfare Officer Aggrey Azore, seconded to the Georgetown Department of Education from the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security told Stabroek News in an interview that the welfare officers and the department were addressing the issues with the resources at hand.

The number of cases which he and his colleague Shawn Mitchell had been required to handle had grown since they were first seconded to the department last August. There are over 130 nursery, primary and secondary schools and practical instructional centres in the city.

The welfare officers work in conjunction with a number of agencies offering support services, such as Lifeline Counselling, Help and Shelter and the Probation and Welfare Department of the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security.

They are normally in the office on Wednesday and Fridays, except when they respond to emergencies, while they go into the field on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

This year's plans to deal with some of the problems the officers encounter include the mounting of a number of workshops encompassing teenage issues such as drug abuse, pregnancy, career guidance, and peer group counselling. Where the last of these is concerned, the department identifies resource persons to work in collaboration with the welfare service on structuring programmes in schools. Also to be involved are Parent Teachers Associations and Parent Action Committees.

The department is also to launch a campaign against loitering and truancy in collaboration with the police, among other agencies, while it is encouraging all schools to promote youth groups and youth programmes in schools.

In addition, through discussions with heads, the department has come up with a list of alternatives to corporal punishment for consideration by the Ministry of Education.

Addressing the issue of child abuse in its various forms is the welfare officers' top priority, Azore said. He noted that while physical abuse was prevalent, it was not so much in evidence in schools, but rather at home, where children suffered at the hands of parents and other members of the family.

Most of the cases drawn to their attention, he said, had been reported by teachers who saw the evidence, or members of the community, and family members not involved in the abuse.

Azore said that the flogging of children resulting in injury was common. This was followed by children who had sustained burns from cigarettes and injuries inflicted by all kinds of weapons.

In such cases the welfare officers would visit the school and meet with the child or children. The department would issue letters through the school to the parents summoning the member of the family who had injured the child to meet with the welfare officers.

In cases where corporal punishment had been carried out in a way not in accordance with the law, there would be an investigation by the department, following which action would be taken. However, Azore said that the number of such cases was not as alarming as it might appear from the recent coverage in the press. What was more alarming, he said, were the cases where a child had been injured by family members. These cases came from the nursery, primary and secondary levels and cut across social, economic and ethnic backgrounds.

In most instances of physical abuse, children were also emotionally abused and demeaned. The department received on average two reports each month.

Azore noted that abuse affected the capacity to learn, and was responsible for a negative self-image and defeatist attitude on the part of a child.

So far, in terms of investigation and cooperation Azore said the officers had not encountered any irate persons. In addition to the child they also counselled the person who had inflicted the injury to establish their sense of self-worth. Some cases were referred to the Probation and Family Welfare Unit of Ministry of Human Services which would take whatever action it deemed fit.

Azore observed that an increasing number of sexual abuse cases were coming to the fore, two or three being reported each month. In some instances children related to teachers how they had been abused at home by family members, friends and persons they knew in the neighbourhood. This then might be reported to the head teacher, who would then in turn report to the department.

The welfare officer conceded that there were cases of teachers sexually abusing children, but again, he said it was not prevalent, and because it had gone into the public domain it appeared more common than it was. When cases were brought to their attention, "we investigate and take corrective action." Most times transfers were given for the student's well-being.

At present the department had recommended that a teacher from a Georgetown school, who allegedly had sexually assaulted a student had been sent on leave and a recommendation had been forwarded to the Chief Education Officer and Teaching Service Commission proposing that the teacher be interdicted from duty until the outcome of the matter which had been reported to the police. The latest report on this issue is that the police are awaiting advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions.

One of the worst cases Azore referred to was that of a paedophile who had been successfully prosecuted following the intervention of the school. The paedophile was a relative of the boy and they lived in the same home. The child and the mother are still receiving counselling.

The issue of neglect and deprivation was more difficult to pursue, Azore said, because it was a consequence of social and economic circumstances.

Most of these children came from single parent homes, especially those where a woman had six or seven children with different fathers. They came to notice in August/September when pupils were registered for school and a parent would make known their inability to outfit their children. "There are about four or five severe cases some months", he said.

Where truancy and absenteeism were concerned most parents were made aware of their truant child through the school. After counselling there was generally a significant improvement in behaviour. Parents would be asked to check books, make spot checks at the school and keep in constant contact with teachers. Absenteeism was most times due to illness and difficult circumstances.

In cases of bullying and fighting counselling was done. When sanctions are imposed some children react positively, Azore said. Sometimes this behaviour was an indication that a child was crying out for attention.

According to the welfare officer, alcohol and drug abuse were not widespread in schools, but when cases were reported, mainly from the secondary schools, the department would take immediate action and offer counselling, while the school's administration would impose sanctions. They did the same for bus-riders, explaining to children the danger of putting their education and lives in jeopardy through teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

In addition, the department would asks the schools to identify the bus-riders and the bus numbers, and to get the names of the conductors and drivers involved.