By Laura Ann Phillips
Researchers now accept that some measure of dysfunction is present in every family. But, we knew that instinctively, didn’t we? Just think of the centuries-old adage of every family “having skeletons in the closet”!
But, what if your family skeletons weren’t kept in those proverbial closets? What if they ruled your family?
Add to that poverty, neglect, inadequate education and a running exposure to crime and violence close-up – what do you get?
The brew that produces angry, defeated “high-risk” children, such as those placed in youth-care facilities.
“(When) the children come to us, there are these learning gaps,” said Dale Bartholomew, co-ordinator of CREDO Development Centre and CREDO Sophia House, Port of Spain – live-in development centres for boys and girls, respectively.
“Some of them went to school for the first two years, but missed school after that,” she explained. “The basics that you should know, are not there.”
So, remedial work is necessary because, often, “they can’t function in a mainstream school,” continued Bartholomew. “That’s why we rely on schools such as SERVOL.”
One of their residents is, at this time, an intern in a SERVOL programme, while two others are at different stages of pursuing university degrees. But, that’s not typical.
It’s hard to catch up on the kind of early educational lapses most of these kids have.
“These are the youngsters who really are not going to pass any exams,” said Sr Roberta O’Flaherty, CHF, executive director of CREDO Foundation for Justice, the umbrella body for Sophia House and CREDO Development Centre.
“That’s why we’re doing the literacy programmes with them, because the way out of poverty is through education.”
It’s also why CREDO provides literacy and other programmes for adults – including residents’ parents.
Earl Joseph, a youth-programme developer at Marian House, Port of Spain, a Living Water Community development ministry for adolescent boys, says that one main indicator that a high-risk child is likely to respond to care and intervention is that he or she “gravitates toward studying”.
With education so easily available, though, young people may still not always make wise choices.
Sr Roberta recalls the pain of seeing young boys and girls who started off pursuing new opportunities, only to return to destructive ways.
“Some of the youngsters that come to us have had relationships in the past that are unhealthy,” she said. “They’ve been involved in gangs, they’ve been involved in – or had friends who have been involved in – drugs.”
And may stay in contact with them, in spite of the institution’s attempts to keep tabs on them.
Both CREDO homes have sign-in rosters for departures and arrivals, immediate checks if someone is late coming home from school, frequent contact with schools to ensure attendance and limited or no access to cellphones.
But, it’s impossible to keep tabs on residents 24 hours a day. Some return to old ways, others manage to stick to the hard, unfamiliar road of change.
Marian House has also had their share of successes. Since opening back in 1987, they can boast of independent business operators, nurturing husbands and fathers, calypsonians and musicians among their past residents.
Of their current population, most are in secondary school. Others are studying for university degrees and accounting qualifications, with someone even studying law.
“That’s what we have to understand,” said Joseph. “Each young man who walks in through those doors, they do have their gifts. Whether it’s to do a trade or go into the natural school system, they do have gifts and it’s to recognise it, pull it out.
“That, too, boosts their self-esteem and, then, you see behaviour changing.”
But, it comes at an enormous cost – human and financial – to these agencies.
Once a young person is placed, providing for their physical, mental, psychological and spiritual needs now becomes the responsibility of the institution, with limited government assistance.
And, at age 17, they are required to leave the programmes.
The sudden transition to independent living can be brutal; they’re still teens, after all, some with limited family support.
“We like to keep our children, really, until they can stand on their own two feet, you know?” said Sr Roberta. “Just until they reach a certain age; we tend to keep them.”
Although they may have accumulated savings over the years – CREDO encourages residents to have jobs during school holidays and teaches money management – outgoing residents quickly see life’s harsh realities.
“They have nobody else to rely on, you know?” said Sr Roberta, simply. “We’re family; they don’t have anybody else.”
Having skimmed the surface of this complexed issue, how can we contain its swell?
Sr Roberta believes that one “major thing” would be: “the quality of education, particularly in our primary schools. The thing is, if you get a good start, you stand some chance, but, it’s really awful in some of our schools.
“Some of them do well but, then, the ones that are doing well, who gets to go to them?” she challenged. “And, who gets to go to the ones that are under-performing?”
Parenting is another imperative.
“Because, no matter what you’re doing on the outside,” said Sister, “the child goes home to the same kind of environment.
“Circumstances of screaming and down-grading, insulting them – which is a lot of what is going on, because people don’t know how to discipline their children,” she said, sadly, “they don’t know how to talk to their children.”
Still, with prayer, attention, longs hours of hard work and a little imagination, boys and girls with really rough starts are given the opportunity for a dignified, independent life.
“What I have noticed is that all of the youngsters who have left us – boys and girls – who now have children, are now, on their own, very good parents,” said Sr Roberta, proudly.
And, that can only augur well for our future.
That, and the invisible, silent work of men and women who continue to hope and pray, carrying the brunt of healing and renewal of the children scarred by neglect and abuse.