November 22, 2003
If these were medieval times it would be fitting now to pronounce a curse on the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security. It is no longer enough to simply call it inhuman. Guyana has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but obviously no one has informed this ministry.
Scarcely has the mud settled on Akeem Trotman's grave than the welfare officers, presented with another child in crisis, fail to act. How they could continue to get away with not performing the duties mandated by their job is an indictment on their minister and the government which appointed her.
Thursday's Stabroek News carried the heart-wrenching story of a one-year-old child, whose life so far has been unfavourably compared to a roller coaster ride. Terrifyingly, she was handed over to a strange taxi driver or left in his car, by her homeless mother, who misguidedly may have thought that she was doing the best thing she could do for her child at the time.
Shockingly, as it turned out, Lilly Wong's woeful life was not news to the welfare officers to whom her predicament was related. Instead they could have added to the story as they had been seeing her mother at the ministry regularly begging for $500 and knew that she was homeless. Presumably, someone at the ministry was giving this woebegone woman the occasional $500 which she asked for. It is not known if this was given as official assistance, but whether or not it was, it reflects the mentality which governs what passes for social work at the ministry.
The usual tired excuses will no doubt be made. But let's be practical, there should be no red tape where the well-being of a child is concerned, particularly one so young.
One can accept that the Red Cross Convalescent home is stretched beyond its limit. It has long ceased to function as simply a place for sick children to convalesce and has extended its services to orphans and temporarily abandoned children. Because it does not sing its own tune, this refuge and its staff rarely get the recognition they deserve. If only the same could be said about the Human Services Ministry! The Red Cross Convalescent Home is not an orphanage; it is not a foster home. But it would appear that because the convalescent home is usually accommodating, it is unfairly and unduly pressed and overburdened.
The Human Services Ministry should have an active fostering programme. If it does not then one needs to be started, yesterday. If it does then it ought to also have an emergency foster home. Lilly Wong's case was an emergency and should have been treated as such. Welfare officers could have no excuse for handing an abandoned child back to the strangers who rescued her, regardless of how kind or concerned they may have seemed. In addition, the officers were made aware that the primary carer in the Sophia house where Lilly had spent two nights was a hard-working female security guard with five children of her own. The ministry has since launched an investigation to find out why this course was adopted.
Given that Lilly's mother had been visiting the ministry and they knew of her circumstances, why was she not counselled about fostering and encouraged to allow her child to be placed in care temporarily until she was able to provide for her? The testimony given by the woman's colleagues and the day-care staff is evidence that this mother loves her child and wants to do right by her. Realising that she did not have the means to do so, she, quite correctly, turned to the Human Services Ministry where she should have been given some guidance on how to proceed. Instead she was regularly sent away with a $500 handout. By failing to reach this mother, welfare workers have failed her child.
On Thursday, the ministry said it was looking for Lilly and her mother so as to look into the child's welfare. Until she is found, Lilly remains a challenge to social workers. One can but hope that they take this opportunity to redeem themselves and not allow Lilly and others like her to continue to slip through the cracks.