“The community, namely professionals, is key to ensuring that the Court of Guardianship (CoG) can do our job to protect children,” says Kimberly Brown, Head of the CoG. The CoG is divided into three sections: child protection, youth probation and collection and payment (alimony cases). The CoG is the official reporting centre for child abuse in St. Maarten.
Working at the CoG can be challenging, but Kimberly always tries to remember her main objective: “I want all children to have the experience of being loved, appreciated and cared for.”
The CoG works closely with the family guardian department of the SJIS, the foundation that assists families and minors when a protective measure is in place. Others include the St. Maarten Police Department, Prosecutors Office, Courthouse (Judges), St. Maarten Medical Center, Mental Health Foundation, Family Affairs (Women’s Desk), schools, community centres and other entities that deal with children or families regularly. Kimberly: “We can all agree as a community that we want our children to be safe and healthy. Furthermore, as a professional dealing directly with children or families, you are in the position to help ensure this.”
How can you signal child abuse?
There are many different warning signs that can indicate abuse. Physical abuse or neglect is often easier to detect as you can see signs such as bruises or unhealthy hygiene. Psychological abuse might be a bit harder to notice; this can, for example, be signalled because the child is showing extreme behaviours such as acting out or exhibiting withdrawn behaviour.
One should also be aware of certain characteristics of parents that can lead to abuse, such as mental illness and the use of alcohol and drugs. Parents who have a history of experiencing abuse in their youth are also more likely to become abusers themselves. We also see the risk increase when a child is unwanted, as is the case at times with young single mothers who have low education and no support system. You can always call the CoG for advice, and we also give presentations for entities that wish to gain more knowledge on child abuse and the role of the CoG.
What can a professional report at the CoG?
The CoG is the “central reporting centre on child abuse” (CMK, centrale meldpunt kindermishandeling) on the island. This means that all reports of possible abuse, however minor, should be shared with the CoG so that this can be filed, assessed, and action can be taken, if needed. However, it is important to realize that the CoG should not be seen as the “first to have to take action” in cases of possible child abuse.
This means that, for example, if a teacher suspects that a child is being neglected, this should first be discussed with the school’s social worker and/or handled by the “care team”. The social worker can then talk with the parents; find out what is taking place and work with the parents to make a plan of action. When all possibilities within the school system have been exhausted, the social worker (care team) can report to CoG. The CoG should be seen as the last resort to safeguard the minor.
What are common misconceptions about reporting a possible child abuse case?
People think that the CoG will always “take the child out of their home”. This is often not the case. We are not here to punish parents, but to protect children. Our first goal is to assess if we can work with the family and network around the child to ensure the child’s safety and wellbeing. Only in extreme cases is a protective measure in combination with an out-of-the-home placement inevitable. Whomever we advise; the child and their best interests are central, and in most cases, these interests include keeping the parents involved.
Another misconception is that the CoG is solely responsible to ensure the safety of a child. As mentioned, if a professional suspects that a child’s wellbeing is in danger, he or she has to take action first. Taking action can mean involving the social worker within their organization, talking to the parents, or informing the family of available services.
What is the best way for a professional to report a case?
The professional has already taken action, and all resources within their reach have been exhausted to improve the child's situation. The professional must inform the parents that they will report the case to CoG, unless informing parents places the child at risk. Your report to the CoG should be detailed and in writing. It is also of great help when the professional is prepared to continue supporting the CoG with more information or action if needed.
Why do people hesitate to contact the CoG?
This could be due to the above-mentioned misconceptions; it can also be that the person knows the people involved personally or is afraid of aggressive repercussions. The public, as well as professionals, can ask for information anonymously. However, only the public can report to CoG anonymously; professionals can’t. At the end of the day, the safety of a child should be your priority and you need to take action. We are just a phone call away.
How does the CoG deal with the many cultural differences?
On Sint Maarten, there is a law against corporal punishment. Yet many cultures on our island use corporal punishment as a means of correcting their children. By speaking with parents, we have learnt that in many cases, parents use corporal punishment due to a lack of knowledge of alternatives. They were raised that way and don’t know any better.
As professionals, we have the responsibility not only to point out the law and unacceptable behaviour, but also to educate parents on alternatives. There are various organisations, such as the Student Support Services Division, that provide counselling and parenting classes. A new Positive Parenting Support Program will also be launched in 2023.
What socio-economic factors play a role in child abuse?
On Sint Maarten, many families live in poverty. Many earn less than minimum wage while having to care for multiple children. We have single-parent households, etc. Certain parents have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet and are, therefore, hardly ever at home to protect and guide their children. Lack of finances and stress within a household can lead to physical child abuse and neglect. In addition, children are left to raise themselves or older children have the responsibility to look after their younger siblings. This often creates an unsafe environment and room for predators as well.
What can professionals do despite these difficult socioeconomic factors?
A first and important step is to expand the child’s network; see if there are reliable family members, friends or neighbours and continue to motivate both parents to be involved in their life.
What does the COG hope to see improved on Sint Maarten?
Our biggest issue is that we do not have enough specialised placement facilities or professionals on the island to provide the proper assistance to children or families – for example, institutions for children with extreme behavioural issues and a low IQ.
On a positive note, we have seen more professionals, such as teachers and health care providers, taking action themselves to improve the wellbeing of children in abuse cases and or when there are concerns about the living situation. Eventually, with the proper support and guidance for families from the professional sector, fewer children will have to be placed out of their homes. We hope that these efforts continue to grow, as the saying goes, “It takes a village.”
*Article published in May 2020 in Growing Up Safe – Sint Maarten Magazine.