Transforming the child protection landscape in Trinidad and Tobago

Kirsty Scott

9 August 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening global peace, security and governance

I did the first application. I remember that. It was really exciting. The very first application we did to free a child for adoption, I did it along with one of the junior attorneys. And that was really, really, really fulfilling, I must say. There were elements of that job that were very, very depressing, but there were the moments where you really saw the difference you were able to make for a child.

Christal Chapman

Every child has the right to survival, protection, and education. Promoting and respecting children’s rights are enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago is a specialised agency responsible for the care and protection of children and advocates for the rights of children. 

In 2014, Commonwealth Alumnus Christal Chapman was appointed as Senior Legal Associate for the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, following a previous appointment at the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) of Trinidad and Tobago. Her role at the EOC gave her exposure to working in human rights protection following her Commonwealth Scholarship at the University of Warwick where she gained a Master’s (LLM) in International Development Law and Human Rights.

The foundations of a better care system

As her first senior appointment, this was both an exciting and daunting experience for Christal. When she joined, the Children’s Authority was a new government agency and Christal was the first senior legal associate hired alongside a small team of two other lawyers.

“It was a new entity, a new agency that the Government had started up. It was exciting in that I got to do a lot of things that if I had joined as a lawyer in an established government agency I would not have gotten to do, because we were basically building processes from the ground up.

“The fact that it was a new agency was both frightening but also exciting”

The Children’s Authority was established as a central hub for other agencies in Trinidad and Tobago providing child protection services. Owing to a lack of resources, child protection work is supplemented by NGOs and community-based groups or religious bodies in Trinidad and Tobago, so children’s homes, for example, are often funded through churches and other charitable organisations linked to the church.

The Children’s Authority was brought in to streamline ways of coordinating with the existing agencies specifically on matters relating to the protection of children rather than disbanding or re-designing the established structure of organisations involved in child protection work.

As a first step, Christal, along with the other members of the Legal Department of the Children’s Authority, introduced Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) to outline the terms of the relationship with the various organisations involved in child protection work. In developing these MOUs, Christal engaged with stakeholders across a number of government departments and NGOs to ensure there were mechanisms in place to safeguard children whose rights were under threat or being violated in different contexts.

Initially, there were concerns among stakeholders about the remit of the Children’s Authority and some agencies suspected that it would make their work obsolete. However, by meeting with stakeholders to better understand their work, Christal and the team were able to draft appropriate MOUs that were tailored to the differing services provided by individual agencies.

“I worked on one [MOU] with the Countertrafficking Unit in Trinidad and Tobago. In that MoU, we established what would be the Children Authority’s role should the Countertrafficking Unit come across a child who they suspected to be a victim of human trafficking, what services the Countertrafficking Unit would be responsible for as opposed to the Children’s Authority, understanding how the two agencies would work together to provide that child victim of trafficking with the care that is needed.”

The Rape Crisis Society in Trinidad and Tobago was another important service Christal worked with during this period. Their MOU focused on establishing appropriate referral systems for survivors of rape and abuse to receive counselling and support.

Referral systems formed an important part of the coordination of services by the Children’s Authority. The provision of this mechanism ensured that where reports of child protection concerns or abuse were received, they could be adequately assessed and individuals directed to the most qualified and appropriate agency to deliver support.

“If a report came into the Authority and we felt another existing agency was better equipped to provide the services that were needed by the child and the child’s family, we would do the referral to that agency.”

Following a referral, social workers from the Children’s Authority conducted follow-up meetings with individuals involved to ensure that children, and families, received the care they needed.

Another key function that was implemented by the Children’s Authority was the National Reporting Hub. This introduced a national 24-hour hotline to report child protection concerns directly to the Children’s Authority. While similar hotlines for reporting social concerns already existed in Trinidad and Tobago, the National Reporting Hub was the first dedicated solely to child protection and further enabled the Children’s Authority to monitor reports and streamline referrals agencies that could provide support to children. The Children’s Authority also oversaw a nationwide public awareness campaign to promote the National Reporting Hub and ensure that it was visible and accessible to anyone who might need to use it.

Making child protection legislation for purpose

Christal also contributed to the development of important child protection legislation and regulations which previously did not exist in Trinidad and Tobago, chiefly the Foster Care Act and regulations. She was also instrumental in overhauling the Adoption Act and regulations which was out of date and not adequate for contemporary conditions in the country.

Research is key to drafting any new legislation and Christal drew on her university training when approaching this project.

“We’d start off with the UK and then move into the Commonwealth, looking for similar pieces of legislation that exist. And we tended to focus our research primarily on the Commonwealth before we move out of the Commonwealth. If in our research, we can’t find examples within the Commonwealth that we think would suit our local circumstance, only then we would broaden the search and look to legislation perhaps from the US or Continental Europe.”

Following extensive research, Christal and her fellow attorneys at the Children’s Authority, along with attorneys working with the Government Ministry with responsibility for children’s issues, created a first draft of the legislation which was submitted for consultation and feedback with the Chief Parliamentary Council in Trinidad and Tobago. The consultation process considered the needs and appropriate safeguards required by the Children’s Authority as well as examining the broader national requirement for new legislation.

Following the consultation, the Chief Parliamentary Council recommended only minor amendments to the draft legislation which is testament to the high-quality research and work conducted by Christal and fellow attorneys during the original draft.

Paving the way for adoption

During her research for the Foster Care Act, Christal encountered many sad and distressing stories of abuse within the foster care system and how the vulnerabilities of the system create safeguarding risks for children.

At the time Christal was working on the foster care legislation, the foster care system in Trinidad and Tobago operated in an ad hoc manner. The new legislation sought to address every stage of the foster care process, from outlining the requirements of a foster carer to detailing the arrangements for monitoring foster carers and homes by social workers.

Soon after the two Acts were adopted in 2015, she had the privilege of processing one of the first applications to free a child in foster care for adoption, which was made possible by the legislation that she had helped to draft.

The freeing of children for adoption was a new provision in the Adoption Act which stipulates that children who have been living in care homes for a significant number of years and who cannot be reunited with family members may be considered for adoption. Through this legislation, children in care homes have the opportunity to be adopted into stable home environments which not only benefits the child in care but also relieves pressure on childcare homes and the foster care system.

“I did the first application. I remember that. It was really exciting. The very first application we did to free a child for adoption, I did it along with one of the junior attorneys. And that was really, really, really fulfilling, I must say. There were elements of that job that was very, very depressing, but there were the moments where you really saw the difference you were able to make for a child.”

Taking the lead on equality, diversity, and inclusion

In 2021, Christal moved to Canada and is now the Program Manager, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at York University, where she is responsible for overseeing the university’s Employment Equity Programme. The programme seeks to ensure and improve the university’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) for faculty and non-academic staff at the university.

Christal oversees the data collection and annual reporting of EDI statistics. Comparing these reports to those produced by Statistics Canada, a Government of Canada agency commissioned with producing statistics to help better understand Canada, its population, resources, economy, society, and culture, Christal is able to make recommendations to the university’s governing body about whether further interventions are needed to ensure the university’s employee base reflect the local population. As part of this work, Christal provides general advice and guidance to the university’s Faculties and departments on incorporating EDI in their day-to-day work and operations.

Christal draws on her previous work and understanding of human rights to manage and develop policies that protect employees while successfully embedding EDI practices into the university’s culture.

“I have all this legal experience and bring to the role an understanding of collective agreements and collective bargaining and understanding how the university has to interact, from that industrial relations perspective, with employees. But at same time also having distinct human rights thinking and a human rights mindset.”

New horizons: research and academia

Christal describes herself as a lifelong learner and is currently looking to undertake doctoral studies that will advance her research and academic interests. Following her scholarship, she completed a Master’s degree in development studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she specialised in the governance of migration and diversity. This opportunity enabled her to expand on the findings from her Master’s dissertation, which explored different types of migration and the governance of statelessness.

Thinking back to her time at the University of Warwick, she credits this experience with introducing her to development law which has had a significant influence on her subsequent career.

“My scholarship allowed me to become exposed to learning on development law and truly helped hone my thinking as it related to the area of law I wanted to practice and gain experience in. I was subsequently able to contribute to the development of national legislation and policies in my home country and also work in the legal department of two new national entities, helping to develop policies and procedures in these government agencies that were in their nascent stages.”

Christal Chapman is a 2011 Commonwealth Shared Scholar from Trinidad and Tobago. She completed an LLM in International Development Law and Human Rights at the University of Warwick.