In a little over the first four months of this year, the Cayman Islands Department of Children and Family Services received as many reports of child sex abuse as during all of last year.
As of 8 May this year, the department had received nine new referrals regarding child sex abuse. Last year saw a total of nine such cases being referred. Between 2000 and 2012, between eight and 23 cases a year have been dealt with by the department.
The department also deals with physical abuse cases. By 8 May, 10 physical abuse situations were referred to the department, compared to 12 for the entire of last year, 18 in 2011 and seven in 2010. While child sex abuse remains a taboo issue in the Cayman Islands and the wider Caribbean, there are now more resources and legislation focussing on protecting children in Cayman than ever before, making it likely that more cases are coming to light, according to the Health Services Authority child psychologist Sophia Chandler.
Ms Chandler said greater awareness and education, as well as the passage of the Children Law last year that legally mandates certain people in positions of authority, such as teachers, medical staff or clerics, to report to authorities if they suspect child abuse is taking place, is making it more acceptable for victims to come forward.
Addressing the Cayman Islands Nursing Association annual conference last week, Ms Chandler described the cases that are now coming to light as “the tip of the iceberg”.
Ms Chandler said that in Cayman, as in other places, often families want to deal with the issue themselves, sometimes for financial reasons as the perpetrator may be the family breadwinner or because of the stigma they feel will be associated with the family if people know about the abuse. “That never really works out very well,” she said, adding that it’s not usually “strangers in trench coats” who commit child abuse, but people within the close family circle.
She described some physical evidence of sex abuse, including sexually transmitted diseases, that had been found in young children in Cayman. “This is a reality … I’m here to say that Cayman, as paradise-like as it may appear, it’s not any different to any other country in that the scourge of child abuse is here with us,” she said.
Paulinda Mendoza-Williams, deputy director of clinical services at the Department of Children and Family Services, said that professionals identified in the Children Law revision 2013 are becoming more aware and knowledgeable of their responsibility as it relates to mandatory reporting of child abuse.
But she added: “Currently, referrals from such individuals have not indicated an increase in abuse matters being reported to DCFS since the commencement of the Children Law.”
Under the Children (Amendment) Law, 2009, adults who stay silent when they suspect a child is being abused could face up to six months jail or a $2,000 fine. The mandatory reporting regime requires professionals who work with children to make a report to authorities if they believe a child is being abused or neglected. Doctors and other health professionals, teachers, police officers, ministers of religion, child care providers, probation officers, church workers, school employees and counsellors and public servants that work with children are required to report their concerns.
According to the law, which took effect in July 2012, “abuse” includes sexual, physical or emotional abuse of the child. The law considers it neglect if the child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, physical or psychological injury detrimental to his or her wellbeing, or if the child’s physical or physiological development is in jeopardy.
Resources available for combatting child abuse in Cayman come in a variety of forms.
Hedge Funds Care Cayman, formed in 2005, funds programmes that provide education, support and treatment programmes for Caymanian residents regarding child abuse and neglect, distributing more than $1.3 million in 40 grants to organisations in Cayman that work to prevent and treat child abuse.
The Ministry of Education, Training and Employment provides child sexual abuse prevention training in schools. The Department of Counselling Services is attempting to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place by providing services to adolescent parents and fathers.
The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service is training its police officers to properly investigate abuse cases, while the Health Services Authority provides therapy and treatment to abused children. The Cayman Islands Crisis Centre provides a 24-hour toll-free crisis line and an emergency shelter for abused women and their children.
Last year, the Cayman Islands Red Cross and other local organisations launched a hard-hitting campaign to highlight child sex abuse in Cayman.
Despite the additional resources available, Cayman, similar to other jurisdictions, continues to have a culture of dealing with the issue of child sexual abuse privately or not dealing with it at all, rather than turning to the authorities for help, said Ms. Chandler.
According to a 2008 survey of 15,000 young people ages 10 to 18 in the Caribbean by the Caribbean Health Research Council, of those who were sexually active, 31.9 per cent of males and 47.6 per cent of females said their first sexual intercourse was forced, and 54.8 per cent of sexually active males and 23.5 per cent of sexually active females reported they were 10 years old or younger at the time of first intercourse.
Ms Chandler initially worked on child abuse cases on a part-time basis when her job as HSA child psychologist was funded by Hedge Funds Care Cayman. That position is now full time. Speaking on the topic of child sex abuse at the annual nursing conference, she said she had dealt with victims of sexual abuse whose ages ranged from four to 17 years old in recent years.
According to a 2010 study of 2,612 students in eight schools and at a juvenile facility for young offenders by the National Drug Council in the Cayman Islands, the mean age at which boys first had sexual intercourse was 12.7 years and the mean age for girls was 13.3 years.
Ms Chandler said that from her own experience as a child psychologist and speaking with colleagues dealing with children, it seemed these teens were not having sex with their peers, but with older people. “They’re having sex with adults,” she said.
She added that it was important that accurate statistics be gathered to show the true extent of the issue of child abuse in Cayman because it cannot be adequately addressed until the full extent is known.
In a news release issued by Hedge Funds Care Cayman last month, Ms Chandler said: “Unfortunately, for a myriad of reasons, we have not seen a corresponding assignment of culpability. While on the surface it might be tempting to say there is an increase in incidence, what might in fact be happening is that the taboo or discomfort with making initial reports is decreasing and more cases are reaching the attention of the authorities.
“As such, we must be ready to act so as to provide support for victims and appropriate responses to the offenders.”
Health Services Authority child psychologist Sophia Chandler – Photo: Norma Connolly