Project Engagement and Toronto City Councilours Come Together to Tackle Abuse of Immigrant Children

City councillor tackles abuse of immigrant children Published: Friday April 20, 2012 | 12:17 pm

Originally Published in The Gleaner
Melonie Biddersingh

Toronto city councillor Michael Thompson has introduced a motion to City Council requesting that the City Manager investigate the problem of abuse of immigrant children in Toronto and report to Council, through the Community Development and Recreation Committee. The motion was endorsed unanimously by council last week.

The motion, which was seconded by Councillor Maria Augimeri, wants the report to include recommendations to: improve co-ordination between the appropriate local, federal and provincial bodies to enhance the ability to monitor newly arrived children and ensure their wellbeing; to create an early warning system to detect and act on immigrant children suffering abuse; and to improve services available to victims of child abuse.

Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) said it is an important issue and that Councillor Thompson being proactive on the file is some of the best news coming out of Toronto City Council.
“I support the call for a staff report that will recommend how best to improve coordination of the various public institutions charged with protecting our children, including immigrant and refugee children. I also support the call for improved services to children who are abused. I believe the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Office has a role to play here as well.

I believe this is an opportunity for a public campaign of some sort that raises the issue that the safety and well being of children, including immigrant children are all of our responsibilities as family, friends and neighbours (similar to a campaign on family violence (against women) that the province has been funding through the Ontario Women’s Directorate called NFF),” said Douglas.

She said the councillor’s work on this should be applauded and supported. “City of Toronto staff know that I and OCASI are ready to work with them on any plans they may deem necessary to move the file forward.” The introduction of this motion comes in the wake of the recent murder charges laid against the father, Everton Biddersingh, and stepmother, Elaine Biddersingh, of Jamaican teenager, 17-year-old Melonie Biddersingh, whose burnt remains were found in a suitcase in Ontario in 1994.

Her brother, Dwayne died in 1992 when he plunged 22 storeys from an apartment in Toronto. Police ruled the death a suicide, but have since reopened the case in light of the murder charges. “Recent media coverage of the deaths of Melonie Biddersingh, her brother Dwayne and others has drawn attention to the abuse of young immigrants.

The horrific stories that have reached the media are merely the latest in a long narrative about vulnerable children from around the world. Sadly, while our social services have improved greatly over the years, many of the most vulnerable immigrant children continue to fall through the cracks,” reads the summary of the motion.

It notes that, “As Canada’s largest destination for new arrivals to Canada, Toronto has an urgent responsibility to find solutions to this critical issue. A comprehensive, coordinated, City-led initiative that brings all responsible parties to the table is a start to a long term solution to this tragic, heart-breaking problem.

If we fail to act now, children will continue to suffer and die needlessly.” Douglas said the idea of a registry as proposed by Thompson in a media scrum the night before his press conference last week is not feasible. “Who will decide which children/families will be targeted for the registry? Are we ‘registering’ all children who arrive to join a parent here? How will we tell which children are joining what parent?.

What are the implications in terms of immigrant families/children being targeted? How do we prevent whatever agency charged with this work from profiling based on race or country of origin? What about privacy issues? Will Immigration (really Canada Border Service Agency) be asked to do the identification and pass the information to some local agency in Toronto? What about other areas where children land -the rest of the province? the rest of country?” asked Douglas.

Councillor Thompson said he was listening to the radio 18 years ago when the story was broadcast about the unidentified remains and periodically over the years he has reflected on the story. Councillor has spoken by phone to Opal Austin, Melonie’s mother in Jamaica. He said he was one of those kids who came up from Jamaica to live with his mother at the age of 3 and so he has an understanding of what that experience is like, although he was not abused and was loved by his mother.

He felt badly about what had happened to Melonie and that her live needed to have value. After learning more about her he decided that he is in a position of being able to affect change and doing something. “I can’t help her and what had happened to her but I can help the next child that someone is abusing, that someone may not want to send to school that has emigrated to Canada from wherever,” said the city councillor.

He said Melonie was at an age where she should have been in school and she was never sent to school. “I’m not asking to infringe on the rights of people and to create a police or nanny state. What I’m saying is that when we allow people to come into the country we provide them with all sorts of information they have to follow up and so on.

I’m saying of you have young kids coming in, however they are coming in, then they are part of the environment. There has to be a requirement that they be enrolled in school so had she been enrolled in school she would have been out, someone would have seen her, someone would have seen the early stages – the early warning – of abuse and would have done something about it,” said Councillor Thompson.

He wants these immigrant young people to be connected and aware of the rules and regulations that inform them that they should call 911 if someone is abusing them, sexually or otherwise. Councillor Thompson has sent some assistance to Ms. Austin in Jamaica to help her family through Project Engagement, a not-for-profit organization, which he co-founded with business leader, Vincent Gasparro.

Ms. Austin has expressed a wish to come to Toronto for the trial and she wants the bodies of her children returned to Jamaica for burial. A bank account, administered by lawyer, Courtney Betty, has been established. Deposits can be made to “The Tragedy Account” at any branch of Royal Bank Canada in the Greater Toronto Area.

The Consulate General of Jamaica has also set up a bank account (#24188064589) at the Bank of Montreal and Thompson noted that he has been working closely with the Consulate General of Jamaica and the Jamaican Canadian Association.

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