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Crusade to save runaways

News day / The self-employed mother of four feels it is something she must do to help persons like Akheiffa and her 14-year-old friend, Tia Toussaint, who both sent relatives and friends into a state of panic when they failed to return home after attending a “Brain Cooler” fete on July 9 at a popular spot in Gulf City, La Romaine. On July 17, the schoolgirls were found safe and sound by police officers in Rio Claro, many many miles away from their homes in Gasparillo and Tarodale, Ste Madeleine. After medical check-ups and interviews with police officers, the teens were sent back into the care of their parents.

With her daughter in mind, Bartlett explained she has started a group, “Outcast”, for girls, who instead of running away, can now go to a place where they can express themselves and talk their troubles out.

“Sometimes all the teenagers need is support, someone to listen, someone to say ‘I love you’ or a hug,” Bartlett said in an interview with Sunday Newsday.

She recalled the days her daughter was missing as the most difficult days of her life but said what happened was a clear signal from God that she had work to do and it had to be done quickly.

She said her daughter’s action caused hurt and pain not only to loved ones but to an entire nation. She however noted that the problem of runaway teens was a growing one in Trinidad and Tobago and said even while the search was on for Akheiffa and her friend, reports kept coming in to the police about other missing girls. “God has a way of getting you to do what he wants you to do,” she further told Sunday Newsday. “Is only when it hits home you really know you have to do it and I really want to use my experience to reach out to even parents who have found themselves in a similar situation.” She is calling on parents who had her experience to join in her crusade.

“Just like me,” she added, “they may have tried everything possible, but not the right thing.

As parents we like to force things down our children’s throats and that is where I too may have gone wrong. Not because it worked for one child, it will work for the other child and we need to understand that.” Mistakes, Bartlett said, will be made as parents never got a manual on parenting.” Bartlett said she has since forgiven her daughter whom, she said, expressed remorse for what she had done.

Her daughter is a work in progress and that is why she will not give up on her.

“Teenagers are vulnerable, they bend easily to peer pressure and can easily get caught up in the scourge of sex and drugs,” she went on to say. Bartlett identified low self-esteem, poor communication with parents and lack of love as contributing to girls running away from home.

She added, “The public might want to criticise me saying that I am not qualified to do counselling but I can tell you experience is the best teacher but with God all things are possible.” Akheiffa was not part of the interview as her mother said she was trying to heal from the experience.

Last Wednesday, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service Public Affairs Unit disclosed that between May 2015 and July 2016, a total of 48 children were reported missing but the Child Protection Unit (CPU) has indicated that all of the children have returned.

Since the incident, Bartlett, a Spiritual Baptist, said she has done a thorough introspection, questioning where she may have gone wrong in single-handedly raising her three girls and a boy and instilling in each of them the same moral and spiritual values. She hates the “runaway” label affixed to troubled teens as she believes their problems go much deeper.

“All they want is someone to listen and understand them and because they are so vulnerable they bend easily to peer pressure and the lurking adult males take advantage of their weakness,”she went on to say.” When they runaway from home, they are exposed to sex and drugs by the older males who lure them in their company. All these boys and girls are looking for, is support you know, someone to confide in. If I am home and not getting support, I will leave home and find that support wherever it is. Wherever I find that comfort, although I know it might not be right, I will still go. They are really searching and what are they searching for? These are the questions we need to ask. If you not feeding a dog, he will go elsewhere to find food.” Parents, she said, often complain about being stressed out yet parents never believe when children express similar feelings. While adults find ways to relieve stress the young ones are not allowed to.

She said, “Coming out of my experience I know what they are going through.” It was the first time Akheiffa had ever left home and Bartlett told Sunday Newsday she wanted to know why, “When a girl runs away, people say she gone to look for ‘she’ man and all that but it is not necessarily that. But if it really is a man, it is the man who she has the confidence in and parents should learn something from that.” According to Bartlett, by nature men are hunters with one aim and they use the girls. She continued, “They know very well that the child is lost and in a vulnerable state and they use their vulnerability to get at them to do what they want them to do and that is wrong.” Among the problems she believes contribute to teenagers running away are low self esteem, poor communication with parents and lack of love.

“As a child I remember my father saying that I wasn’t in need of anything as I had all that a child needs, but material things are not all that a child needs.

A child needs to hear a parent say I love you, needs comfort when they are in pain. Do we know when they suffered their first heartbreak?” Bartlett said men often fool the teens with talk of a better life and they fall for it. “Some children who see their parents struggling real hard and still cannot provide them with three square meals feel that they should help the situation and honestly go with these big men who chain them up. They know it is wrong but he will convince them that it is right and that they could take a little change home for mummy.” Believing she is the best person to become an advocate on behalf of runaway girls, Bartlett said all she wants is support from parents in a similar situation to partner with her to help save the children.

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