In preparation for a disaster, the safety of minors should be carefully considered. Disasters such as a hurricane or the current COVID-19 pandemic can put extra stress on families, and their children. How do we prepare for and mitigate the consequences of such events to better protect them? In this issue, we discuss this with professionals responsible for shelter management, child protection, education, and disaster response.
The hardest clients to re-integrate are pensioners and single mothers, says Dr. Judith Arndell, founder of the Dr. J. Foundation that manages the Crisis Shelters. “Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in this at the shelter.”
On April 1st 2018, 43 people moved into the Transitional Shelter. In the following year, 90 percent of the hurricane-related clients were successfully re-integrated into permanent homes. However, due to the economic challenges the island faced post-hurricane and now with the pandemic, the Transitional Shelter is still a much-needed facility.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, hundreds of people found themselves homeless. In response, the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labor (VSA) tasked the Dr. J. Foundation to establish and manage a Transitional ‘crisis’ Shelter for people who could not find alternative living arrangements. The Shelter would provide a safe space to sleep, as well as counselling and guidance to help find employment and housing. “Many of our clients come to the shelter due to the consequences of unemployment”, explains Dr. Judith Arndell, Founder of the Dr. J. Foundation. Judith is a clinical psychologist and has over thirty years of experience working with the most vulnerable residing on Sint Maarten.
The Transitional Shelter consists of sixteen rooms and five studios that can accommodate one to two persons, and six three-bedroom duplexes reserved for families. The rooms are outfitted with beds, a microwave, fridge, and basic hygiene facilities and items. Larger rooms have a full kitchen. “If needed, we provide three meals a day, personal counselling, family counselling, employment guidance, teach life skills such as budgeting, and refer shelter residents to other services to help them get back on their feet’, says Judith. “I have a great team that keeps the Shelter running and provides these various services.”
“The Transitional Shelter is really meant as a ‘last resort’ for people in need or an emergency situation. When a person indicates that they would like to stay at the Shelter, our team does a screening of the situation to establish whether they have no other options.
We are not equipped for people with addictions or mental health issues. Nor do we, in most cases, take on domestic violence cases. These people are referred to Turning Point, Mental Health Foundation, or Safe Haven, for example. This is also to ensure the safety of others staying at the shelter. They need to have legal residential documents and sign certain agreements, which includes drug testing. A legal guardian or parent must always accompany children that are referred to the shelter. In theory, people can stay for a maximum of three months in the shelter to get back on their feet. In practice, this is not always realistic.”
“Due to a variety of reasons, but our economy plays a big role. Employment has been harder to find (or keep) in the wake of Irma and the current pandemic. Although many of the initial Irma-related cases have been re-homed, others became in need of shelter after outstaying their welcome with friends or family. Complex family dynamics, or an emergency such as a fire, can also be the reason for seeking shelter.”
“A low minimum wage and high rental prices make it hard to re-home some of our clients. This is especially true for pensioners, who receive a meagre pension. We are also seeing an increase in single mothers with children who are in dire need. It is challenging to find affordable housing but nearly impossible to find a place suitable and affordable for single parents with children. It is also hard to balance having to take care of many young children - washing, clothing, feeding, playing - while finding enough work to provide for your family.”
“Re-integrating families with children would be easier if landlords were more ‘child friendly’ and have more consideration for families with children. We notice many are not willing to rent to people with children, as they are worried about ‘wear and tear’. However, as a landlord you can make a big difference by assisting families who have nowhere to call home. At the shelter, we will continue to do our best to provide guidance and motivate our clients. It isn’t ideal, but we also make exceptions and allow people to stay at the shelter for longer, if needed.”
“No child is allowed to be without supervision at the shelter. If a parent needs to leave to do an errand, for example, they have to find someone who can take responsibility for the child in the meantime and inform us at the reception.
Some of the children at the shelter go to school and might not make it in time for breakfast or lunch. Our kitchen staff prepares meals for them in advance or puts the meals into containers so the children can take meals to school or eat lunch when they get back from school.
When faced with a crisis or emergency, children need to feel safe. You can do this by acknowledging their feelings and listening to them. Reliability and consistency are also important. Our social workers keep a close eye on children, and we do a lot of counselling. Not just with the family but also with the children one-on-one, as many need additional guidance.”
“We encourage the community to keep us informed if affordable housing or employment opportunities become available. People also donate furniture or other goods to help people settle once they can move out of the shelter. If you have furniture or household items to donate, you can contact us. We store all donations in a container until a client leaves and needs specific items, so all donations are put to good use.
In addition, regarding the protection of children, I think we should encourage the community to get more involved in safeguarding children in general. The reality is that many people are struggling. If you see a child in a situation that you think might not be safe, do your part and reach out to that child or call the appropriate emergency services.”
“You have to keep your work in perspective. I can cry and feel sad with my patients, for example, I especially have a hard time with child abuse cases. However, I have also learned to disconnect when I am not at work. I can’t carry it; otherwise, I cannot continue helping others.”
How can you best assist children in a shelter? Ms Joseph and Ms Neijs, counsellors at the Dr. J Foundation, explain.
“The loss of a home can have immeasurable effects on a child. Often the transition is sudden, and there is insufficient time for adequate thought processing. Most of the children, when they arrive at the shelter, are often numb to the environment. They are immersed in a ‘new home’ that is guided by rules and structure. For many, this results in resistance because, according to them, "the rules make no sense", “everything is a problem”, “we have no independence”, etc. These responses are mainly from adolescents who struggle to find a balance between what they want and what is expected of them.
Counsellors transitional Shelter
Many of the adolescents have been reared in an environment with little to no structure, and they can do as they like. As a result, it is a constant battle to receive behaviour change because the rules are not enforced at home. Some of the parents present limited child-rearing skills, and their means of punishment are usually through screams, indecent language, and threats. Some of these parents often feel powerless in managing their children.
Fear of being judged
For some of the people living in the shelter, there is a constant fear of being judged because they live in a “shelter”. Their definition of a shelter is “somewhere where people have nowhere to go”. Many of the older children at the shelter have not disclosed their present place of dwelling to others for fear of being treated differently by their peers. However, they have relayed receiving positive responses at school because most of the teachers have gone out of their way to meet their educational needs.
Most of the children have difficulty adapting and accepting the rules given, and their responses to following these guideline and structure may at times be inappropriate. When communication is finally perceived as safe, and they are able to interact with the other residents, there are limited boundaries towards the adult population. The youth also relayed a feeling of dissatisfaction due to what is perceived by them as limited recreation time, and this means, watching cable TV and “not the same thing every day". The residents can watch TV via the internet, but this is limited to the living room. Often time the TV is based on a schedule that also includes times for the adults to have some time to watch their tv shows. They further disclosed the inability to play games like Play Station and to invite a family member to have a sleepover.
A sense of safety
A few of the children do believe that being at the shelter has brought about a sense of safety. It is a place where they sleep well, have more living space, and have a sense of security because the building is secured by capable staff. There is an added sense of wellbeing because there is no threat of harm from family members or gangs. The children also shared that their bond between families becomes a bit closer because more time is spent indoors. This change has been mainly brought on as clients have to be on the premises in the evening. Lastly, they are guaranteed at least two meals a day and can receive assistance when needed with school and during the time of family conflict.
Child protection concerns that children who lose their home face
We hold individual sessions with children to identify the triggers for many self-sabotaging thoughts they might have. We focus on developing coping skills, relaxation techniques, and communication and conflict resolution skills. Family integrated sessions are held to help each member understand their role in the presenting issue, educate the family on possible reasons for the dysfunctional behaviour, and identify ways of reacting differently through improved communication approaches. With counselling we aim to decrease the chances of prolonged stress or trauma that may lead to a mental health diagnosis, increase functionality to enjoy child-friendly activities such as school and play, decrease the chances of physical symptoms due to mental health signs or symptoms and, lastly, decrease the possibility of severe behavioural challenges within the child’s environment.
More resources needed
As counsellors, our primary concerns are the scarce physical and human resources on the island. There are only a few resources for family guidance or preventative family counselling to avoid children going into the court system (Court of Guardianship). There is a high need of ambulant parenting advice and guidance by professionals such as ambulant social workers and psychologists. Another thing that is lacking, is the resource for children that need extra support and guidance. At the moment, there is the Youth Brigade and some afterschool programmes, but missing is an organization that does one-on-one guidance for these children, such as a buddy system. Activities and afterschool programmes should also be available to parents with a lower or no income.”
“Our foundation was founded out of weekly bible discussions. A group of us saw the importance of helping the needy and feeding the hungry. Out of this, the DJF Crisis Shelter was established in 2016, initially with personal contributions. The DJF Crisis Shelter can house ten people and allows them to stay up to three months. At the shelter, they can also get the guidance that they need to get their lives together. Our experience managing our shelter also helped us set up the Transitional Shelter as requested by the Government. Our foundation also helps to write, implement, or manage several community initiatives. I am well known for my work as a clinical psychologist in which I have worn many hats for the past 30 years. At the moment, my ‘baby’ is UJIMA, which helps at-risk children get back on the right track. I have a passion for helping vulnerable children.”
The National Institute of Arts has been facing several challenges with the continuation of classes in the wake of hurricane Irma and the current pandemic. The institute succeeded in swiftly reopening its doors, so hundreds of students could again be provided with a safe space and positive outlet.
Arlene Halley Newhouse, Managing Director
The National Institute of Arts (NIA) is well known in Sint Maarten for its impressive performances and dancers that boast international success. However, “this is not the Institute’s main priority”, shares Arlene Halley Newhouse, the Managing Director of NIA. “We provide a safe space and teach life skills to our students. We welcome every child who is interested in joining our classes, no matter their background, financial situation or talent.”
The NIA offers dance, drama, music, visual arts, gymnastics, capoeira, and youth
orchestra. They are also integral to the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) degree programme offered at two high schools on the island. Weekly, the NIA provides over 100 classes in-house and in various schools on the island, reaching over 2000 children between the ages of 4 and 18. The National Institute of Arts has been facing several challenges with the continuation of classes in the wake of hurricane Irma and the current pandemic. However, despite these disasters, NIA staff have used their determination and teamwork to swiftly reopen its doors. This has been very important for the wellbeing of students for whom they provide with a safe space and positive outlet.
Arlene: "Luckily, we did not have much damage after Irma. Thanks to funding from the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund (PBCF) and the Government, the NIA offered free and discounted classes for up to nine months after the hurricane. Our ‘inhouse’ student numbers were at an all-time high during those funded programmes, recording over 400 students.” This number quickly dropped once the NIA had to ask for full tuition again. Arlene also shares that she thinks this “clearly indicates that many children want to participate, but financially aren’t able to. The economic difficulties are now worsened due to the pandemic.”
The NIA is not structurally subsidised, and student fees are not enough to cover expenses. Teachers often volunteer to give free classes, as was the case during the lockdown. A variety of grants and donations have kept the school afloat. Currently, most students are unable to pay the 40-dollar monthly fees and are on ‘scholarship’. Arlene: “We have lower numbers attending because people are reluctant to return due to COVID-19 or parents are having a hard time paying the fees. The NIA is barely surviving financially.”
Amanda Bedminister, a mother of six, feels that art programs can offer “healing” in the wake of a disaster or emergency: “Our experience through Irma was quite traumatic. My 12-year-old daughter Shiloh does not talk much and needs to express herself through the arts, especially dance. I know that going back to the NIA, as quickly as possible after the hurricane, helped her process her feelings.”
Due to the free programme offered post-hurricane, Amanda was able to enrol all her kids. “This gave me the time and space to take care of our home, which had lost its roof. The NIA also provided a sanctuary when I needed a place to relax amid all the chaos Irma caused.” She can’t afford to enrol all her kids at the NIA at full tuition but did allow Shiloh to continue her classes: “Shiloh wants to become a dance teacher, and I want to support that dream.” She hopes that there will be more support, such as subsidies, for programmes offered at the NIA. Unfortunately, art or other extracurricular activities are not accessible to all children on Sint Maarten. “Academics in school is important, but children must be allowed to explore other interests to ensure that they become well-rounded adults,” says Amanda.
Jacques Heemskerk teaches at the NIA and played an essential role in helping the NIA swiftly reopen after the pandemic. “Communication and understanding are key. At the NIA, we all work together to keep everything running as well as possible. We do this because we know our students rely on us.” Once Sint Maarten went into lockdown, Arlene reached out to her colleagues: “Morale was low, and I also wanted to give people space and time to adjust. Despite not being able to pay them, a few teachers offered to give online classes for free.”
Three months later, the NIA reopened its doors. Jacques helps to put the NIA’s safety plan together in line with research and Government regulations: “All visitors have to wear a mask when entering the building. Before going into class, students are temperature checked and have to disinfect their hands and shoes. During class, masks are optional when social distancing is possible, and mandatory when in closer contact.” Seven months later, the NIA has still not had an outbreak connected to their programmes. Jacques: “We cannot promise that we are fully protected against COVID-19. However, despite a pandemic or other disaster, children need to move, to interact, and have access to a safe space. We aim to continue providing this with the safety protocols we have put in place.”
Shiloh Bedminister attends classes three days a week at the Institute and has never missed a class. On her days home, she “dances by herself”. Shiloh shares: “I have no other hobbies beside dancing. I want to become a professional dancer and teach other kids to dance as well.” During the lockdown last year, Shiloh kept herself busy by taking online classes and watching YouTube videos to keep up with her dancing ambitions. She does admit that it “was a lot harder to follow the steps via a screen," so she was happy when classes resumed.
Although some might find their new ‘pandemic-reality’ with all the restrictions difficult to adapt to, Shiloh found it an easy adjustment: “I have no problem with it. It's how the world is right now. I haven’t noticed any other students complaining about it either.” When asked why she loves to dance, Shiloh answers with a grin: “When I dance, I get lost in my own world. It feels like nobody is watching me, and I am escaping reality for a while – it is fun!”
“Our School Safety Team doesn’t just prepare our school for disasters; we look after the general wellbeing of our children daily”, says Vera Illidge of the Seventh Day Adventist Primary School.
Vera Illidge, Vice Principal of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Primary School, has worn many ‘educational hats’ in her more than thirty-year career. Still, she admits that she will always primarily be a classroom teacher: “I love working with children and helping people elevate themselves. As a teacher, you can guide students and help parents see their potential too.”
At the SDA School, the Safety and Emergency Team (SET) team ensures that the school is prepared for disasters and emergencies. “But also, on a daily basis, we are vigilant in making sure our students are eating well and are doing well at home. Our teachers play a big role in this – they are the first to notice if a child needs additional attention or help.”
Vera Illidge, Vice Principal of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Primary School
The SDA is a primary school with approximately 340 students aged 6 to 12. The staff has had several tumultuous years due to Hurricane Irma and the COVID-19 pandemic. “I couldn’t live in my home for two years. Some of our staff lost everything due to the hurricane. Our school also had significant damage.” Vera tries to maintain an ‘open door’ policy so that her colleagues can share their concerns. “As colleagues, we listen to each other and try to motivate each other during stressful times. I am fortunate to have caring friends and family. My trust in God also helps me a lot.”
When it comes to hurricane preparedness, the school is proactive about informing students. “Hurricane Luis in 1995 opened our eyes. In response, we made a lot of changes, which included hurricane preparedness in our curriculum. All our students learn about hurricanes and how to prepare for them. They also have to do projects and presentations related to this topic.”
All students also participate in emergency drills. During the drills, the whole school acts out an emergency situation during which the school must be evacuated. Vera admits that during the pandemic, the school has not held its usual ‘practice drills’. This time, the students and staff have had to adjust to a different type of disaster preparedness.
“We all had to adjust during the pandemic. This was quite a challenge, and it does ask a lot of additional work from our teachers”, says Vera. Like most other schools, the SDA was asked to swiftly implement online classes once a lockdown became imminent in March 2020.
“In addition to the challenges of providing online learning and keeping students focused, some of our students also did not have proper devices or access to the internet”, Vera says. With help from the Government, donations from a hotel, and help from the school board, students were provided with computers or iPads. “I also know that teachers helped pay for some mobile data, for some of our students in need.”
To reopen the school, the SET needed to ensure that the school and staff could adhere to several Government regulations in efforts to provide a COVID-19 safe environment. “This takes a lot of logistics. Students from various grades enter and exit the school from different locations and at different times. Every grade has separate recesses, and lunches are delivered to classes, etc.”
Students, staff and visitors also wear masks, practice social distancing and are temperature checked upon entry. “When it comes to children, you have to practice and repeat a lot. This way, they get used to the new rules, and they slowly become habits.” She also shares that it is important to teach students the relevance of their work. “Understanding why they should do something will motivate them to learn how to do these tasks.”
In the wake of both disasters, the SDA’s staff saw first-hand how families were impacted. Unemployment remains a big challenge for families. With help from the kitchen staff and their churches’ community outreach, the school helped provide meals, groceries, clothing or other support. Vera: “We don’t just help our students, but we aim to support their families and the wider community as well.”
In addition, Vera also touches on the importance of emotionally supporting students: “Children need to feel safe and comfortable to express their emotions. And if they don’t know how to express themselves verbally, you can see in their behaviour if something is wrong. It is not just the SET’s job, but our whole school gets involved when it comes to the wellbeing of our students.”
In 2018, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport (MECYS) developed the “Safety and Emergency Response Guidelines for Schools” with the support of UNICEF The Netherlands. This document provides guidance for disaster and emergency safety planning in schools, emphasising the work to be carried out by the Safety and Emergency Teams (SETs). It also outlines the dos and don’ts before and during emergencies, suggesting possible steps for various hazards. SETs went on to draft their school safety and emergency plans under the guidance of the Student Support Services Division (SSSD) and with the support of UNICEF The Netherlands.
Each school can appoint their own SET Members. For example, at the SDA School, the SET includes the school’s principal, vice principal, student care coordinators, school counsellor, gym teacher, maintenance personnel, security guard and the board’s secretary. This year, between July and 21st August, the SET’s will receive additional training. At the end of the training, participants will be able to recognise the importance of school safety; differentiate the concepts of hazards, vulnerability, risk and resources as they relate to disaster risk management; apply digital tools to assess school safety for a given facility, and develop or update a School Safety and Emergency Plan.
When dealing with a traumatic experience - such as child abuse or a disaster - resilience plays a major role. But what is resilience and what factors play a role in its development?
Why is it that some brains have developed the ability to cope in harsh conditions, while others struggle? Resilience gives less leverage to negative factors in our lives, and tips the balance in favour of positive outcomes. It can be built over time. Toxic stress however, as a result of child abuse, can tip the balance in a negative way.
This is shown effectively in this animation, made by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, with help from the FrameWorks Institute and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.
Mavlet Gordon is a well-known community leader on Sint Maarten due to her extensive volunteer work. She is the head of the Federation of Community Services of the nine Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) churches on the island.
Six years ago, she started assisting the SDA School with various tasks, including running the school’s kitchen. Her workload grew exponentially with the passing of Hurricane Irma and now the pandemic. However, Mavlet is known to enjoy a challenge. “Once the need is there, I feel a push to do my part”, she says with a big smile.
“Through our church, we do a lot of community service, including providing meals, clothing, and counselling. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, we delivered meals to over 2000 families and made an average of 600 meals per day for two years. We were able do this because of donations from supermarkets, business owners, church members, and others in the community. Even donating just 10 dollars helps!”
“It started with ten families at our school indicated that they needed food assistance. This prompted me to call and ask around. Quickly this number grew to 86 families in our school that needed help, mainly due to unemployment. During the pandemic, we focused on making grocery bags instead of meals. We assisted hundreds of other families outside of the school and our church as well.”
“Sometimes people tell you, but others might be shy or ‘proud’. It is important to listen and look. This is especially true when children are involved. Instead of asking for help, they might act out or the opposite – be very quiet. We also look at what they bring to school. A child might be bringing snacks to school, but it is just a packet of cookies. This will prompt us to start providing them with meals and check up on their home situation.”
“We try to make sure everyone feels comfortable. For example, I try to blend in and not wear my ‘Sunday best’ to struggling neighbourhoods. When I visit a home, I go by myself, or just with one other person, so as to not overwhelm the family. We also consider the feelings of our students that receive free meals. We quietly add them to the meal program, which teachers can indicate with stickers next to their names. This is also so that they do not feel embarrassed or become a target for bullies due to their situation at home.”
“Nutritious meals should be accessible to everyone for overall wellness and health reasons. In addition, children who do not receive proper nutrition will not have the energy to focus on learning. It also helps relieve the stress of parents when they know that their child is being fed. This allows the parents to focus on solving challenges they might have at home, such as finding a job.”
“The only solution is a stable and fair economy. Until then, we will just have to be willing to share a bit more. The reality is that the gap between the poor and rich is only getting bigger – not just in Sint Maarten but also worldwide. Empathy isn’t a quality everyone has, but should have. In my case, my faith in God keeps me going. And remember, even if you cannot share financially, a smile can also help relieve pain.”
People interested in volunteering or donating to SDA’s School and Churches’ Community Programs can contact Mavlet at +1721 523 9956 or Senior Pastor Vashni Cuvalay +17215208027. Mavlet would like to especially thank the Church of Latter Day Saints, Island Gem Foundation, ADRA St Maarten for their continued support.
“I think the point where my life turned upside down, was when my now ex-partner became abusive. I never expected this. He was nice to me in the beginning and said that he wanted to take care of my kids and me. Then it all changed. I am not sure what it was; maybe other people or things were stressing him. The abuse started with my children, then me, and continued even when I was pregnant.
He was very controlling, and locked me in the house, and always wanted to know where I was. He threatened to kill me, and he threatened my children. He even held my young son in a chokehold once. I spent nine years in fear, for my kids and myself. I can’t fully explain why it’s hard to leave; I was afraid, and also did not have anywhere else to go.
One night, when he came back home and started yelling at me, something snapped, and I started yelling back. He started hitting me with a steel rod. The neighbours heard the noise and called the police. When the police arrived and saw what he had done, they took him to police station, but within just 24 hours they had let him go. I went to stay at my sister’s house with my children.
I have ten children, so it is very difficult to find an affordable home for us to rent. Staying at my sister’s home also became increasingly stressful. My family encouraged me to go back to my ex-partner, which I did not want. I applied to stay at the shelter. It has been almost nine months since I moved in.
Although it isn’t ideal to stay at the shelter, I am happy and relieved that my children are safe. My ex-partner still tries to bother us and threatens my children and me; he has even come to the gate at the shelter. I have a restraining order against him, but that doesn’t really offer much protection. I don’t think enough is being done to stop him or to punish him for his abuse. My children sometimes say: ‘Mommy, I wish we could leave the island and make things better, and we don’t have to see him anymore.’
I think my children are also relieved to be at the shelter, and that no one is hitting them. My oldest son, who is 14, is having the hardest time. My son also had permanent damage to his eyes from being hit. He remembers the most and is angry and lashes out. I try to spend time with him and talk to him. I try and tell my son that what he experienced isn’t the right way to treat women. I hope that with counselling he works out his frustrations. My ex-partner had a horrible childhood and was also physically abused by his family, it is a cycle.
Although counselling is hard, I do think it helps me a little bit to speak to the counsellors. I just want to work on getting a job and a place to stay. It is hard to find a job when you have three small children at home. Childcare is expensive, so I can’t drop them off there. It is also difficult to find available jobs. I hope to get the opportunity to continue my education at NIPA, I love cooking, and would like to work as a cook. I only receive 934 guilders in welfare support per month. It feels nearly impossible to find a place to rent that is appropriate for my kids and me. It is demotivating at times, but I have to keep pushing for my children.
I believe that the island needs to have more awareness in place, also in schools. More education on abuse and the signs so that people know how to help. I felt stuck and did not know how to ask for help either. I think teachers should’ve seen the signs earlier. A teacher asked my son once, but out of fear my son would say: nothing is wrong.
At the shelter, at least we have some peace now, and I can spend more time with my children. My son’s student counsellor said the other day that he was doing well; and it is great to see him excel, despite what he has been through. I just want my kids to be happy and safe.’
Name has been changed to protect her privacy; the woman on the image is not the woman in the story.
Police Department: +1 721-542-2222
Report Domestic Abuse/Emergency: 911
Safe Haven Foundation: +1 (721) 523-6400 or 9333 (hotline)
This 2021 hurricane season, eleven shelters will be available to the public. The shelters are essential for those who do not have a safe place to stay during a hurricane. “However, we recommend first seeing if you can stay at a safe location with family or friends”, states Chantale Groeneveldt, Head of the Community, Development, Family & Humanitarian Affairs (CDFHA) Department of the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labor (VSA).
Chantale has been head of the department since February 2020. She has a background in both the medical field and management, and has worked at various departments and cabinets within the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labor (VSA) for many years. “I have a passion for helping people, and with this new position and my great staff, we will continue to make a difference in people’s lives.”
The CDFHA has a wide range of responsibilities. During a disaster, the department’s staff become “shelter experts” that coordinate everything related to equipping, opening, and coordinating the hurricane shelters on Sint Maarten. In normal times, they collect, register, and analyse data from within communities to assess the needs and develop programmes. “We support and execute policy geared towards the most vulnerable in our community and co-execute informative and social-educational empowerment programmes”, Chantale says. “In addition, we facilitate empowerment activities that, for example, help enhance the position of women in our society through a Women’s Desk, and more.”
Preparations to equip the shelters start before the hurricane season. After hurricane Irma, several shelters were in need of repairs. These repairs are now completed thanks to entities like VROMI and NRPB and financing from the Trust Fund. Shelters are equipped with a water reservoir, generators, air-conditioning, and hurricane shutters. Inside the shelters, we provide clean water, toilet and shower facilities, soap, toilet paper, beds and blankets.
However, Chantale also states that we should be aware that the shelters are only meant for short-term (72 hours) use: “Some items that you should bring include food, extra clothing, and a number of other items. Persons should be prepared and make a ‘go bag’ with necessary items in case they have to stay at a shelter.”
A go-bag is a portable bag that should hold the items one would require to survive for at least 72 hours, when evacuating from a disaster. This includes food, water, necessary documentation, a flashlight, hygiene products, medication, etc. “When you have children, you should carefully consider what items they need. For example, a young child might need extra diapers or baby food, and an older child needs a game or a favourite toy to keep themselves busy and comfortable during a disaster.”
Everyone is welcome at the shelter, no matter their legal status. Everyone is asked to carry a form of identification with them for safety purposes. “We shelter everyone. However, children have to be accompanied by an adult. I hope it does not happen, but should a child show up without an adult guardian, the shelter manager will contact the relevant department and take responsibility for that child until they arrive”, explains Chantale. She also points out that it is crucial to stay with your children at all times when staying at a shelter. This includes accompanying them everywhere on shelter property, including going to the bathroom and in the shower areas: “Our shelter manager and other staff strictly enforce this rule.”
The strict measures for children in the hurricane shelter are meant to ensure their safety. International research (Stark and Landis, 2016; Rubenstein, 2017, Turoff 2021) has shown us that children in humanitarian institutions, such as hurricane shelters, experience an increased exposure to violence. There is an increased risk of sexual violence for girls and for boys an increased risk of physical violence. Also, in general, children have an increased risk of exposure to violence after a natural disaster.
In addition to a shelter manager, once each shelter is open, they are also staffed by a police officer and trained volunteers from partnering NGO’s. Together they help make people at the shelter as comfortable as possible. Strict rules are enforced, which include no alcohol, drugs or fighting. These rules now include COVID-19 regulations, which can pose a challenge depending on the severity of a hurricane.
Chantale: “Due to the pandemic, the shelters’ official capacity has been decreased to allow for enough social distancing. In reality, however, if another strong hurricane hits us, and more people need shelter, we will have to prioritise people’s immediate safety and be more flexible in regard to COVID-19 regulations.”
In the case of a severe disaster, for those unable to return home after 72 hours, the CDFHA staff will begin conducting individual assessments. If required, certain shelters will be used as ‘recovery shelters’ or ‘transitional shelters’. People are assisted in various ways such as home visits, referrals to emergency supplies and services, receiving counselling, and help with longer-term sheltering.
“Sint Maarten had not experienced a disaster as severe as Hurricane Irma, and long-term sheltering became a big problem back in 2017. Now we have a Transitional Shelter that can house up to 70 persons, which is an improvement,” explains Chantale. She also admits that longer term sheltering is difficult for people who do not have legal status: “We try to help those despite their status as much as we can within the legal framework, but cannot admit them to the Transitional Shelter, as this can ‘open the flood gates’. We would put ourselves in an almost impossible situation, as these people can’t access legal employment or social services.”
To prepare for and manage the aftermath of a disaster is a huge task. The nation’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) has eleven Emergency Support Function (ESF) groups that focus on various aspects of disaster management. ESF-7’s responsibilities include: mass care, evacuation, and sheltering, the latter which falls under the responsibility of CDFHA: “As you can imagine, this takes a lot of teamwork and needs the support and cooperation of our whole community to run smoothly”, Chantale says.
She has many ideas for improvements in her department, but also admits “financial constraints are an issue.” To offset this, she aims to get communities more involved: “It takes a lot of human resources to manage the hurricane shelters, and we could use more hands to help us run the shelters and help people when a hurricane strikes. I hope to work towards more pro-active and committed working relationships between communities, the community councils, and the Government."
Chiara Ciminello supports the efforts of the Court of Guardianship, MECYS, ESF-7, and other key stakeholders working for children to strengthen the current child protection system. In her experience, when considering child protection and shelter management, the following is important: a clearly defined registration point, a policy for unaccompanied children, staff trained in working with stressed or traumatised children, and physical infrastructure that helps to prevent situations that can pose a risk for them.
Chiara Ciminello, Senior Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF The Netherlands
‘The registration area is the point where the assessment of a child’s status as unaccompanied or separated is identified, or whether family members are missing’, Chiara says. If a child comes in unaccompanied by an adult, or his or her family is missing, the designated organization/department responsible for Family Tracing and Reunification should be contacted. ‘The shelter staff should have a policy for identification, temporary placement and guardianship, until the final reunification of the child. If the unaccompanied child has health needs that require immediate and urgent care, clear rules are necessary regarding the referral to medical facilities, as well as the temporary custodial responsibility of the child.’
The shelter arrangement should be gender and vulnerability sensitive, Chiara says. Therefore, it is recommended to dedicate specific areas to these groups. For instance: single men should not be placed with or next to children or single women/women headed households. The same goes for the bathroom facilities: the entry to these areas should be clearly visible and identifiable, brightly lit, and easily accessible. They should not be around a hidden corner or in hidden areas. Ideally, there should be a play area, not only to entertain children, but also to be a place where they feel safe to report concerns.
‘The shelter staff should be trained in techniques to interview and assess children as well as how to detect signs of distress’, Chiara says. ‘For example, they should be able to identify signs of neglect or abuse, provide basic psychological first aid, interview children, and know how, and to whom to report suspected abuse. All staff should also be aware that all information at the shelter should be presented in a child-friendly way.’ A helpdesk can play a role in this: ‘The helpdesk is not only a place for information, but also a space where persons can safely indicate any complaints and concerns.’
- Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, 2019
- The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response
- American Red Cross Sheltering Handbook (Sheltering Handbook (crcog.org)
As a parent you can make a difference before, during and after a disaster. Offer your child both practical and mental support. Four parents share their views about what matters most to them.
Why this magazine?
In May 2019, UNICEF The Netherlands and Augeo Foundation together did an analysis on child abuse and neglect on Sint Maarten. Thirty professionals working in the field of Child Protection were interviewed. Based on the outcome of the dialogues with these professionals, UNICEF The Netherlands, Augeo Foundation and the Child Protection Working Group decided to publish a magazine to share knowledge, experiences and best practices among professionals working with children and the general public. This magazine is produced in collaboration with the Government of Sint Maarten, financed by the Government of The Netherlands, through the Sint Maarten Trust Fund, as part of the Child Resilience and Protection Project (CRPP).
Augeo Foundation believes that children should grow up safely and with love. That is why we work together with professionals, policymakers and volunteers to tackle child abuse and domestic violence as quickly and effectively as possible. If more people see what they can do for a child, we can make a difference for a child’s future. With online training, an online magazine and experiences from the Youth Taskforce professionals we empower professionals. We organize support for children and together with municipalities, we conduct research into tackling child abuse in The Netherlands. Augeo Foundation is a non-profit foundation based in The Netherlands that is funded by donations from family assets. We use this independent position to actively implement pioneering improvements and address bottlenecks.
UNICEF The Netherlands supports the government of Sint Maarten in the aspiration to improve the recognition and reporting of child abuse and neglect (CAN), as hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017) exacerbated the pre-existing challenges. UNICEF The Netherlands’ recovery programme in Sint Maarten in 2019 is funded by The Netherlands Red Cross. On the issue of CAN, UNICEF The Netherlands engages in a partnership with Augeo Foundation. Augeo Foundation offers technical support. UNICEF advocates for the protection of children's rights, everywhere. We do whatever it takes to help children survive, thrive and fulfill their potential. Before, during and after humanitarian emergencies, UNICEF is on the ground, bringing lifesaving help and hope to children and families. We provide technical assistance to governments, mobilise political will and resources, and work with partners, including the private sector to achieve sustainable results for children. And we never give up.
Editorial office: Soraya Agard-Lake, Kimberly Brown, Laura Bijnsdorp, Rose Fleming, Olga Mussington-Service, Marieke Roelfsema, Andrea Smits
Production editor: Annette Wiesman
Correction: Amanda van Mulligen
Photography: Laura Bijnsdorp, iStock, K1 Britannia Foundation, Studio Vonq, UNICEF The Netherlands
Design and realisation: NR Grafisch Ontwerp
Publisher: Augeo Foundation