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Falling through the cracks

Published: 
Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Michaeline Wall first got public attention in March 2016 when she appeared before a San Fernando magistrate for possession of 14 grammes of marijuana. She is a physically challenged young woman with club feet, a congenital deformity that is particularly severe in her case, so there was an outpouring of sympathy for her as well as outrage over the fact that she had been charged and hauled before the court.

On that occasion, Ms Wall told the court she used marijuana to ease pain caused by her physical challenges. She was ordered to pay a fine and disability advocate Dr Kriyann Singh, a veterinarian who is himself disabled and uses a wheelchair, paid it for her.

Public comments were more muted and there was not as much sympathy in February and again on Monday when Ms Wall returned to court on similar charges, particularly after she admitted that she sells drugs. Perhaps that is because she is now seen as a repeat offender and beyond help. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the many mitigating circumstances in her case.

Information revealed during Ms Wall’s latest court appearance on Monday paints a worrying picture of a young woman existing on the fringes of society who has received very little help for her many physical and social challenges. Apart from a disability which severely affects her mobility, Ms Wall lives in abject poverty in a squalid one-bedroom rented house in a crime infested area of La Romaine, south Trinidad.

The glimpses provided into her life also suggest that no one has had either the means or the opportunity to provide the support and interventions she needed to get past some of her challenges. For example, was there any early intervention to diagnose and treat the club feet that are the source of her disability? That alone could have made a big difference, allowing Ms Wall to lead a more normal life.

Instead, the extent of her disability, plus her lack of education, means that at age 27 Ms Wall has had very little chance at a decent quality of life. From what was revealed in court, she receives only a disability grant and ended up on the wrong side of the law when she tried to supplement that meagre allowance.

It is worrying that after all the attention her case got the first time, Ms Wall was left to fade back into the fringes of society although red flags should have been raised and a social worker assigned to her case at that point. Had a proper investigation been done then, she might not have been back before a magistrate on her third drug charge in 16 months as she was on Monday.

This case highlights the plight of the many people who are left to fall through the cracks in a country which boasts of free education and healthcare, among other benefits. The reality is, however, that there are many people like Ms Wall who are not properly served by the various state initiatives on which billions of dollars are spent annually.

Repeat or first-time offenders should be held accountable when found guilty of minor crimes but for them prison is a misguided sentence because they were not given real opportunities to develop the positive attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that will lead them into more successful lives. Instead, they end up trapped in a deficient criminal justice system which provides no effective solutions for reducing their criminal behaviour.

Fortunately, Ms Wall has been spared a prison sentence and has instead been placed on a three-year bond. T&T’s prisons are notorious training grounds where petty offenders become bigger and more hardened criminals, so there would have been no hope for a turnaround there.

Her case highlights glaring failures in this country’s criminal justice and social welfare systems which need urgent attention from legislators and policy makers. Hopefully the relevant authorities are paying attention.