The rights of children were at the center of a presentation by Miami Law Professor Kele Stewart last week in the law library, the second in a series of lectures organized this semester by the International Graduate Law Programs.
With the aim of helping to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Professor Stewart traveled to her native Trinidad and Tobago last year after being awarded a grant under the Fulbright International Education Exchange Program. "I think for any professor a Fulbright means an incredible opportunity to exchange ideas in a very different cultural context," Stewart said. "For me, it was particularly meaningful because I am from Trinidad and Tobago. This was very much going home, as I still have a lot of family, emotional, and cultural ties there."
Although Trinidad and Tobago ratified the U.N. convention in December 1991, the legislation was not approved until nine years later. According to Stewart, the main piece of legislation passed was the Children's Authority Act, which established a system for the state to intervene when children are abused, abandoned or neglected.
Stewart's initial goals were to study the new system's implementation and establish a law clinic that would work within that system. "However, I got to Trinidad and Tobago and realized that the implementation was not as far along as one may think," Stewart said. "This created a unique opportunity to see a child protection system in its infancy and at the ground-level stage."
Professor Stewart, a supervising attorney in Miami Law's Children and Youth Law Clinic, helped to establish the Child Advocacy Clinic at Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad. The clinic held a seminar in child law and advocacy, conducted policy research in collaboration with UNICEF, and represented parents in custody and guardianship cases.
She also conducted research and participated in public education and policy development in collaboration with the Children's Authority of Trinidad and Tobago. "What I saw as one of the biggest shortcomings, and what I focused my policy work on, was getting them to focus on the concept of keeping children with their families, or keeping children in some sort of family setting," Stewart said. "I was very surprised that that was not part of the conversation when I arrived."
"I was excited to attend this lecture because I am considering a career in this field," said Ramandeep Kaur, 1L. "Also, I am from India, where there are many slums with children that are not being taken care of. There are a lot of Indian immigrants in Trinidad, so I wanted to see what the system was like for them there."
Several of the audience members are interns in Miami Law clinics and compared Stewart's findings to what they have experienced locally. "After working in the Children and Youth Law Clinic this semester and learning about the child welfare system here in the United States, it was interesting to hear how another country deals with the same problems while building their system," said Melanie Spencer, 2L.
In her closing remarks, Professor Stewart emphasized that many of her observations of her time in Trinidad and Tobago were positive. "I think there is an increased awareness among people really invested in the issue," Professor Stewart said. "Many would voluntarily talk about children as rights holders, and frame the conversation in that way. There is also a culturally embedded notion of extended families taking care of children. I see that as being a strength."
"It is a privilege to have Professor Stewart join the group of experts speaking in our International Law Lecture Series," said Jessica Carvalho Morris, Director of International Graduate Law Programs. "This year's series covers a wide range of issues in international law, from cultural protection to international arbitration and human rights. Professor Stewart's talk was a great opportunity to hear first-hand about some of the challenges faced by a country trying to implement and comply with its international responsibilities."