Childhood Poverty in the Cayman Islands

Baby Sophia began taking her first, clumsy steps shortly before her first birthday. Now, when she stumbles and falls, she is typically quick to soothe and quick to return to her mission to touch, taste and explore the world around her. By all means, she is a 'happy' baby who easily charms with her big smile and a head of soft, black curls.

She is still, mostly, unaware of the instability around her. In her first year, she changed addresses three times – from a studio apartment, to a shared house, to a one-bedroom duplex. Her crib sits dismantled in the hallway, as it is too large to fit in the family bedroom. These days, she shares a bed with mum and dad, who have struggled to secure stable, full-time work during the Covid-19 crisis.

This first year of Sophia’s life came as both a welcome and an immensely challenging experience for her parents. Between inconsistent construction work for dad and a smattering of housecleaning jobs for mum, Sophia’s family were stuck in survival mode – an increasingly common reality families face in the Cayman Islands following the pandemic and then the rising cost of living.

A MER kid enjoys a break from the pool with an ARK volunteer

While the long food pantry lines that made headlines early in the crisis have since faded from view, the suffering behind closed doors has not, explained Tara Nielsen, director of the local charity Acts of Random Kindness (ARK).

Sophia and her parents are just three of thousands who have received emergency food and housing assistance from ARK in the past year.

AR Ks Tara Nielsen 2
Tara Nielsen, Director of ARK director

At the end of 2021, ARK director Tara Nielsen estimated that the privately funded charity was supporting around 3,300 individuals with food, housing and utilities. In comparison, government’s Needs Assessment Unit assisted an estimated 2,500 families with food and housing in all of 2020, according to official statistics. Many of the families, like Sophia’s, who were declined NAU assistance turn to ARK as a lifeline. “It's catastrophic,” Nielsen said. “If we opened the doors even more, there would be more people.”

Despite the organisation’s best efforts, and those of other community workers, Nielsen fears the impact of the crisis could linger for years to come, as parents struggle to pay off debts and children suffer the consequences of persistent household stress.

Kitchen before
Before and after housing renovations completed by ARK

The charity’s work has already transformed countless lives through its efforts to remodel unfit homes and to mentor school aged children. The Covid-19 crisis, however, rapidly multiplied the need for immediate assistance, and ARK has more demand than it has capacity.

She describes the extreme poverty lived by many ARK clients – situations where food, shelter and other supports are chronically lacking – as a trauma. The daily anxiety of making ends meet has a lasting impact on mental health, increasing incidents of depression, domestic violence and even suicide attempts. Nielsen sees the desperation every day.

Families struggling to meet basic needs for housing and food have little capacity to address much else, Nielsen explained. “It takes a lot to be a really good parent and you need a great deal of things to be going right. You need a lot of support, positivity and consistency,” she said. “When you take all of those things out from underneath the [family] … it's very difficult to be the type of parent that's going to attend to the emotional, physical, mental wellbeing of a child.”

The things she and her team have witnessed in the most impoverished corners of Cayman are “chilling”, she says. But she remains a true believer, that such suffering is preventable, if only enough support could be generated in the community.

JW2 bedroom
Before and after housing renovations completed by ARK

ARK’s school programme, Mentor-Educate-Reinforce (MER), seeks to change the trajectory of young lives with early, holistic intervention. With sponsorship of $5,000-$7,000 a year, the programme is first able to produce a psycho-educational report to identify a child’s individual needs and adapt tools to get their learning on track. Then, ARK tackles the home environment by going in and performing renovations to ensure each child has a safe, suitable place to rest and restore. “We use all of our programmes to make sure that that child is in a place where they are ready to go to school and learn,” Nielsen said. “There's no point paying for top-of-the-line intervention teachers if a child is coming home and hasn't slept all night, has bug bites everywhere, rats in the bedroom or is in an abuse situation. You have got to go home to something that represents a safe space for that child, with the basic needs met. We want water, food, a bed, bedding and safety for the child and the mum.”

JW1 Bedroom
Before and after housing renovations completed by ARK

Nielsen’s vision is to expand the programme beyond George Town Primary to every elementary school in Cayman. Currently, ARK is working to reach students in West Bay, expanding MER to include 24 children and their siblings.

The value of her ambition to reach low-income children across the Islands is backed by research. Studies have shown that early investment in children pays off for communities in the long term.

The Brain Science Behind Childhood Investment

Cost-benefit analysis of well-designed, early childhood intervention programmes has shown that every dollar invested results in $1.80 to $17.07 in return to society, according to the RAND Corporation – an American non-profit global policy think tank. The best returns come from programmes that include home visits and parent education, combined with good quality early childhood education. These interventions result in better academic achievement, improved behaviour, greater success in the labour market and lower rates of delinquency and crime.

Dr Erica Lam in her office 3
Dr. Erica Lam, a trauma and attachment specialist with Aspire

Dr. Erica Lam, a trauma and attachment specialist with Aspire, explains that many of the benefits of early intervention come down to brain development. By the time children reach age four to five, their brains have already developed to around 90% of their adult volume. This means that before a child has even entered kindergarten – or qualified for many of the early intervention programmes currently available to low-income families in Cayman – their brains have already been wired in ways that will guide their temperament, their ability to self-regulate emotions and behaviours, and their language and thinking skills.

Children who grow up in unstable and unenriching environments will struggle to cope with stress, suffer higher levels of anxiety, face health problems and have trouble keeping up in school.

When Dr. Lam takes in a new patient, she first maps their brain structure to determine which areas of development are lacking. This allows her to craft her therapeutic intervention to meet individual, neurological needs.

She describes brain development as a sort of staircase, built from the bottom up. When the bottom stairs, the foundation of brain development, are missing, children cannot be expected to ascend to the top on their own. They first need help rebuilding the structure of their staircase to achieve success. “For a child to have a better future, we have to look at the brain first,” Dr. Lam said. “Is it the roof that needs sorting out or is it the foundation?” Putting a child who has not properly developed their language skills into Talk Therapy, for example, can be a formula for failure and frustration. “They're going to find it really, really threatening,” Dr. Lam said. “So why don't we rebuild the lower part of the brain? Give him/her all of those stimulations that they missed. Rebuild the bottom of the stairs and then we can address each part of the brain as we go.”

MER kids enjoy a fun day at Camana Bay with AR Ks Lisa Wray and volunteers
MER kids enjoy a fun day at Camana Bay

Finding Community

Outside of a clinical setting, a common thread among children from situations of poverty is not just lack of money or resources but often a lack of community, Dr. Lam explained. Children stuck at home, left to supervise themselves, are denied the developmental benefits of playing with other children and just being kids. Connecting at-risk children with their community can change lives.

At the Nadine Andreas Foster Home, children placed in the facility often experience that chance to just be kids for the first time, said care manager Nasaria Suckoo Chollette.

When children first arrive at the NCVO facility, most are scared, angry and may struggle with releasing the reins and allowing an adult to nurture and care for them. “But they're grateful to have a place where they can rely on food,” Suckoo Chollette said. “They're not going to wake up in the middle of the night and find that there are insects crawling on them or anything like that. They finally get to relax and not be the adult in their life.”

While placement in foster care can come with a stigma, Suckoo Chollette emphasises that the 5 to 13 year-olds placed in her care are not 'bad kids'. They are resilient, adaptable and full of untapped potential.

The hurdle placed before these children is overcoming the cycle of multigenerational poverty. Their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on likely faced many of the same social struggles, trapped in a seemingly endless loop. “Their handicap is what happened to somebody else before them that causes them to have to live in these circumstances of poverty,” Suckoo Chollette said. “In a lot of our parents, we can see it. It's undiagnosed trauma. It's trauma that hasn't been dealt with and, therefore, they become something else other than what they were meant to be.”

A New Vision of Parenting

While children in care learn to adjust and just be kids, their parents are tasked with reforming their own lives to facilitate the ultimate goal of family reunification. It can be difficult, however, to step into parenting classes and accept that a different path is possible. Parents who envision a different future for their families are faced with the difficult task of breaking multi-generational patterns, explained Charmaine Miller, programme coordinator at the Family Resource Centre.

She describes the transformation that happens in the centre’s parenting classes as a way of changing the narrative. “By narrative, I mean breaking the cycle of abuse and trauma that they've experienced,” she said. “There is a shift in their way of thinking of how to parent a child efficiently, not abrasively, not in a punitive way, but more so coming from a place of nurturing.”

When a teen, for example, enters the Family Resource Centre’s programme for young parents, the centre also becomes their advocate. The goal isn’t just to create successful parents but to create successful adults. The centre’s classroom includes chairs that accommodate breastfeeding and a window that provides a view of the nursery, so parents can keep an eye on their babies while studying. The learning area also includes a kitchen, a playroom, and a storage area full of donated baby supplies. The space has been planned to recreate the home experience.

Mehr Petkovsek FRC programme facilitator with donated baby items 1
Mehr Petkovsek, FRC programme facilitator, with donated baby items

While learning good parenting techniques, participants also learn how to become more employable. The centre offers a closet full of professional clothes for those who lack interview attire and transportation is provided to ensure students make their appointments on time. As an incentive to complete the requirements of the programme, parents receive financial and childcare support to ensure they are able to reap the full benefits of the experience. Every client is assigned a programme facilitator who works with them individually and develops a bespoke treatment plan. “We definitely are seen as a safety net and a source of support and resource that they may not have had in their lives,” Miller said.

Many enter the programme with a sense of shame about their situation, often reinforced by their own families or communities. Through the programme comes the opportunity to build trust and to view themselves in a different light. “By the time they're done with the programme many of them reveal that, ‘It feels like family. It feels like something I didn't have before’,” Miller said.

The parents who complete the programme together often become their own support network, even stepping up as babysitters for one another. By learning and growing together, Miller explained, natural bonds form. The women enjoy a sense of community that they previously lacked.

Time and time again, Cayman’s child advocates emphasise that need for community – for more people to step up as good neighbours, as professionals or otherwise and provide a helping hand to families in need.

“Whatever utopia you want to live in,” Suckoo Chollette said, “you actually have to help create it for the person next to you. As long as they're living in your society, the same place that you are, if they're not okay, you're not going to be okay in the long run.”

How to Help

Acts of Random Kindness (ARK) is a non-profit organisation which relies solely on the generosity of individuals, foundations and businesses to fund its efforts. If you are in a position to help Cayman's vulnerable children and families please consider donating.

The Nadine Andreas Foster Home is a residential care facility which caters for up to nine children from birth to seventeen years old who are placed there for their care and protection. The Ministry of Community Affairs, Gender & Housing contributes a monthly fee to the Nadine Andreas Foster Home which assists with some costs; the remainder is funded through donations. If you are able to help, please consider donating, or even volunteering your time.